The Friends of Austerlitz Make History
A Nottingham Congregation Remembers Moravian Jews
by Ayari Kessler
At the beginning of the trip on 31 May, some of us had ideas about what the other members of our group were like, even the two strangers*. By the end on 6 June, although we all knew one another much better, having been thrown together for six emotional days like fish in a bowl, we liked each other more than ever. It’s unusual, to say the least. Let me explain how it happened.
Our main purposes on this trip to the Czech Republic were concentrated on Sunday 5 June: Hana Pike’s historic Bat Mitzvah and the inauguration of an exhibit in the old Jewish schoolhouse. In the meantime we saw a little bit of Prague and traipsed happily through many beautiful Moravian towns (the Czechs are wonderful, whimsical architects) in a big bus, visiting synagogues where there were no Jews left, synagogues where the Czechs were asserting their right to live and worship, and cemeteries. Ahem… lots of cemeteries. The sun was out and the air was crisp.
Prague, the Communists and the Golem
The morning we arrived in Prague we ascended to our rooms in two’s because of a tiny, slow motion lift whose floor numbers didn’t seem connected to anything. Then we split up into a few groups, and I can report on the astonishing Museum of Communism. The Czechs have such chutzpah that they placed the otherwise scholarly museum smack between a McDonald’s and a Casino on the main shopping boulevard of Prague, teaching us a valuable lesson: the best way to digest a bleak part of one’s history is with a hearty cackle.
The following day the groups re-shaped themselves and some of us went to the castle and on a walking tour of the Jewish Quarter. In the Old New Synagogue (don’t ask!) we were told the story of the Golem. Did you know that Hitler tried to find the magic Shem in the attic of that shul, where it was hidden by Rabbi Levy after the Golem went berserk?
The journey beyond conventional tourism began on a big bus. The food was almost never a disappointment. Bill Bryson echoes my experience of travelling when he describes a German menu: Schweinensnout mit Spittle und Grit, Ramsintestines und Oder Grosser Stuff, that sort of thing. But in the Czech Republic the fare was quite good, especially the “feffer” steak. Our guide was Lenka, a delightful Jewish girl whose cheerfulness and warmth I wish I could convey. She talked to us on the bus microphone about the history of the Czech Jews and it was made painfully clear that the horrors did not quite end for them with Liberation. The Nazis, said Lenka, had annihilated them physically, but the Communists had then spiritually and mentally annihilated what was left. The practise of Judaism, she explained, was “not forbidden, but not allowed”. If it was known, for example, that you worshiped or indeed grouped with Jews, you lost your job, your children had few chances, no club would have you, doctors would not treat you, etc. It was disgraceful to betray the internationalist Communist ideal with narrow-minded cultural (let alone religious!) pursuits. It was deeply moving to hear Lenka describe the massive efforts of young and old Jews to assert their identity today, many youngsters embracing the unknown – starting from scratch, learning Hebrew, rites and practices with a yearning and a respect for their tradition that sounded a heavy bell in my own experience.
The youngsters we met (with the exception of two German girls volunteering among the Jews and carrying the national guilt on their narrow shoulders) are Orthodox and fervently engaged with an ideal Israel. Our second guide, Peter, wondered if Judaism would disappear with our Liberal system – not now or in the next generation maybe, but in the fourth or fifth. I tried to explain that in my view ‘a Jew is not one thing’. Hundreds, maybe thousands of Jews would have nowhere to go if it weren’t for the Liberal movement. I am here partly in response to the question ‘Do you want Judaism to disappear from the face of the earth?’ and not only because it is expected or has been done by my fathers for time immemorial.
In the course of our travels, we visited several towns that had lost their Jews and we sat in awed silence in their beautiful, restored, lifeless synagogues. They were spartan museums with some precious objects and photographs of their previous splendours and subsequent abandonment. One after the other we saw in silence until we came to the synagogue in Kolin that somehow seemed to break the spell and, though it seemed empty it was, in fact, full of Jews: Us. And in a moment of impulse we sang, lending the buildings our hearts and minds for a few minutes.
We saw many empty ghettos and old cemeteries and with every one our group bonded further and exchanged not only impressions, but emotions until we all seemed more or less aware of the impact each event was having on individuals. One old house in Mikulov still had an ancient mezuzah by its door. It was owned by a psychiatrist, a gentile, who painted some cabalistic symbols on one of the outer walls to protect himself from evil. We worried about him because the Magen David, for example, was missing a point. Is that tempting fate or what…
During these days we were guided by Peter, who allowed us to wander so that each one of us saw quite different views, and who was so charming that he was adopted and came to Slavkov with his friends to join us in the wild celebrations that took place there. One evening we went to Brno, a very big town in Moravia, as guests of the Brno congregation to which our guides, Peter and Lenka, belong. It was a small community, of course, but the shul was filled with guests. For some of us the service was a disappointment, as there were no books upstairs and no expectation of women participating with prayer and song. It was amply made up to us when we joined the Brno congregation and made a huge party at a restaurant that evening.
