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Under Coats of Paint

Ari Z. Zivotofsky

Prague might be the Jewish tourist capital of the Czech Republic, but there’s another narrative buried in the rural towns and farming villages

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

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UNTOUCHED REMINDERS Between Bohemia and Moravia, there were about 400 shuls in the country at the turn of the 20th century, 60 of which were eventually burned by the Nazis. Yet today in the entire Czech Republic there are only four functioning shuls — three in Prague and one in Brno, the Czech Republic’s second-largest city. What happened to the rest?

W e had spent a few days in Prague seeing the classic Jewish sites — shuls, cemeteries, and museums that showcase the rich and lengthy Jewish presence in the city. We met some members of the current Jewish community, our 13-year-old was privileged to lead Shabbos Minchah in the Altneuschul — which may be the oldest shul in continuous use — and we took in Prague’s famous zoo and other sites. But chances are you’ve also visited or read about Prague, and don’t need our account of this ancient and now-popular tourist city to enlighten you.

Indeed, Prague was the sideshow to the main point of our trip to the Czech Republic with my wife’s extended family. Her father, a Holocaust survivor, shared his story with all his descendants at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where he was held for a year and a half during World War II. We thus spent a very moving day in the once German-occupied Terezin, where much of Czech Jewry was killed, or sent onward from there to almost certain death. And once in the area, how could we not explore the expansive Czech lands through a Jewish lens?

The Czech state, today comprised of the regions Bohemia, Moravia, and Czech Silesia, was originally formed in the late ninth century and over the subsequent centuries was under the rule of a series of kings, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Austrian Empire. In 1918, following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I, the Republic of Czechoslovakia was formed. But it was occupied by Germany in World War II, and then afterward fell under the Soviet sphere of influence and eventual occupation.

Dusty and neglected, this old shul in Zderaz was no restored tourist attraction. The least we could

do after “breaking in” was to recite a silent prayer and close the doors behind us

Finally, in 1993, on the heels of Communism’s demise and the country’s 1989 Velvet Revolution, Czechoslovakia peacefully split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Although there were always Jews in Bohemia and Moravia, numbering up to 120,000 before the Holocaust, there are only about 4,000 today (most of whom are in Prague). But testimony to the rich Jewish past remains, and we wanted to investigate the history with our own eyes.

Neighbors Forever

Our first stop was Nikolsburg, also known as Mikulov, close to the Hungarian border in southern Moravia. The name conjures up some of the greatest luminaries of the previous centuries, including the Maharal (who was the rav of the city for 20 years before moving back to Prague), the Tosafos Yom Tov, Rav Mordechai Benet, and Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (he was the city’s rav for five years before moving to Frankfurt). One of the city’s most famous rabbis was Rav Shmelke of Nikolsburg (1726–1778). Originally called Shmuel Horowitz, he spent time learning with the Baal Shem Tov’s star disciple, the Maggid of Mezritch, and became one of the greatest of the early chassidic rebbes. Today’s chassidic groups of Nikolsburg and Boston are descended from him.

In many ways, Nikolsburg still looks as it did hundreds of years ago. The local shul, the only extant one of 12 that had graced the town, has been renovated twice and serves as a tourist site and a small museum of the local Jewish history. A short distance down the block stands Rav Shmelke’s yeshivah building, and a further two-minute walk brought us to the town’s historic cemetery, where we stood facing the graves of Rav Menachem Mendel Krochmal (d. 1661), Rav Shmelke (d. 1778), and Rav Mordechai Benet (d. 1829), one next to the other. With so many years separating each of them, we wondered how that happened. In fact, it was no simple matter. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 668)

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