Stories that connect us- from Memoirs from Uhersky Brod and Frydek-Mistek, to meeting together on Zoom, and back to our new bookshop MSTshop.org
60 in '24
MST Newsletter July 2021
Welcome to the 18th edition of our Newsletter.
PS We publish many short articles and Czech Scroll Museum visitor pictures on our Facebook page - please click Facebook Like to keep in touch with us.
Abandoned treasures connect families across the world
Some time in 2018 I received an email out of the blue. It came from a young woman in the Czech Republic, who introduced herself as Ema. She asked if I was a relative of Ernst Vogel. Well…..yes I replied. He was married to Jeny, the daughter of my great aunt Hermine Löwy from Uhersky Brod. Hermine and her husband Rudolf Subak had lived in Brno, Moravia, Smetanova 30. Jenny and Ernst Vogel, had lived in Vienna but must have moved back to her parents’ address in Brno after the Anschluss (invasion of Austria by the Germans). From Brno Jeny, husband Ernst, mother Hermine and Jeny’s sisters Marianna and Gertrude were all deported to Terezin in 1942. None survived.
My young correspondent, Ema, was looking for relatives of Ernst and Jeny Vogel, married in Brno in 1918 and wanted to know more about the family.
Her story was this:
Ema’s mother Lena had grown up living in Smetanova, Brno with her parents. Next door to their home, in the 1930s a family by the name of Subak/Vogel had lived. Lena and then later Ema had always been curious about some things that had had pride of place in their family living room. These were two pictures in the shape of plates showing modelled and hand painted domestic scenes from the 19th century and three other items: a clock, a magazine rack and a beautiful blue glass vase. Ema’s grandpa told Lena and then Ema about the origin of the treasures. Grandpa had been a small boy when his parents’ friend from next door, Ernst Vogel, hid the items with his neighbour, Ema’s grandpa’s father. The Vogels left Brno in 1942 and were never heard from again. About the plates Ema wrote; “ It was hung up in grandpa's living room, above sofa. I used to lay on the sofa and watched those pictures. It remained me like dolls. It acted mystic to me. I didn't know the story behind them or maybe I knew but didn't understand yet.”
Lena and Ema together resolved to find out more about the family, as they felt a responsibility to find out the fate of the people who had owned the precious items. In fact they may not have been worth a great deal but their value lay in the story they told about a family – one of so many stories about families that never returned to their homes after being deported. Grandpa’s young boy memory remembered only a married couple and two older children living at Smetanova 30, next door.
Lena came up with the idea of having a stolperstein laid in front of the house, to memorialize Ernst and Jeny Vogel and they wanted to find out more about the lives of the Vogel/Subak family. Their search led them to archives and repositories in Vienna, Prague and Brno and to Yad Vashem where they found the Pages of Testimony that I had filed for the family on 15th June 1999. So Ema contacted me and after an email exchange, wrote later “I am so happy that I find somebody to ask about Vogel’s family. They are no longer here but they are still alive in our family, in story, in those things. We would appreciate if you can tell us more about the Vogel’s family destiny. We can finish the stolperstein”. Further…. saying “thank you so much for your email. I am so cheerful from our on-line appointment because it means that no one cannot disappear until anybody else remember him. That is such a marvellous feeling….of course, I will take picture of all mention things.”. Shortly after this she sent me lovely high resolution images of the pieces from her grandfather’s home. Ema told me that she herself had married the grandson of one of the few survivors from Mikulov, a once thriving centre of Jewish life in South Moravia.
Some 18 months later Ema reported “Last few weeks were very emotional here in Czech Republic. Finally, June the 14th at 10.30 (2020) we put the stolperstein for Jeny and Ernst Vogel in front of street Smetanova 30. It was big satisfaction for my mum and all of us. My mum and I finished the history debt and the feeling about that is amazing. Also my second child, a boy, was born a week later. This Saturday we are having big summer celebrating of third birthday of my daughter and also of the happiness and joy. And of course it is also celebrating of happy ending and opening.” Enclosed were photographs of the ceremony when the stone was laid together with photographs of her children.
Finishing her last email, she said “Can you believe how history can connect people from so far! I am very happy that we ,met’ at least via mail and post”.
