This morning we said goodbye to Prague and headed east towards our next hotel stop, Olomouc, about a three hour drive. Kamila will be accompanying us throughout the rest of our time in the Czech Republic and will be leaving us when we get to Poland. We drove through the beautiful countryside as we headed towards Lostice our first stop, a town of about 3,000 people. Arriving in the small town, we ate lunch on the bus and then walked to the synagogue where we were met by the town historian and Director of the Respect and Tolerance program in Lostice, Ludek Stipel.
Mr. Stipel showed us around the restored synagogue and gave us the history of the Jews in Lostice, relating dates and events that we had heard before from Mr. Barmore such as the Thirty Years War 1618-1648 and the 1848 emancipation of the Jews, specifically to this area. We learned that the Jews of Lostice had been very much assimilated into the community and he said he had been unable to find any record of any prejudice or acts of violence against the Jews, noting to the contrary, that there had been an atmosphere of cooperation between the Jewish community and the Catholics.
During World War II, 59 Jews from Lostice had been sent to concentration camps and after the war, only 3 returned —several members of the Hirsch family: mother, father and one daughter. The Jewish community of Lostice was not revived and the synagogue was closed and used for storage. After the parents died, the daughter Greta Hirschova moved away, and there are now no Jews in Lostice.
In 2006 the restoration of the synagogue by Mr. Stipel’s organization was begun and they completed it in 2011. No longer a functioning synagogue, it is now a center of learning for schools, teachers, and community members, all with the goal of preserving memory. The benches in the center are from the Olomouc synagogue, destroyed by the Nazis in 1939. Each of the 21 seats is dedicated to victims of the Holocaust from Lostice and surrounding towns. Each of the seats has a compartment dedicated to one of more families, and inside the compartment are everyday objects from the period and photos which somehow link to the people to whom that box was dedicated.
In the box for Otto Wolf there are several items including pages from his diary, photos of his family and a spoon. We were all fascinated by these compartments and we spent some time looking through them. Mr. Stipel explained how these objects were used to teach both the history of the Jews in the area and the history of the Holocaust to children.
Mr. Stipel told us of the large Olomouc synagogue which had been burned by the Nazis in March 1939 on the first night they invaded Czechoslovakia. He said that the synagogue had had about 100 stained glass windows which were lined in lead. When the synagogue was set on fire, most of the windows were destroyed. It was a miracle, we were told, that six windows survived and ended up in the possession of a local Czech man. When this man heard about Mr. Stippel’s renovation of the Lostice synagogue he approached him and tried to sell them for an outrageous amount. After much time and negotiation, Mr. Stippel was able to purchase the windows which now proudly hang in the Lostice synagogue.
Mr. Stipel talked about a significant event which had occurred in the synagogue two years ago. After WW2 more than 300 Torah scrolls from Czech synagogues had been smuggled out to Britain where they were given or sold to Jewish communities around the world, including England, Canada, Chile, New Zealand and the United States. One Torah ended up in a synagogue in Glen Cove, Illinois, near Chicago. Last year, a young American girl was to have her Bat Mitzvah and she was adamant that this ceremony occur in the place where her Torah had originated, Lostice. In 2016 she and her family came to the synagogue in Lostice and had her Bat Mitzvah here, opening it up to the public and welcoming all local residents who might be interested. Recently another of the Torah scrolls was found in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Mr Stippel told us that during the Communist era, a local man had been arrested and placed in a prison. In the prison house attic he and other prisoners found a Torah scroll which they decided to hide and return to get it later. They retrieved the attic many years later after the Velvet Revolution and the end of communism in Czechoslovakia. Now 97, the man a few months ago presented Mr. Stippel with the Torah scroll. We look forward to learning more about this next year when we visit.
Upstairs we were shown the Otto Wolf library which had been established because of donations from Eva and Tony Vavrecka and is an integral part of the educational programs which the center sponsors for students and teachers.
In the entry hall, the Municipal Council had prepared a small reception of drinks, cookies, and cheese. Lostice is famous for its cheese called Tvaruzky, [commonly called ‘smelly cheese’] and we were touched once again by the gracious hospitality which we were shown.
From the synagogue we drove to the Jewish cemetery in Lostice. The cemetery was divided into two sections. In the rear, older section, under the mistletoe trees were the grave markers which we in Hebrew only. Mr. Barmore said these Jews only thought of Judaism.
In the front, newer section we saw headstones for Czech Jews which were written in both Hebrew and German, or German only. We saw no headstones written in Czech. This brought up the question, again, of Jewish identity. Mr. Barmore reminded us that Jews were both insiders and outsiders in these nations, causing them to continually question their identity: And in the early 20th century Jews in this area thought of themselves as Germans. When Czechoslovakia was created as a nation and the Czech Jews continued to identify with Germany, this caused tensions between the Czechs and the Jewish community.
In the Jewish cemetery Mr. Barmore spoke to us of reparations after the war. Large amounts of Jewish property had been stolen by the Nazis as they rounded up Jews in Europe. After the war some of that property was returned and there were some reparations made by Germany. After the war, in Czechoslovakia, the government expelled 5,000-6,000 Germans and expropriated their property without compensation. In return, as the German government repaid some Jews for their property, they refused to pay reparations to Czech Jews living in Czechoslovakia… For many Jews who did receive their property back, it was soon nationalized by the state.. Many Czech families are still in court trying to receive their property and/or reparations back..
