Paul Harris discovers that there’s so much more to see than the capital and visits some lesser known former Jewish communities
ALMOST 16 years ago I was invited to the Czech Republic to write about the country’s Jewish heritage.
The 10-day trip was intended to highlight some of the former Czechoslovakia’s once major Jewish centres, where I had been advised wrongly, it transpired, that communities still existed.
Prague naturally featured high on the agenda. I had first visited the city months after the end of communism in 1993 and several times afterwards.
Many Jewish and non-Jewish tourists make the Czech capital their only base specifically to see the Jewish quarter with its famed Alte Neu and Meisselrs synagogues and the graves of some venerable sages.
Pizen (or Pilsen, as it is known in English), famous for its lager and with a beautifully restored synagogue, but no community these days, was my next port of call, followed by Karlova Vary, with nothing of Jewish interest to see and Cesky Krumlov, a beautiful medieval town on the Austrian border, whose Jewish community disappeared following the Anschluss in March 1938.
All that is left is its synagogue, now happily restored.
Fast forward to two more recent visits to the Czech Republic.
This time there was the opportunity to discover how the country is celebrating its rich Jewish heritage, renovating old synagogues where once there were vibrant communities whose stories are now being recalled for the first time in decades.
The Jewish communities of Moravia and the former Czechoslovakia were unlike those of, say, Poland and Russia.
There was no chassidism, save for those sages who lived in Prague.
Communities outside the capital were Orthodox but not extreme and there were no traditional shtetls.
Jews in the old Czechoslovakia lived well from their arrival in 995 more or less until the end of the 19th century, unlike other parts of Europe where they faced continual persecution.
While the vastly popular Jewish tourist sites of Prague are financed by the Czech government, the lesser known synagogues and former communities in various parts of the country had been largely ignored and in some cases fallen into disrepair.
OPULENT: Splendid mausolea in Brno’s Jewish cemetery|
But in recent years, self-financed projects have seen a number of these re-emerge after long periods of neglect, as smartly renovated buildings and museums reflect the histories of communities which did not live to tell their own stories.
The Federation of Jewish Communities has taken responsibility for sites outside Prague to reinforce the history of the Jews of the Czech Republic.
Some former Jewish property is being returned to the community and a grant from the European Union is facilitating restoration work.
An official told me though: “Czech people don’t feel responsible or that Jews were part of the country’s history.”
And yet there are as many non-Jews as Jews who today are discovering a fascination with the former Czechoslovakia’s Jewish past.
An hour’s drive from Prague is Polna, where the Jewish quarter is one of the few to have survived from the Middle Ages. Barbra Streisand apparently wanted to film Yentl there.
The first Jews appeared there in 1534 and a Jewish cemetery was established.
The synagogue, built in 1684, must have been impressive at the time, with 118 individually designated seats for its male members, while there were 80 wooden stools for women in a gallery.
The shul survived during the Second World War, because the Nazis used it as storehouse.
After the war, chemicals and paint were stored there and the ceiling collapsed in 1968 as it became dilapidated.
The Club for Historical Polna stopped its demolition after the fall of Communism and in 1990 began restoring it.
Today it is the Regional Jewish Museum and alongside it, the rabbi’s house, built in 1717.
The original mikva, filled from a well, is still there and there are some original artefacts on display.
Polna was notorious for the so-called Hilsner Affair in 1899-1900, a series of antisemitic trials centring on a blood libel against Leopold Hilsner.
He was a simple Jewish vagrant who was among those accused of killing Anežka Hruzová, a 19-year-old Catholic girl,who had been found with her throat cut.
Some 22 miles away in Trebic only one Jewish family remains among a population of 37,000.
Jews were first recorded there in 1339 and the synagogue was erected in 1669.
Between 1718 and the first part of the 19th century there were as many as 1,700 Jews living there.
Virtually the entire community of 300 was transported to Nazi camps at the outbreak of the last war. About 20 survived.
The Hotel Joseph, bang in the middle of the old Jewish quarter, hides a fascinating secret relic — a 17th century mikva, now displayed beneath a glass floor.
Nearby is a cafe which serves kosher wine, obviously mindful of Jewish tourists who already arrive to trace their roots and those the regions of the Czech Republic outside Prague continually hope to attract in larger numbers.
GLORIOUS: The lavishly restored Mikulov Synagogue with its marble columns|
Brno is known as the Bavarian Manchester because of its textile industry.
The city’s Barcelo Hotel was previously the home of a wealthy merchant and the Bauhaus-style Villa Stiassni, built in 1928 on the western slopes of the city by a well-to-do industrialist, Alfred Stiassni and his wife Hermine, is now a tourist attraction with most of its original furniture intact.
They and their daughter Susanne fled to California after the anschluss in 1938.
During the war, Nazi officers used it to entertain prominent guests, including Fidel Castro.
Today there are 300 Jews registered in Brno (although it is believed there may be more) and the synagogue, built in 1936, has been reconstructed with funds from the European Union and Norway.
It actually reopened in 1945 but was in extremely poor shape.
There were actually a further two shuls — one was destroyed by the Nazis and the other was demolished in the 1980s.