It is just before Pesach 2014. I work at Clore Shalom Primary School in Shenley, Hertfordshire. We are having a practice seder diner in the Early Years’ classes. I am rushing through the PE hall when I see a man walk towards our classroom. We say hi to each other. He introduces himself as Rabbi Paul from Radlett Reform and I know that he is joining us to talk to our children about Pesach. He asks me where I am from to which I reply: the Czech Republic. And he, to my genuine astonishment, proceeds to tell me: “We have a Torah from České Budějovice in our synagogue.” While Rabbi Paul struggles with the pronunciation of this not-particularly-easy-to-pronounce Czech town, I stand there in utter awe! Despite the inner rush so common to anyone who works with preschoolers, I feel the time stand still as this moment permanently etches into my memory.
I guess people have their own moments of discovery of the Czech Torah Scrolls’ existence. And everyone who finds out reacts in their own way.
History sadly teaches us that not much of the tapestry of Jewish life have survived the darkness of the German Naziism in Europe.
So, finding out about the 1564 Torahs from Bohemia and Moravia that have outlived the Nazis to this day feels like a miracle to me and motivates me to help them on their way through history.
But Frank Steiner’s first moment of discovery of the existence of the Czech Torah Scrolls borders on the impossible with a touch of the otherworldly! Exotic islands in the Caribbean with white sandy beaches, plane crashes and thankful survivors all played a role.
Our Czech Jewish man born in a small town in Bohemia, sent by his employer Baťa to Panama just before Hitler’s invasion in March 1939, could hardly believe his senses when a Czech Torah from Budyně nad Ohří appeared in the Hebrew Congregation of St Thomas Virgin Islands in the Caribbean Sea where he lived at the time!
But let’s let Frank Steiner tell you in his own words - as he did on the 25th of January 1990 in his letter to Ruth Shaffer from the Memorial Scrolls Trust, London:
… “I sometimes tell of the amazing coincidences” … “how Hana and I lived in St. Thomas Virgin Islands – about the fatal plane crash and about 35 people who perished BUT by almost a miracle jewish lawyer and his wife were saved. While recuperating in the V.I. hospital Hana and other ladies from the old jewish local Congreg. care for them and how he later out of gratitude brought from London a Czech Scroll to St. Thomas.
That was the first time we became aware of these Scrolls from our native land and during a moving ceremony Hana recited the names of the people from Budin* – place from which the T. came. How- at the end of the War Aninka [sister] was in a working concentr. Camp – became pregnant- how she reported herselves to the comandant since she could not hide her pregnancy any longer – the comandant was strangely absent and no one wanted to talk to her – how the advancing Russian armies forced germans to march Aninka and all through the snow on a death march – how she gave a birth in a stable to a little bundle of bones – how everyone advised – throw it away it cannot live – how she persisted and later reached in the chaos of the war Prague and much later saved the boy and he grew to be a nice handsome young man. When Russian marched in CS [Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia 1968] we brought him to the Virgin Islands – there he met a Brazilian-German-Jewish girl working for us – from Rio de Janeiro – who is a Waxman family. They married in the old St. Thomas Synag where the Czech Scroll is located – later moved to USA mainland…”
…” How a local rabbi came over and ask Tomik since you are from Czechoslov. Tell me – we have just received from London a Scroll from Ledec – how Tomik with astonishment said: “This is the small town from which my mother and uncle Frank came” … and that’s how I discovered a Torah Scroll from my own home town – by a boy who was not supposed to live…
After this incident Hana and I became involved with you – the Czech Scrolls” …
And that is how 36 years after his lucky escape from Hitler, a Torah that almost literally fell out of the skies onto a small island in the Caribbean, united Frank Steiner with his Czech Jewish heritage.
Following these events, Frank Steiner and his wife Hana had given many talks in the congregations all over the USA as they were receiving their Czech Torahs from the MST. The Steiners talked about the Czech and Moravian towns that each Torah had come from and as you just heard him say, sometimes they talked about the amazing coincidences that led him and his wife to help the Torahs commemorate the Bohemian and Moravian Jewish communities.
Maybe the town of origin of your Czech Torah had been introduced to your congregation by the Steiners?
Do you know where your Czech Torah is from?
Jari Shani (10/07/2021)
*Budin is the German name of the Czech town Budyně nad Ohří.