We said goodbye to Mr. Stipel and headed for our hotel in Olomouc to check in and then prepare to meet Petr Papousek, the head of the Jewish Federation of the Czech Republic and the leader of the Olomouc Jewish community . Petr is the grandson of a dear friend, Milos Dobry, who had led the Jewish community for years, and had met with our groups for years, telling us his Holocaust story, and helping us connect with the Czech community of Trsice over the years, and assisting us in establishing a memorial in the forest, marking the hiding place of the family of Otto Wolf.
Before entering the building which houses the Jewish Federation, we noted a group of stolpersteine – stumbling stones the we had now encountered in both Berlin and Dresden. The Jewish federation had placed these stones memorializing Jewish residents of the building, almost all of whom had been murdered.
Inside, in the small synagogue, Petr talked to us about the long history of the Olomouc Jewish community and what had happened during the Holocaust. Petr spoke about the Munich Conference in September 1938 and how the Allies gave the Sudetenland to Germany, after which many more Czech Jews came into Olomouc. He then spoke of the night of March 15, 1939 when the German army marched in and took over the rests of Czechoslovakia.. That night some German and Czech locals set fire to the Olomouc synagogue, damaging but not destroying it.. Later the Nazis ordered the Czechs to finalize the demolition.
Between June 1942 and July 1942 four transports left Olomouc each transport carrying 1,000 Czech Jews. The Jews were rounded up and placed in a school near the train tracks.. When they had 1,000 Jews, a transport would be sent to Terezin and most of those would later be sent to Auschwitz where they were murdered. Petr said that the Federation had recently placed a large stone memorial, known as a stolper schwelle at the school where the Jews were held for deportation.. He said that on average, only 10% of Jews survived the Holocaust, whether it be in Olomouc or in the nation of Czechoslovakia. There were about 120,000 Czech Jews: 40,000 emigrated or escaped, 80,000 remained, and of those, only about 8,000 survived. He told us that there are currently ten Jewish communities in the Czech Republic.. The largest is in Prague, the second largest is in Brno, and Olomouc is the third largest, with 159 members. The smallest community has about 15 members.
Petr told us his grandfather, Milos’, story, telling us how his grandfather always said he survived 20% because of his living conditions and 80% due to luck. He also spoke to us about a Czech play, The Good and the True, which opened on off-Broadway in New York City about a year ago, and played for six weeks which intertwined the Holocaust stories and lives of two famous Czechs: rugby star, Milos Dobry and actress, Hana Pravda. The play was also performed in London.. It continues to play in the Czech Republic and school children frequently attend.
Milos had been in the first transport of Olomouc Jews sent to Terezin where he and others were to prepare the garrison town into a ghetto for Jews.. He lived there in Terezin until he was deported to Auschwitz and then to a labor camp in Germany, Schwarzheide, towards the end of the war as the Nazis were desperate for labor. After the war Milos was reunited with his wife who had also been sent to a labor camp from Auschwitz.. His wife refused to leave Czechoslovakia after the war though Milos wanted to emigrate.. Then in 1948 a communist putsch occurred and Czechoslovakia was not a Soviet satellite, part of the communist bloc.
Petr then told us about the Olomouc Torash scroll which had recently returned to Olomouc.. The leadership of the Czech Jewish community had decided to take sacred items from personal homes and synagogues and send them in 1939 to the Jewish museum in Prague for safekeeping. We had seen evidence of this is the Meisel Synagogue in Prague earlier in the week.. At the end of the war, few members of Jewish communities returned.. In the 1960’s 1,500 Torah scrolls were sold to the Memorial Scroll Trust in the UK. One of the scrolls was sent to a Jewish community in Foster City near San Francisco. After much negotiation the Foster City community returned it to the Memorial Scroll Trust in Britain which then loaned it to the Olomouc Jewish Community ‘in perpetuity.’. The Torah scroll was not kosher meaning it needed to be repaired, either the parchment and/or the writings and in October of last year the scroll was ready to be read from as had the community members prior to the Holocaust.. Petr then took the Torah scroll out of the ark and showed us the scroll..
He also showed us the prayer blanket which was used for Torah readings which was donated after the war by Otto Wolf’s father, a cantor, in memory of his sons, Kurt and Otto.
We said goodbye to Petr and drove to Trsice where we had a wonderful outside dinner with the Mayor of Trsice, Leona Stejskalova, her deputies, Mrs. Ohera and her sister and the Czech scouts who study Otto Wolf’s diary and have met with us for many years.. The older scouts were not able to join us so we had a new group of young scouts who joined us:. Michael, Martin, Michelle, Thomas, George, Jacob, Lucas, Voijta, and the scout leaers Jiri Dvorak and Jan Pecinka.. The scouts had hung pictures of the Holocaust Study Tour book and news articles along the outside.
Our students and the Czech scouts had a language barrier but they managed to have a wonderful time with much laughter.. Afterwards we said goodbye and headed to our hotel for the nightly debriefing.
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