The Jewish Traveler: Moravia
The only World Heritage-designated Jewish town outside Israel is among the treasures to be discovered in this region of the Czech Republic.
On an unprepossessing street in an unprepossessing area of a city that behaves more unprepossessingly than it ought lies the gated entrance to a factory whose significance is—for the existence of Israel, anyway—the absolute opposite of its current appearance.
While more such buildings seem to exist hereabouts—in Brno, the Czech Republic’s second city and capital of the Moravia region—most present anonymous fronts. But it remains that here at Lazaretni 7, overlooked by a reddish-brown watchtower, armaments were made for the Jewish underground five and six decades ago for use in Israel’s fight for independence.
With the Czech Republic currently awaiting entry to the European Union, it keeps its historically uncommon acceptance of a considerable mix of peoples, including Jews almost especially, under wraps. But Brno and the Moravia it drives have, particularly since the “divorce” between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, achieved almost equal status with the country’s capital, Prague, as a major part of the state’s industrial engine.
And though fascism and communism erased most Jewry, hints suggest that the situation is turning around.
Though today one of the three political entities coexisting as the Czech Republic (the others being Bohemia plus a section of Silesia), Moravia was, from the 9th to the early 10th centuries, an empire unto itself.
But shortly after the empire’s demise, the area began undergoing changes in political status. Among the governmental forms under which it would function were kingships, margraviates, territorialism and no central power structure at all. Consequently, a properly defined regional history is impossible to construct.
Jews probably first arrived as traders accompanying the Romans nearby. A chronicler mentioned a community in Brno by 1091; additionally, their existence is noted in 1140 in the northeastern city of Olomouc. And there is tangible documentation of their presence in the 1249 municipal law of Moravia’s Jihlava.
With Moravia at that time ruled, however indirectly, by Bohemia, its Jews became the beneficiaries in 1254 of the largesse of the king, Premsyl Ottokar II. Among other positive moves, Ottokar forbade forced conversion and condemned the blood libel concept.
The 13th century saw the Catholic Church’s Fourth Lateran Council placing various bans on Jews, essentially forbidding them from doing anything but lending money and engaging in menial trade. But in this live-and-let-live region such actions had little effect.
So apparently content with their lot were Brno’s Jews that in 1311, when King John of Luxembourg became their titular ruler and visited the city, they danced down the roads to greet him carrying Torahs and singing Hebrew songs.
When the religious reformer Jan Hus—who began preaching against Rome’s corruption decades before Martin Luther and advocating a return to the tenets of the Old Testament—attracted increasing numbers of followers, many began viewing Judaism and its adherents commendably. Rome ultimately prevailed, executing Hus in 1415 and upsetting the generally pro-Hus Czechs sufficiently to divide and conquer.
With the first major step against Moravian Jews being their expulsion from royal cities between 1454 and 1514, the advent in 1526 of rule by the Catholic Hapsburg king, Ferdinand I, began centuries of official, if not always enforced, religious intolerance.
When Charles VI ascended the Hapsburg throne in 1725, he limited marriage by Jews to one son per family and mandated geographical separation in Moravian towns. Only then did ghettos arise officially. Succeeding Hapsburgs loosened and tightened restrictions, but nothing was codified until, with a population of somewhat under 43,000, Jews received full rights as Hapsburg monarchy citizens in 1867.
They flowered in trade, textile and clothing industries, timber, glass, sugar, malt, mining, iron and steel; they even worked on the railroad. Intellectuals and artists, philosophers and politicians began to flourish.
When Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918, Jews were fortunate to find in its first president, Tomas Masaryk, a leader who had long supported the notion of Jewish nationhood.
In 1939, when Moravia was occupied by Nazi Germany, nearly 11,000 Jews were deported from Brno and the surrounding area to Theresienstadt and other death camps. Few returned after the Holocaust.