The Jews of Frydek-Mistek
A memory by Katia Gould 4-20-01
The sister towns of Frydek-Mistek stand on either side of the river Ostravica - Frydek on a steep hillto the North and Mistek to the South. Up to the First World War, both were part of the Austrian Empire: Frydek in the province of Silesia, Mistek in North Eastern Moravia. By the time I was born in 1919, both had become part of the newly formed Republic of Czechoslovakia. The German and Polish frontiers were only a short distance away.
Our paternal forebears, back to at least 1680, lived within a 20-mile radius of Mistek. They earned their living as village innkeepers and distillers under tenancies granted by the local archbishops.
Jews in the Czech lands were after 1726 free to practice their religion but were subject to manyrestrictions. Until 1780 they had to pay special taxes, live in Ghettos and wear distinctive clothing; they were excluded from most trades and professions, and not allowed to own land or property.
After 1848 all restrictions were theoretically removed and Jews were able to move around freely, but many town councils, such as that of Mistek, barred Jews until 1867. However, a few were permitted tosettle, in the adjoining village of Koloredov, where our grandfather Hermann Löw rented farmland from 1855 and bought it 20 years later when Jews were permitted to acquire property.
Across the river Ostravica, the Frydek town council had been more liberal. The first Jewish family arrived in 1825, and by 1863 eight families enjoyed permanent residence status, and half as many againhad temporary residence.
By about 1850 there were enough Jewish families in the area to form a Minyan. They met first in a member's home, later there was a separate prayer room, with Bima and Ark, scrolls and eternal light, and finally, a Shul was established in rented premises above a pub some 20 yards from grandfather’s property in Koloredov. There was a Chazan who also acted as Shochet.
By the 1860s which brought increased trade and industry to the sister towns, Jewish entrepreneurs werebeginning to arrive. They established several large textile mills which soon prospered as did the spirit and liqueur manufacture set up by our grandfather. Friedek had a Jewish doctor, a Jewish miller and a Jewish brewer. The Jews were enjoying equal rights and held considerable commercial and social standing. What was originally a loose small gathering of co-religionists began to grow to a closelyintegrated congregation.
In November 1863 permission was obtained from the provincial government to form an officialJewish religious community and to raise funds for the building of a synagogue, or temple as it wascalled, to serve the sister towns.
There followed a search for a suitable site, which had to be in Frydek yet in easy reach of Koloredowwhere most Jews still lived. Eventually a large garden site on the steep incline leading from the river bridge was acquired from the Archduke Albert of Austria. Many busy & anxious months of planning & fundraising ensued. A bank loan had to be secured against bills of exchange from Individualmembers.
The summer of 1864 saw the laying of the temple foundation stone and the start of building. Finally, on 14th Sep 1865, 8 days before Rosh Hashana, the temple was officially opened by the District Rabbi in the presence of town and provincial dignitaries. The congregation, at the time comprising only 33 families, could not afford a regular Rabbi. Services were conducted by a Cantor, who also doubled as Hebrew teacher.
In the succeeding years, many more Jewish families came into the area so that by the late 1880s the synagogue had to be extended. It also received the addition of an organ and mixed choir in line with the growing Reform Movement of the time. A Jewish primary school and meeting house was built next door, two school teachers and a Rabbi were employed, and a cemetery was built on the outskirts of Frydek.
Our grandfather, who had been one of the founders and moving spirits of the community from the outset, became its President for 27 years until his death in 1906. His wife Fanny outlived him by 16 years. Both were prominent members not only of the Jewish community but well loved and respected in the town for their charity to Christian neighbours.
By the end of the century, the congregation stopped to grow. This was due to the attraction of Vienna, the centre of the Empire. Ambitious young Jews went to Vienna to study and many of them stayed to build a career there. Of my grandparents' 10 children, only two remained in Mistek. My father Heinrich carried on the business. He married in 1913 and moved with my mother Mitzi into the housein Koloredov which he had built some years earlier and in which I was born the 4th of five children.Magda was the youngest.
After the First World War the community was further diminished as families moved to the new capital, Prague, or to the fast-growing industrial city of Ostrava.
