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JOURNEY TO KOJETIN - NOVEMBER 1992

Suri Poulos

It is ironic that the Nazis, with their Germanic obsession with structure and organization were responsible for setting off this extraordinary series of coincidences and events. They decided to save all the Jewish artifacts of the people they were systematically murdering in order to create a museum of a 'dead race'. Included in this collection were Torah scrolls from the Jewish community of Kojetin Czechoslovakia. These Torah scrolls represented over 500 years of a thriving Jewish community in Kojetin, which ended in 1942 when the last 53 Jewish citizens were deported to the concentration camps and perished.

 

Somehow the Czechoslovakian scrolls survived the decades of communist rule and made their way to England where they were distributed to Jewish communities around the world. One of the three Torah scrolls from kojetin was given to our congregation in Maidenhead where it is once again an integral part of an active Jewish community.

 

In 1989, while hosting a dinner party, Len Brown, a member of the Maidenhead community was discussing with my husband and 1 his recent visit to Kojetin and how deeply moved he was by the reception he had received by the pastor of the church (now situated in what was once the Synagogue). Len had expected to be met by an official guide, but in desperation after the guide did not show up, Len made his own way to what had once been the Synagogue and introduced himself to the Pastor. The Pastor showed Len the album he had put together recording the now lost Jewish community and described the memorial service he holds yearly to commemorate them. Len was later told by the official guide that meeting the Pastor would be a waste of time.

 

At that same dinner party, my husband Darrel first proposed that we as the Maidenhead Jewish community should hold our own memorial service in Kojetin on the 5Oth anniversary of their deportation in 1992.

 

Subsequent events in 1990 dramatically changed life in Czechoslovakia; the Berlin wall was dismantled, the Soviets lost their grip on Eastern Europe and free elections were held.

 

 

 

On Friday November Oth, 23 members of the Maidenhead Synagogue arrived in Prague with

various expectations of a pleasant long weekend away, an interesting investigation into our

Eastern European roots, and the opportunity to pay our respects to a small community of fellow

Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.

 

Prague was exquisite on that golden autumn evening, the sunset was reflected in the gilded orbs suspended above graceful church pinnacles by delicate spindles, every corner revealed another onion dome or richly decorated facade.

 

We met together as a group for a Shabbat meal in the Prague Jewish community center, an elegant hall who's recent redecoration echoed the communities past richness. It was a meal that reminded me of my grandmother's kitchen; salty carp, hot beef broth, meat with noodles and farfel, grapefruit and strudel.

 

We tried to communicate by singing zimirot and the birchat hamazon but the tables of families from the orthodox 'Old/New Synagogue' made little response.

 

Ela Holesowska, our untiring mentor and translator then guided us through the mysteries of the Prague underground to a fledging liberal congregation for a Shabbat service. We were led down a dim stairwell past a sink and drying towels to a door with a small sign 'Bet Simcha' (house of joy). We tentatively opened the door to find a small basement room filled with twenty or more young faces all a bit surprised by our onslaught. Within moments everyone was standing around the room to avail us of the few wooden benches. Sylvia, who organized the congregation continued to make pleasantly surprised sounds until we had settled ourselves sufficiently for her to continue the discussion. She was even more pleasantly surprised to find that we had among us not one but two rabbis (and one a woman rabbi no less). And so we began an energetic discussion which Sylvia led and translated that spanned topics from the Jewish attitude towards evil to the alleged arrogance of the Israeli's.

 

I was struck by the atmosphere, like the heady coffee house discussions of the Go's. It has only been in the last two years that Jews have felt able to express their Jewishness openly and the members of Sylvia's group were savoring, exploring and finding expression in this fresh identity. The students from Belgium, England and America were also finding new meanings as they participated in Sylvia's service of songs, Shabbat candles, wine and discussion.

 

On Saturday morning some of our group attended the Shabbat service at the old new synagogue. Having viewed the synagogue briefly on Friday evening I had seen the narrow hallway and shoebox size window made available to the women attending the service. It took me very .~ me to decide that a walk through Prague would be far more pleasant. Darrel and I wandered through the open markets in the crisp sunshine filling our bag with wooden toys, marionettes and hand made crafts for Hanukkah.

 

That afternoon most of us reconvened to travel to nearby Terezin Theresienstadt). From the front of the bus Ela explained that she had organized a tour guide for us, but if that failed she would guide us, she had been in Terezin for three years. As we visited the crematorium, the memorial cemetery (there had never been a proper funeral or grave for those who died at Terezin) and wandered the streets of the hauntingly quiet town, Ela's story unfolded.