On May 5, 1945, the day of the restoration of national sovereignty, there were 2,803 Jews living in Bohemia and Moravia. By 1948 they numbered more than 44,000, but the Communist coup and the establishment of the State of Israel in May of that year led to a mass migration. By the time emigration was halted in 1950, the number in all of Czechoslovakia had dropped to 18,000, and by 1970, barely 2,000 Jews remained in Moravia, the largest community being in Brno.
Of a total population of approximately 350,000, there are about 200 Jews in Brno today. Currently, the city has a young rabbi and a cantor. The rabbi conducts regular Shabbat services, with or without a minyan, often for more non-Jews than Jews.
Services take place at a synagogue built in 1936. No one knows why the Jews in Brno were optimistic enough to build the Orthodox Agudas Ahim Synagogue at 13 Skorepka despite threatening signs so nearby.
The main sanctuary is a simple room with red carpeting and a talitover the central bima surrounded by spare metal gating. Simple wooden pews face an Ark of gray marble; to one side is a menora suggestive of barbed wire.
In community offices at Kpt. Jarose 3 (telephone: 011-420-545-244-710; www.zob.cz/index_en.html), seniors meet weekly to drink tea and reminisce.
Brno appears as little more than a conglomeration of Soviet-era blockhouse building complexes with exhibition halls for trade fairs. But so pervasive was Jewish influence at times that it seems almost impossible to walk down a street without sensing its shadow.
Start at the south end of masarykova, the city’s amiable main street. With the railway station behind you as you face north, look carefully at the first building at the right with a curving façade. Up a couple of floor levels, notice a relatively small, arch-shaped, three-dimensional inset. Depicted is a detailed arch, at the very height of which is carved filigree work above carved stone ribbons with sculpted heads as tassels. Beneath, in vivid three dimension but leading inward not out, is the way into the city. While clearly labeled Das Alte Ferdinandstor (The Old Ferdinand Gate), city maps identify it as The Jewish Gate.
Heading north, Masarykova enters the city’s bustling oldest plaza, Namesti Svobody (Freedom Square), still a center for street merchants and market stalls edged by buildings spanning four centuries. Arguably the most significant is the neo-Renaissance Klein Palace (No. 15), built in the mid-19th century for Jewish ironworks owners. A wing of the Moravska galerie, or Moravian Gallery (www.moravska-galerie.cz/eng), on Husova just west of Namesti Svobody, is another neo-Renaissance structure built in the late 19th century for a Jewish industrialist.
Northeast of Namesti Svobody lies a section of Brno that bespeaks erstwhile wealth, much of it also formerly Jewish. Arguably, the most outstanding residence is the compound of steplike “boxes” at Cernopolni 45. Designed by Mies van der Rohe, this is the Villa Tugendhat (www.tugendhat-villa.cz/html.en), built in 1930 for a young married couple in the family Tugendhat, owners of numerous textile factories. The villa today is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Brno’s municipal cemetery was partly designed by a Jew, Arnost Weisner. Buried there is the much-celebrated composer Leos Janacek who, though not Jewish himself, made no secret of his passion for a Jewish woman, Kamila Stosslova.
The most touted spot on the landscape is Trebic, about four miles west of Brno, the only Jewish town outside Israel on UNESCO’s World Heritage list (www.trebic.cz/UNESCO/E_index.asp). Across the narrow Jihlava River from its main center, the old Jewish Town lies lengthwise along a strip of land bordered on one side by the water’s banks and on the other by the encroaching slopes that once led to the ruler’s estate. Over 115 of the area’s original 121 houses remain.
The Rear Synagogue, with an information center, has been renovated to resemble its early 17th-century Renaissance-baroque design. Now used primarily for exhibitions and concerts, its arching interior retains a sense of its primary purpose via Hebraic wall paintings; a gold-embroidered parohet; and some floral decoration on its upper vaulting.
Additionally, the synagogue houses a small museum displaying Trebic’s Jewish past. The area’s primary intrigue, though, is the town itself.