I remember my childhood as a very happy one, though we children were early on aware of latent anti-semitism arounds us. The area in which we lived had a large German-speaking minority. The Jews who had soaked up the German-speaking culture of the Austrian ruling class were blamed by the Czechs for adding to and supporting the German element. Indeed, the language spoken in our home was German, if only because our mother, who was born in the Hungarian part of the Monarchy, spoke very little Czech. Also the language taught in the Jewish primary school, which all of us attended until it closed down in 1929 for lack of Jewish pupils, was German. Although my two brothers passed on to the local Czech grammar school, we three girls were sent to the German high school in nearby Ostrava, where over half the girls, as well as the Headmaster, were Jewish. However, we spoke both languages, and had many friends amongst both the local Czechs and Germans.
This began to change when Nazism rose in Germany. Mother, who came from a very assimilated background, became an active Zionist and my sisters and I joined Zionist youth clubs. Our German school friends became noticeably cool, if not openly antisemitic.
Things became much worse after the Nazi occupation of Austria and Kristallnacht. Most of our relatives, on my mother's and my father's side, lived in Vienna and their situation was increasingly desperate. But by then, I had gone to England to study.
On March 14th 1939, the Germans who had previously occupied all frontier areas under the infamous Munich agreement, moved into our home town. The following day Prague and all of what is now the Czech Republic were occupied.
Two days later Father was ejected from his office by a so-called aryaniser appointed by the Germans to begin a systematic process of expropriation. Father was obliged to agree to the carefully catalogued handover of all his assets, ranging from bank accounts to farm and factory buildings, down to the smallest item. In the following week all Jews in the town had to report to a central locality to hand in their jewellery, household valuables and radios. under threat of arrest. Their Czech neighbours, with a few honourable exceptions, joined in the general Jew-baiting. The following June, the Frydek temple was burned to the ground by local Nazis by order of the Germans. The torah scrolls and other valuables had been previously removed by then.
By April 1939 my two brothers had joined me in England after father had to bribe some Nazi official to issue exit visas. My older sister was relatively safe for the time being, living in Slovakia with her husband and small daughter. (Slovakia was then a nominally independent Nazi puppet state.) Magda had entered into a short-lived marriage to a non-Jew. He refused to emigrate and Magda would not leave without him, I managed to secure a British entry visa for my parents but too late. The war intervened and they were trapped. The only means of communicating with them was via our Yugoslav relations until they too fell under the Nazi jackboot.
Magda relates how, in September 1939, endless streams of German army units passed by our house on their way to the conquest of Poland, which was soon completed. In mid-October, rumours started to circulate that all male Jews in the area were to be transported to Poland. On hearing this, father took the first train to Prague. It turned out to be the last train not to be searched by the Germans. The rumours soon proved true - Jewish men aged 15-60 from the area were deported to a place called Niskoin Poland, dumped in the middle of a forest miles from the next village and told to build a camp. Many died from cold and hunger, some managed to escape to Russia and a few returned home only to be deported elsewhere sometime later.
Father remained in Prague, where mother and Magda joined him in a rented apartment. Still, hoping for a chance to emigrate, Magda took up a course in baby nursing and mother, aged 53, learned to make costume jewellery. When the Germans put a stop to all courses, Magda worked in the Jewish community’s nursery. From 1941 onwards, Jews had to wear the yellow star on their clothing. Our parents had to leave their apartment and crowd in with another family, with food rations for Jews severely cut. Finally, in July, 1942, they were deported to the Theresienstadt Ghetto, Magda, now divorced, followed in September.
Theresianstadt was an old Austrian garrison town surrounded by thick walls. The Germans evicted Czechoslovakian civilian inhabitants to make room for the Jews. On arrival husbands and wives were split up. Mother lived in a huge barracks for women and worked in the kitchens. Father who was 70 years old, was put in the barracks for old men where he was soon joined by two of his brothers. Conditions were terrible, rations for non-workers reduced to a minimum. Father died in February 1943 from starvation and pneumonia. His brothers followed him in short intervals.
Magda worked in a children’s home caring for 25 boys, 6-7 years old. She ate and slept with them and soon became very attached. All but one of them were deported to Auschwitz in September 1943, and, as she found out later, were sent straight to the gas chamber. Deportations took place regularly when the Ghetto became too full. People were told to report to the railway station to get on a train of cattle trucks, never to be heard of again. It was thought they had gone to a labour camp.