 

Ela had only been back to Terezin twice, once for a survivors reunion (fiftieth anniversary) and together with us on this golden autumn day. She had arrived at Terezin at 18 with her father and stepmother. Her father had been the head of their local Jewish community and had been forced to organize the transport to Terezin. For his reward, he and his family were first sent to the Gestapo headquarters in Prague and then to Terezin. She showed us the mens barracks where her father had lived and across the road, the young women's barracks were she had lived.

 

She and the guide recounted the tragic irony of Terezin, a show piece concentration camp. Prior to the single visit by the Red Cross, the camp was freshly painted, temporary money was printed, a 'coffee' shop was open, new prisoners were brought in and given chocolates and sweets so they could speak positively of their treatment. On the day the Red Cross arrived a play was preformed and a sporting match held. The Red Cross representatives arrived, dined with the Germans for three hours and left four hours later, they spoke to none of the prisoners. The Red Cross bought this pathetic charade and made no further investigations, let alone an outcry as the Germans proceeded to murder 6 million Jews.

 

Ela described a day when the entire camp, from babies to the elderly were made to stand all day in the cold winter rain while they were counted and recounted. They did not know from one moment to the next if they would be killed or not.

 

Ela survived Terezin but 17,000 children did not. All that remains of their existence are their pencil drawings which had been hidden in the attics. Drawings Of flowers, butterflies, games they used to play as well as the scenes of their current life; bodies piled in carts and queues for watery soup. They reminded Of my daughter Rianna's drawings, as well as the tenuousness of life and the power of artifacts that represent that life.

Ela was later sent to Auschwitz, she described an experience she says she sees every day of her life. As they were queued up on arrival a prisoner said to her in a whisper, share whatever food you have with the others" An 55 guard shot and killed her in front of Ella before her sentence was complete.

 

Eta was later transferred to a factory work camp and finally Mauthausen were she was liberated by the allies, they did not think she would live, she weighed only 35 kilos. She was the only member of her family to survive.

 

We were very moved by Ela's story, her strength and her discreet fortitude in visiting Terezin with us. Yet she appeared like a doting grandmother, always asking if the buswas warm enough fous, if we had any questions she could help us with. Under extreme pressure she finally accepted our invitation to treat her to a performance of Madame Butterfly that night at the Prague national opera. I must say though, that after a day cataloguing the inhumanity of man, I found it hard to be moved by the painted prima donna on stage.

 

On Sunday we convened very early to begin a four hour journey to Kojetin. We arrived in front of the civic center and were greeted by the mayor and other local officials, a handful of Jewish representatives from the nearby congregation of Olomouc and five Kojetin citizens dressed in colorful traditional costumes who offered us all bread and salt, the traditional Moravian welcome. We were ushered inside to a crowded smoky room and among the confusion were offered hot drinks and homemade Czech pastries.

 

Once we had had our fill, we were beckoned into an adjoining small auditorium. In the rear of the room two singers, a violinist and an organist began an accompaniment to the speeches and poetry presented to us by the mayor and other representatives. Only some of the presentation was translated, yet the depth of feeling, sincerity and empathy was clearly communicated. At the conclusion of the ceremony, they presented Len and our Rabbi with a plaque (who in turn presented them with a menorah) and asked each of us to sign the civic record book while presenting us individually with a small ceramic gift.

 

I was unexpectedly touched by the ceremony. At the close I breathed a deep sigh, dried my eyes and tried to imagine what these citizens of Kojetin were feeling. Perhaps this was the first time they had been able to publicly acknowledge their grief and loss as a result of the German occupation, clearly this ceremony would never have occurred two years earlier I wondered what it would have been like to watch helplessly as one's friends and neighbors were pulled from their homes and transported, never to return. Is it better to forget or try to make something positive come from such a haunting memory. I suspected the later idea was the motivation for these individuals.

 

We then made our way across the small town to what had once been the Synagogue and was now a Hussite church. I had assumed that we would have our own small Hebrew and English ceremony so I was surprised and puzzled by number of people who joined our small procession. At the entrance we were greeted by the Hussite Pastor, his wife, the mayor and the group of individuals in traditional Czech costumes.

 

None of my puzzled musings could have prepared me for the atmosphere as I entered what had once been the Synagogue. Among the strains of the most beautiful and moving violin music (the Kol Nidre by Max Bruch) was a sea of solemn faces, ranging from young to old. I tried to meet their gaze in unspoken communication but couldn't because of the tears I was unable to control. The large room was packed full, except for the pews reserved for our group, there was standing room only. These citizens of Kojetin needed and wanted to participate in our memorial service, what had begun as a idea over dinner had snowballed into something much bigger and more profound than any of us could possibly have anticipated.