It is laid out off two main, more or less parallel, streets, Blahoslavova, formerly Upper Jewish, and Pokorneho, or Lower. Intersecting are 14 side streets, some roughly paved with irregular stones from the river, others more evenly cobbled. Several are of fair width, others narrow, dark and dank.
A tourist office map notes a tannery, school, slaughterhouse and hospital. But the most memorable is the house at Pokorneho 5, brightly obvious because of its ultra-dark salmon paint and elegant design. With a columned portico and underpass, it once was the home of someone of substantial wealth.
Though a merely squat, squarish structure externally, the synagogue in Holesov—with 1,700 members in the mid-19th century it was one of Moravia’s largest Jewish communities—boasts a gem of an interior.
About five miles east of Brno, it is worth visiting merely to marvel at the intricate wrought-iron work comprising the birdcage-like enclosure of its pulpit. Said to have originally been designed in the 18th century to resemble a huge crown, the work today is a combination of bits that were somehow found after various dispersions, and other pieces reproduced with exquisite care.
A small gallery of Judaica has been created on what is now the building’s second level. But only the silver pointer, displayed in a case with a Torah scroll, is originally from Holesov.
For many Orthodox, Holesov is a place of pilgrimage because one of its former rabbis was Shabbetai ben Meir Ha-Kohen (1621-1662); he is known as the Shakh, after his book Siftei Kohen, a celebrated commentary on the Shulhan Arukh. His well-visited grave is in the local Jewish cemetery.
Built on a hilly landscape, the most revealing aspect of Mikulov’s Jewish scene may be the way the former Jewish quarter hugs the slopes beneath Mikulov’s castle. Long the spiritual, cultural and political center of Jewish Moravia, and until the mid-19th century the area’s largest community, Mikulov was the longtime seat of Moravia’s rabbinate.
Many theologians of renown served here; the most celebrated among them was Judah Loew ben Bezalel, who held office from 1553 to 1573. Known also as the Maharal, he moved on to Prague, where various legends about him still abound, the most famous involving the Golem.
Svitavy, formerly Zwittau, five miles north of Brno, also once had a Jewish community. But now the newly spiffed-up town is known for its recently created most famous son—Oskar Schindler. Initially Svitavy disavowed the man born here in 1908 and when Schindler’s List glorified him, Svitavy’s populace was appalled. But then he became good for business. So about a block beyond a small esplanade on a road out of town in a minipark facing Schindler’s first home stands a monument celebrating him as the “unforgettable life saviour of 1,200 Jews.” Made of two almost-touching 8-foot-high gray stones, it features a large, cut-out Magen David with a carved diagonal slashing through.
Playwright Tom Stoppard was born Straussler; writer Alberto Moravia turned against his Judaism but kept his ancestors’ homeland as his pen name. Writer Alois Ludwig Jeitteles, whose verses his friend Beethoven used for “To My Distant Love”; Rabbi David Oppenheimer’s over 6,000 Jewish prints, volumes and manuscripts became part of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library Hebrew collection. Musician Eitan Otto Lustig was founder and conductor of the Tel Aviv Collegium Musicum choir; artist Anna Ticho painted Jerusalem landscapes. Israel (Robert) Blum introduced beekeeping to Palestine when he emigrated in 1924.
Commercial tourist establishments catering to Jewish travelers are generally overpriced and ill prepared. Though the most thorough overall guide to Czech-Jewish sights and sites extant—Jiri Fiedler’sJewish Sights of Bohemia and Moravia (Gefen Books)—has recently been reprinted, it remains, at least mere months ago, extremely outdated. Two feasible ways of proceeding are via direct contact with regional communities and/or local tourist offices.
While Czech Airlines (www.czech airlines.com/en/worldwide.htm) currently offers the only nonstop service between the United States and the Czech Republic, better fares can often be found using connecting flights with Continental and British Airways, among others. Kosher food is difficult to find. But however “iffy” travel beyond Prague may seem initially, the roads through the Czech Republic prove overloaded with serendipitously exciting possibilities.