The following is an extract from Magda’s memoirs translated from the Hebrew:
On December 13th 1943 my mother was summoned to report for a transport East two days later. I volunteered to join her. Just then a parcel had arrived from Vienna for the last of my uncles who had just died. It was given to my mother who divided the contents in two to take along on the journey, half a fried chicken each, some cake, bread & other goodies. The cattle train was already in the station and everybody had to show their deportation order. Volunteers were told to wait. My mother had already entered a wagon. Each person was allowed one suitcase which had to be left on the platform. The luggage was put into the last two wagons and we, some 50 voluntary deportees, were heaped on top of the suitcases, our heads touching the wagon ceiling. I could no longer see my bag, although I may well have been sitting on it, the bag with half the contents of the parcel which Mother had so lovingly divided into two. For many months afterwards in Auschwitz I still dreamt about that parcel. We all crowded in. Then the wagon door was closed. The wagon had a small window about 60 by 60cm. There was a single bucket for all 50 of us which we passed with its contents from hand to hand, above everybody's head, up to the window where a friend of mine was responsible for emptying it out of the window. He also managed to peer outside and told us the names of the stations we were passing through so that, eventually, we knew that we were in Poland.
We travelled for about two days and a half. Sometimes my friend tried to talk to the railroad workers who would curse us in Polish, or say: You dirty Jew, give me your watch, you are going to die anyway." One evening the train stopped for many hours, then moved on again for 5 minutes and stopped again. All through the long journey we had been sitting in a dark wagon. Suddenly the door was opened andwe found ourselves blinded by searchlights. There were shouts of "heraus" (out) in German.
We were in shock. On the platform we saw people in prisoners' striped pyjamas, their head shaved, sticks in their hands. They approached the wagons and started beating the new arrivals. The wagons were high and it was hard to step down. The young managed to jump but the older people and the children simply fell on top of each other. People were looking for their suitcases but were shouted atto leave everything.
At that moment I thought to myself: What is this, a madhouse? People in pyjamas, and all this shouting. What crazy place have we come to? They separated the men from the women. We were shouted at to stand in rows of five and march. Yet we had no idea how lucky we were because normally a selection was made immediately on the platform and the old and unfit as well as mother with young children were exterminated the same day.
We started marching and saw a gate headed with the words "Arbeit macht frei" (work liberates), the entrance to Auschwitz concentration camp. We walked along the narrow path between the barracks and the barbed wire. We saw more men and women in striped clothes and had no idea what was going on. We noticed that the women prisoners were staring at the children amongst us. Children were anunusual sight in Auschwitz. They normally went straight into the gas chambers.
We were led to a hut with three tiers of bunks. Around a table in the middle sat some old-timer women prisoners, Poles and Slovaks. Their job was to tattoo numbers on each newcomer's arm. I asked one of the girls: What is this place? She merely shrugged and pointed with her hand as if to indicate we were going to heaven. I had no idea what she meant. My number was 71396.
Here I should explain that my mother and Magda were put into the so-called family camp in Birkenauwhich was part of Auschwitz. They did not wear prison clothes (although their own were taken away and replaced with ill fitting rags, and their heads were not shaved. This was camouflage in case the Red Cross came to inspect the camp. In fact they never arrived and after 6 months the entire transport was sent to the gas chambers to make room for a new one. Magda was saved when she was selected by Dr. Mengele with 2,000 other men and women for work in Germany. From July 1944 until April1945 Magda was a slave-worker clearing up bomb damage rubble in Hamburg. Each transport comprised about 5000 prisoners.
I continue reading from Magda's Memoirs:-
Around 6th April 1945 we left Hamburg for Belsen. We travelled in open cattle wagons and though the distance was short, it took two days, to and fro, forward and backwards. On the way we saw many prisoners on trains (mostly men) and also many corpses falling off the trains.
At long last we arrived in Belsen and were crowded into an empty barracks, about 40 women. We were very tired but there was no room to lie down. We sat down, legs apart, each woman between another's legs, the only way we could get some sleep. This is how we spent the night. The next morning we could walk around freely. There was nothing to eat or drink and no-one told us what do.