One, two, three, four: Bottoms up!
It is with great restraint that I abstain from naming some of the revellers, among whom I hope I was not slack myself. One after another came the shots of Slivovicz until we were quite roaring with laughter. Suffice to say that one of the ladies with us, who has never in her life been known to swear, said bo...cks in French very loudly, when she had only meant to say “thank you” in Czech to the waiter. After that we wandered out into a courtyard to find a display of fireworks was going off, unrelated to our condition. On the ride home you could have heard a bunch of middle-aged Jews singing along with the kids: “and the wheels of the bus go round and round”. Tell no one.
Eventually we arrived at a far-away place called Olomouc where we attended a service in the small prayer room used by the Liberal Jewish community there.
Prayer Room in Olomouc
It was a beautiful, ornate room and full of light, warmth and life – a sharp contrast to the elegant, empty places we had visited before. David Lipman took the service in the midst of very loud bangs. The seats were on springs and every time we stood there was a deafening cacophony. Like the proverbial fish, our short-term memory did not extend very far. It is amazing that no one fell flat on their backsides when trying to regain their seats. This did not detract from what was the most beautiful service I had been to. In dedicating the service to those who had perished in the holocaust, there, in the midst of survivors and younger people struggling to keep Judaism alive, we were all overcome by David’s emotion. We had one of many very good meals after that and saw the strangest town clock you are ever likely to come across. Remember those charming, cheesy glockenspiels that have colourful figurines marching out at noon, milking cows and whatnot? In Olomouc the clock is a Communist reconstruction and the murals are as bleak as the grey figurines, all proletarian heroes, coming out at noon with their industrial tools. I ask you.
Back in Slavkov we inaugurated the exhibit in the renovated Jewish schoolhouse. One of the items was a toy: wooden picture blocks that a Jewish child gave to her gentile friend for safe-keeping when she was transported. The family of this friend kept the picture blocks for three generations and donated them to the museum. The remarkable people of Slavkov have responded with enthusiasm to the visits from the Nottingham Progressive Jewish Congregation, unafraid of their past and eager to know and honour the community of people who lived and died among them.
We then attended the school’s performance, in Czech, of Arabella Velasco’s play, “The Austerlitz Scroll”. Ruth, the Holocaust survivor who is the subject of the play was present, and I can’t help wondering what watching it can have been like for her. She remained with us throughout the festivities that followed. Our shul sponsors an annual essay competition on the subject of the Jews of Slavkov and after the performance Jeff Cohen distributed gifts and essay prizes to several students.
“So this is what it feels like…”
The time finally came when we were gathered in the old Slavkov synagogue, now rescued from its fate as a warehouse and looking graceful and dignified. We walked in and took our seats for the first ceremony of its kind in 69 years, almost to the day. The BBC had arrived. Hana began by remembering the children of Slavkov who had worshipped there and those who never made it to their bar and bat mitzvahs. She read her portion in beautiful Hebrew, solemnly and without a hitch, voices were raised in song and too soon it was all over. We will never forget it.
“So this is what it feels like”, were Neil’s first words as he bent over to kiss Hana’s forehead. It was with great happiness that we all made our way to the Bonaparte restaurant as Neil’s guests, including the young Czechs who had arrived with Peter. After we had eaten Neil danced with Hana, and little by little we all lost our composure and danced wildly; very often the children were up in chairs swung about by young men to the same old Jewish music our grandfathers danced to. I certainly felt as if we were gorging on happiness. Just when we thought it was too much, a high functionary of the Slavkov administration, by the name of, yes, Dvorak, came into the salon. He hid his impressions well, as befits a man in his position, and invited us all to a fabulous display of fireworks – one of them horizontal – in the castle grounds. I have no idea how it all ended.
For more information please go to the BBC website, where you will find a video of the news item that was aired on 10 June:
On our last day we went to Terezin, the concentration camp from which men, women and children were transported to Auschwitz and where our friend, Ruth Matejovska, survived the war with her parents.
There is no doubt that individuals can make a difference and breathe life into death and hope into bitter experience. I salute those Friends of Austerlitz who followed Neil Pike into this adventure from the beginning, bringing so much joy, brotherhood and dignified remembrance to intertwined communities of Jews living in separate worlds.