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Ostrava Jewish History
The story of Ostrava and its Jews mirrors, on a small scale, the history of Central Europe, the Jews and the Holocaust. Ostrava is 250 miles due east of Prague, on the banks of the Ostravice river in the valley of the River Oder. Until the second half of the eighteenth century, it was a small market town with a population (in the area know known as Greater Ostrava) of less than 2000 with no Jews, who were forbidden to live or even spend the night there. In the 1930’s the population was about 325,000 with about 10,000 Jews. Edicts of Tolerance allowed non-catholics to move, live and practice trades and professions previously barred to them and the discovery of hard black coal in the area meant that the industrial revolution arrived in the Hapsburg Empire, centred on Ostrava. The Archbishop of Olomouc set up the first coal mines and iron foundries which were later taken over and developed by the Guttmann brothers and the Viennese Rothschilds.
Jewish Primary School, First Class, 1898
Jews became very prominent in trades and professions, arts and culture as well as playing a leading role in brewing, distilling and the hospitality sector. Six shuls, a Jewish primary school, a children’s home and orphanage, an old-people’s home and an apprentice training school were established. Jews became city councillors and members of parliament. Ostrava was a tolerant and multi-cultural place. The main synagogue followed the neolog (Conservative) service with a mixed choir, trained by the non-Jewish choir master from the local opera and an organ, played by a non-Jew.
The Bobover Rebbe sent rabbi Forscher to Ostrava and he acted as Rabbi, chazzan and shochet to a small shtiebl He was taught chazzanut by a non-Jewish opera singing teacher! Ostrava was a genuine tolerant, forward- looking and technologically advanced city. It had electric trams before London did!
On 14th March 1939 the Germans occupied Ostrava, the day before they occupied Prague, and Jewish life came to an end. Within 3 months, all the synagogues had been destroyed. In 1942, the first mass transports of Jews from Ostrava went to Theresienstadt, arriving onTuesday, 22nd September 1942. It was the day after Yom Kippur. By Simchat Torah they had all been shipped off to Auschwitz and death. At the end of the war, fewer than 300 of the original 10,000 returned to Ostrava.
Kingston Synagogue takes loan of a Czech Survivor Torah Scroll from Ostrava
KSDS received scroll #129 on loan, together with a certificate saying that it came from Moravská Ostrava, known as Mährisch Ostrau in German, and it was used regularly in their services.
In 2004, Monica and Alex (z”l) Popper visited Westminster Synagogue’s Heritage Open Day and heard about the rescued Czech Scrolls. They were later invited to the service to mark the 40th Anniversary of the arrival of the scrolls in Westminster and went with Rosalynde and Robert Lewis. They all came back enthused to find out more about Ostrava and the people who lived there; how they lived, and what happened to them. David Lawson joined them, the Kingston Ostrava Group was born and we started to research the history of Ostrava and its Jews and also to make contact with some Ostravaks and their families who had fled from the Nazis before the war or, in some rare cases, had survived the war.
In November 2006, we held a Service of Rededication of our scroll with The Mayor of the Royal borough of Kingston, the Czech Ambassador and Rabbi Ginsbury representing the Chief Rabbi, as Guests of Honour.
As we found more and more information and interviewed more Ostravaks, we produced and distributed a quarterly Newsletter. We now have almost 300 Ostravak families on our circulation list which extends from Australia to Chile and America and on to Israel and much of Europe. Among our readers is an Australian Amharic speaker, from Ostrava! The newsletters, #46 is the latest, not only provide the latest information about whom and what we have found but also help to put long dispersed families and friends in contact once again, in many cases after a gap of 60 years. The enthusiasm of our readers is touching:
“It was a great pleasure meeting you and learning about the work you are doing in perpetuating the Jewish connection with Ostrava which is an inspiration to us all; long may you continue!”
“I opened the attachment about my family this morning and read it to my mom and cried.”