The entire camp was full of corpses - wherever we stepped there were corpses - it was horrendous. If you did happen to bump into a living person, they and their clothes were full of lice - that's what started the typhus epidemic. We soon found out that there was no food at all in the camp. As for water there were two taps turned on for only 2 hours a day. People were fighting to get to the taps and many drankfrom the polluted water holes. We girls discovered there was a field just outside the camp where the Hungarian guards grew beets for cattle food. Sometimes we were lucky enough to get through the barbed wire and if the guards did not shoot at us we managed to get hold of some beets.
Two days after our arrival we noticed that the SS-Guards were putting strips of white material on their sleeves, they obviously knew they would have to surrender. Our spirits soared. The following day the white strips had disappeared and our spirits sank again. We could hear the noise of canon and shell fire from afar.
Around the 4th or 5th day an SS-guard came into our room and chose a few girls, including me, forwhat he called some 'interesting' work. We were given ropes and had to tie the hands or feet of thecorpses and drag them into piles. This kept us busy the whole of that day. The following day the soundof canon had come closer, the guards had once more donned the white strips and we felt they were inutter chaos. Only the Hungarian guards appeared to keep some order. They never missed a chance to shoot at some of the girls.
In this way seven days had passed with no food and almost no water. Wherever we went there were corpses. People simply dropped on the ground. You saw someone walk then suddenly collapse in front of you.
On April 15th shooting became heavier. An SS-man, white strips on sleeve, asked for three girls to transfer some chairs to SS headquarters. I volunteered with two others and, as we approached we saw a white flag on the roof of the building. Then we saw a jeep emerging from the entrance and soldiers jumping off. They did not wear German uniforms - we were wild with excitement. Another jeepappeared and another and then a lorry. Then we saw the SS camp commander and other high-rankingofficers lining up in front of the arrivals. We stood there fascinated and realised they had come to set us free. I ran as fast as I was able to the girls' barracks shouting "'We’re free, we're free" - and then I collapsed.
When Magda came to, she was in a British Red Cross hospital suffering from typhus. On recovering she was offered a job as waitress in the Red Cross canteen. She weighed 30 kilos as against 70 kilos before her deportation. Some 2 months later, our brother Hans, who had returned to our home country an officer in the Czech overseas Army, found out that Magda was in Belsen.. He requisitioned a jeep and set off to bring her back with him.
Among long grass trying to reach out to their voices.
I cannot answer my thoughts,
I cannot answer their cries,
I can remember them.
I can remember them
Because I know their names.
I walk deep into the ground
Listening to their voices.
This poem was unfinished
Like the cemetery.
I asked if there was a God of mercy here.
I did not see him walk in the garden
Nor hide behind stones and trees.
I saw the tears fall from tree tops
And I heard a bird say:
“We will come again.”
The tears fell to the ground.
I knew the grass would be displaced,
People would be interred here again
As though past and present
Are together in the future,
And I can see God walk in the
Long grass again, knowing there is mercy,
Though it falls like justice, slowly.
Have you booked your MST Conversation?
Using Zoom, MST is delighted to offer sessions to provide educational content about the rescue and ongoing commemoration of 1,564 scrolls from Bohemia and Moravia. These scrolls survived the Shoah and have been spread around the world for safe keeping and to pay tribute to so many lost communities. Our story resonates with all kinds of people: scroll holders, non-scroll-holders, people of all faiths and backgrounds but especially seniors and B’nai mitzvoth students. Our virtual content can help educate and entertain during this unusual time of social distancing requirements.
We offer, free of charge, opportunities to share our programming and expertise with your congregations. We have volunteer Experts available to speak about the following topics:
The Czech Scroll Story: From Bohemia and Moravia to the Diaspora
Our Binder (wimpel) collection: Custom-made Textiles representing 200 years of Jewish life in the Czech Republic
Czech Jewish Towns: A photo journey about the towns that held scrolls
We are reminding scroll holders that, if possible, you should "air" your scrolls, to stop the build up of any moisture or fungal spores. Scrolls should be rolled from beginning to end once a year, even if your scroll is a Memorial and not readable. We do the same with our scrolls in the Czech scroll museum.
We were honoured in 2019 for Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, to accept the personal loan of a kosher Czech Survivor Scroll