The city and the surrounding area boasted a Jewish population of 15,000 before the war, but only 1,000 returned, the same Jewish presence as in medieval times.
There are 12,000 graves in Brno’s Jewish cemetery, opened in 1852, the largest in Moravia. and now a protected national monument.
Some 800 tombstones were added recently to identify some of the unmarked burial places and it is still used as the final resting place of the remaining local Jews.
Brno’s buildings are a wonderful mix of Renaissance, Gothic, Baroque, Functionalism and Modernism.
Spilberk castle is a visible reminder of the city’s turbulent history.
Work on it began in the early 13th century. Between 1784 and 1855 it served as a prison, but the Nazis used its tunnels to murder political dissidents.
If Brno sounds familiar, it is famed for its eponymous Motorcycle Grand Prix held every August since 1930.
Mikulov, on the Austrian border, has an organisation specifically to oversee Jewish matters, even though no Jews remain there, although it was home to 1,500 until 1939.
The Upper Synagogue, with its original ark, serves as a memorial to the former community. The building’s core represents the only preserved shul of the Polish type in Moravia and dates from the mid-16th century.
It was reconstructed in Baroque style after a major fire in 1719.
The diverse history of the Czech Republic makes it a fascinating tourist destination, but as one official told me: “See Prague the first time you come, then take a car and see the other parts.”
I would recommend the Prague Unknown tour.
My excellent guide, Daniel Verner, a history student, pointed out sites and imparted offbeat information that doesn’t normally appear in guidebooks.
For instance, the double statue of famed astronomer Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler.
Brahe was a close friend of the revered Judah Loew ben Bezalel ben Chaim (1520-1609), who convinced Rudolf II in 1592 to offer better protection to the city’s Jews.
Loew is credited with creating the Golem from mud and clay and imbued by the rabbi with a life of its own.
I was taken to the Hradcany castle district and learned that house numbers on the right are always even on the right hand side as you head north.
I walked down the cobble-stoned Novy Svet and heard that American poet Allen Ginsberg lived for two weeks at the House of the Golden Lamb in the 1960s, but was expelled by the secret police for “spoiling the youth” with his liberal ideas.
At No 15, I am told of the Jewish woman and her non-Jewish husband who committed suicide in 1943 to avoid being captured by the Nazis.
SPLENDOUR: The magnificent interior of Prague’s Spanish Synagogue|
And there’s the House of the Golden Pear, once the site of a notorious 14th century bar.
“If you ordered soup, they served you in a bowl carved from the table itself. And you ate from a spoon attached by a chain,” said Verner.
He also explained that the Romantik Hotel, built in the 1750s, is the oldest remaining timbered house in central Prague.
A food tour of Prague reveals that Czechs traditionally keep live carp in their bathtubs before Xmas, killing it on the big day.
It became popular among Jews because of its use for gefilte fish. Jewish cuisine generally influenced Czech culinary habits.
Jews liked the aroma of traditional Czech ham, a smoked delicacy, but couldn’t eat it, so they came up with a smoked beef version, rather like pastrami, which today is equally popular among the general population.
The use of garlic also resulted from Jewish influence as well as kasha — buckwheat.
My guide, Jan Macuch, said that many Czech Jewish dishes contained mushrooms and that many of New York’s famed delis were started by Czech Jews.
There is a fusion of Jewish and Czech cuisine, the influence being particularly noticeable in recipes based on goose, duck and carp.
Some of the terms are dead-giveaways. Chein is the same as chrane and cholent features in many restaurants.
I was surprised to learn that before the Second World War all the better known bartenders in Prague were Jewish. They, too, left for the Big Apple.
At Ždár nad Sázavou is the new New Generation Museum and the UNESCO-listed Zelená Hora.
Behind the five-bedroomed accommodation in the grounds of a former Cistercian Abbey, which costs a cool 1,500 Euros a night, is a fascinating story of bravery.
Run by Constantin Kinsky as “a labour of love”, he revealed how his family had hidden numerous Jews from the Nazis in a small house on the estate.
Today, there are still fishponds, built by monks who had been involved in fish farming since the 13th century.
Half an hour away, the spectacle of Vortova’s traditional annual February carnival awaited.
It is a riotous and irreverent affair, definitely not for the faint-hearted, as the villagers dress in masks whose designs date back to the 19th century.
Anything goes and you’ll find Jews and chimney sweeps among the disguises.
Most participants, with faces blackened with soot, become somewhat inebriated as they move from house to house, enjoying hospitality in the form of food and drink . . . and more drink.
Accompanying them is a brass band whose members are also well-lubricated.
Much of the symbolism behind the carnival is connected with fertility . . . and before the PC brigade begin beating their drums, the blackened faces have nothing to do with ethnicity — only with disguise.
Beware, the revellers think nothing of jumping on victims and rolling around with them in the snow.
Alarming at first, but all good-natured.
Further information at www.czechtourism.com
Hotel Barceló Brno Palace. Tel +420 532 156 777 www.tinyurl.com/ydxak3op and Hotel Occidental Praha Wilson. Tel +420 224 248 667. www.tinyurl.com/ya95p4wa