Sunday, April 10, 2016
Day 8 - Lostice - Usov - Mohelnice - Olomouc
This morning we said goodbye to Prague and headed east to our next hotel stop, Olomouc. 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. On the way we stopped in the town of Lostice, a town of about 3,000 people, and were met by the town historian and Director of the Respect and Tolerance program in Lostice, Ludek Stipel. Mr. Stipel took us to the former Lostice 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 were 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 had 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.
Next we were introduced to Jiri Fiser, a Holocaust survivor who lives in Olomouc. He and his mother, 10 year old sister Vera, and his twin brother Josef, were deported to Terezin and then Auschwitz. His mother would not separate from her daughter, Vera, so they were both immediately murdered in the gas chambers. Jiri and his brother, because they were twins, became subjects of Dr. Joseph Mengele’s medical experiments. They amazingly survived the war and were liberated - they were 8 years old.
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. Mr. Stipel keeps a record of the activities of the educational center and below you will see a photo of the record of one of our visits.
Mr. Stipel then showed us into a small reception room where the Municipal Council had prepared a small reception of drinks, biscuits, 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. While we were eating, Mr. Barmore told us the story of the Hilsner Affair, which, like the more well-known Dreyfus Affair in France, involved a Jew who was tried not once, but twice, for an offense which he did not commit but for which he was sentenced to prison for life, demonstrating the depth of antisemitism which could be found in this area in the 19th century. This affair was brought to the attention of a philosopher and teacher in Prague, Thomas Masaryk, who argued on behalf of Hilsner to no avail. Later, after World War I, Masaryk went to the United States to fight for the creation of a Czech nation. The biggest loser in terms of territory, from WWI was Germany. The biggest winner was the new nation of Czechoslovakia. When Masaryk returned to what would become Czechoslovakia he was hailed as a hero. He demanded a constitution in which the nation embraces the Jew. This nation would be the only liberal state. Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, all became antisemitic, fascist states. Masaryk presided over the nation during the interwar period and this is when many Jews become Czech. They had been assimilated before but this is the only nation with which they identified. Mr. Barmore told us that in Auschwitz, before the Czech Jews died in the gas chambers, they sang the Czech national anthem. And after the war, many Czech Jews returned to Czechoslovakia. Many of them chose to leave only after the communist takeover in 1948.
Mr. Stipel thought we would be interested in visiting another synagogue in a nearby town, Úsov, which had been restored by the Christian community, On the way, we stopped briefly in the town of Mohelnice to see the house where Otto Wolf was born, and view the plaque on the building which is dedicated to Otto who died at the hands of the Nazis and his brother Kurt who was killed in battle while fighting with the Soviet army. The plaque states: “They died that we might live” and was dedicated in 1946.
In Úsov, a town of 1,000 people but which Mr. Stipel said had had a larger Jewish population than Lostice, we viewed the restored synagogue which he said was part of the restoration project of his organization, and which was used not for education purposes but for concerts, cultural events and as a tourist site. He told us there was a well known castle in Úsov and more tourists were beginning to stop by and view the restored synagogue. Next we visited the Jewish burial hall and the Jewish cemetery. Mr. Stipel said that part of the cemetery had been used as a firing range fo the Nazi Youth and many of the newer tombstones in one section had therefore been destroyed. Mr. Barmore asked us to notice how many of the Jewish headstones in the 19th century were written in German, which we were able to connect to the point he had made many times earlier about how the Jews were trying to assimilate and absorb German language and culture.
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 showed our group the small synagogue in the Jewish community center, the prayer blanket which was used for Torah readings which was donated after the war by Otto Wolf’s father in memory of his sons, Kurt and Otto, and spoke to us about the slow but steady growth of the Jewish community in the area. There are currently 154 members of the Olomouc Jewish community; ½ are from Olomouc and ½ are from surrounding towns. They have a social department and a Holocaust endowment fund which allows them to take care of survivors, they have shabat services, cultural events and a monthly journal. After his talk, we walked to the restaurant for dinner and then headed back to the hotel for an evening of journaling and discussion.