My memories of the service are distilled in a few intense images:

 

The sight of our Rabbi enveloping himself In his tallit In his own silent prayer and the sound of our voices singing in Hebrew in that space where there had not been a Jewish sound or sight for fifty years.

 

Reciting the memorial prayer for the murdered Jews of Kojetin for perhaps the first time. We had grouped the names by the family name, as we recited the individuals first names some of the congregation of Kojetin citizens completed the phrase with the appropriate surname in a spontaneous whispering chorus.

 

The powerful and coarsely beautiful voice of the cantor from Bruno singing traditional Eastern European Jewish melodies, with his eyes closed and head tilted back his voice enveloped the room with the shadows of the prayers of centuries of Jews who had worshipped there.

 

Following the service, we moved slowly outside, still stunned by the power of the event. There were more speeches and the unveiling of a stone plaque placed next to the front door which acknowledged with words and a Magen David, the Synagogue and community that had inhabited this site.

 

As the crowd dispersed, I wandered around the building still savoring the event. I was invited, along with a few of the others into the Pastor's house across the road. This had been the Rabbi's house and we were shown what had been the Mikveh, still partially intact. I understood that the Pastor always covers his head when he is in the church (which is not normally done in the Hussite sect) in respect for the synagogue and the many Jewish prayers that preceded his congregation.

 

When Len had met him three years ago, the Pastor had told him that he conducted his own private memorial service for the murdered' Jewish community every year. He showed Len the prayer he reads, it is the Jewish Burial Service.

 

Although I felt the loss of yet another synagogue and Jewish artifact, I was pleased that this building had been entrusted to such a caring and sensitive custodian.

 

We were then guided to an elegant room in the town hall with tall arched windows and chandeliers. We were seated and served a hearty lunch of fish, soup, chicken, salads, Czech pastries and coffee. The conversation was limited due to the language barriers but the warmth and good will were recognizably in abundance. It was the mayors wife who served the soup and the mayor who picked up my plate, the food had been purchased and prepared by the local community and I wondered if our own community would have responded with such an extravagant welcome in a similar situation.

 

A thick book was passed around which we were requested to sign. As I skimmed through it I caught sight of words I recognized.. Sukkoth... Pesach...there were photographs of the tombstones inscribed in Hebrew and views of what had been the synagogue. I was later told that the Pastor had been compiling this book in order to catalogue and create some record of the Synagogue and Jewish community that had preceded him and his congregation.

 

At the door we were presented with a small photocopied commemorative booklet prepared and personally signed by a few of the local citizens. Once again I was touched by the breadth and depth of the local involvement in this cathartic event.

In the late afternoon with the sun setting we were driven to the Jewish cemetery. When Len had visited three years earlier, he could barely enter due to the thick brambles and untamed weeds. Since the velvet revolution the Jewish cemeteries were slowly being restored, including the cemetery at Kojetin. Although there were innumerable tombstones on the ground at least the land had been cleared and we were able to wander about the walled enclosure, glancing at the ancient dates and recognizable inscriptions in the cold gray twilight.

 

Finally we said our good-byes and began to board our bus. I was unsure of how to express my gratitude and the depth of feeling the day had inspired. I settled for body language and was one of the last to board the bus due to the innumerable hugs and enthusiastic handshakes I administered.

 

Throughout the dark bus ride back to Prague I composed in my mind various phrases in an effort to recall the intensity of the day. They sounded so trite (as perhaps does this letter) but I wanted to ensure that time did not erode these profound experiences even if my literary skill was not quite up to the task.

 

We spent our last day in Prague touring the Jewish quarter. The ancient cemetery with gravestones stacked like dominoes reflected the multiple layers of graves underneath. On the tombstone of a fabled Cabalist were scores of small notes wound into wads of paper. Those that left them hoped that their desires would have a more direct passage with the help of the powers of the deceased spiritualist.

 

We wandered through the museum of Jewish ceremonial objects, from ornate, lavishly eark covers to modest cooutensils. And quietly mourned once again as we viewed the selection of the children's drawings from Terezin.

 

There was time for a quick group photograph then a bus trip to the airport for the more mundane activities of queuing and passport verification.

 

As I was reflecting over the events of the trip and sifting through the multitude of emotions, I most strongly felt a sense of elation. The grim statistics of our ever dwindling Jewish community should have been emphasized by this journey to our past and yet I continued to think about the energy and enthusiasm of Sylvia's growing congregation in Prague, Ela's brave confrontation with her tragic past and the overwhelming collective response of the town of Kojetin which proclaimed - we will not forget. I thought of the words we had sung in our memorial service (from Zog Nit Keynmol - the Partisan's marching song)..." Because the hour for which we've yearned will yet arrive, and our marching steps will thunder, we survive!'

 

 

 

 

 

Suri Poulos