We have also arranged to lay some 30 Stolpersteine on behalf of some of our Ostravaks to commemorate their family members murdered by the Nazis and have arranged a number of social gatherings of Ostravaks in the Czech Embassy in London, to look at old photographs and talk about old, and new, times. They, too, have been enormously enjoyed and appreciated.
If Czechoslovakia was a “far-off country ..about whom we know little”, in Neville Chamberlain’s immortal words, Ostrava was truly a place about which we knew almost nothing when we (Kingston, Surbiton, and District Synagogue) received on permanent loan a sefer torah which originated there. Indeed, it is doubtful if many of our members had even heard of it.
Ostrava (we did not distinguish between the two parts, Moravská and Slezská Ostrava, under their Czech or German nomenclature) was, and is, not a beautiful city. It has no buildings of outstanding historical or architectural interest. It is not the site of any epoch-making battles or peace treaties. It was not the home of any great historical figures nor does it house any major art collections or priceless manuscripts. The local countryside is fine enough, but a Michelin guide book would not suggest it was vaut le voyage!
But it was, and is, an economic power-house and one of the major cities of the Czech Republic.
Its Jewish Community was likewise undistinguished. Unlike many places in Czechoslovakia or nearby in Poland, with long and distinguished history of Jewish settlement, the Jewish presence in Ostrava is only of recent origin. Its graveyard holds the remains of no wonder-working Rabbis nor did any famous sages live there. Dynasties of famous Chassidim did not establish themselves in Ostrava, nor was there a yeshiva whose renown still resonates in our days.
The losses of its population of perhaps 200,000 people in 1930 are insignificant compared to the tens of millions killed during the war. Compared to the 6 million Jews annihilated by the Nazis, the destruction of the Ostrava Community of 10,000 Jews is statistically tiny.
But this very ordinariness is what makes Ostrava and its Jewish community resonate so powerfully with us.
The Jewish Community had its lawyers and bankers, doctors and teachers, shopkeepers, innkeepers and brewers, sausage-makers and jewellers, musicians and writers, politicians, insurance salesmen and farmers, just as the rest of the population. It, too, had its share of divorcees, orphans, widows, children, rich and poor people, and, no doubt, crooks and wastrels. It certainly had politicians and Members of Parliament
Ostrava was a bustling, thriving, growing, dirty, smelly, industrial town with bars and concert halls, coffee shops and coal mines, trams and tobacconists. It was full of busy people going about their everyday lives, and the Jews were an integral part of that. The Jews, too, were busy with making a living, local and national politics, bringing up their children, looking after the old people, training the youngsters, saving for the future, and doing all the everyday ordinary things that we still do today.
And then, in 1938, it was all changed and by 1943, the whole of the community had been destroyed by the Nazis.
We, in busy, bustling, modern, commercial Kingston upon Thames, living our comfortable middle-class Jewish life, can empathise with those living a comfortable middle-class Jewish life in busy, bustling, modern, commercial, Ostrava. We can try and imagine what they lived through. We can even ask ourselves, as we pray in our synagogue, if they, praying in their beautiful synagogues, thought (any more than we now think, perhaps) about the meaning of the great prayer at the heart of the New Year and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) Service:
On the first day of the year it is inscribed, and on the Day of Atonement the decree is sealed, how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who at the measure of man’s days and who before it, who shall perish by fire and who by water, who by the sword,… who by hunger and who by thirst; who by strangling and who by stoning, …who shall be brought low and who shall be upraised.
The first transport from Ostrava with the deported Jews arrived in Theresienstadt on Tuesday, 22nd September 1942. It was the day after Yom Kippur. Within 3 weeks, almost all of them had been transported to the death camps and killed.
Sixty years or more later, there is little that remains of the Jewish Community. The synagogues were destroyed and the cemetery flattened, but they left us, in Kingston, one of the Scrolls of the Law which they would have used in their services. We still use it, today.
And we will keep alive their memory.
Here are some links to useful and interesting sites that are relevant to Ostrava, its Jewish community and our Scroll.