PRAGUE (Oct. 17)
The visit of Israeli President Chaim Herzog to Czechoslovakia this week, the first by an Israeli chief of state, has had a dual focus.
Herzog’s meetings with President Vaclav Havel and other top officials of the federated Czech and Slovak republics underscored the normalization of relations between their countries, which had no diplomatic ties until April 1990, after Communist rule ended in Prague.
The state visit also coincided with an affirmation by the Czechoslovak authorities that Jews were in fact the primary victims of the Nazi genocide in their country.
That had gone unacknowledged during the 40 years of the Communist regime.
The official amnesia was discarded at two solemn ceremonial events. On Wednesday, a tablet was unveiled at a location in Prague where 45,513 Jewish men, women and children were forced to assemble to be “dragged away” — in the words of the inscription.
Their destination was Terezin, also known as Theresienstadt, a ghetto about 40 miles north of Prague which was for most of the Jews a temporary way station from where they were deported to the ghetto of Lodz in occupied Poland.
On Thursday, Herzog and Havel visited Terezin, where a small museum has been opened as a Holocaust memorial, long forbidden by the Communist authorities.
At least 140,000 Jews passed through that town, and 80,000 were killed from 1941 to 1945.
The memorial tablet on the long-forgotten Prague corner was designed by a former concentration camp inmate, Helga Hoskova, who was 13 when she was deported. It is inscribed with the Hebrew word “yizkor” (remembrance).
In the ceremony Wednesday, the tablet was unveiled by Prague’s deputy mayor, Jiri Exner, in front of a Czechoslovak army guard of honor.
Michaela Vidlakova, who was 6 when she was deported from that spot, spoke on behalf of the victims and survivors.
HUNDREDS AT CEREMONY IN TEREZIN
On Thursday, a memorial was held in Terezin itself. Present were hundreds of other survivors or their descendants from various countries, as were Herzog and Rabbi Arthur Schneier of New York, representing the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.
The guests heard a concert by the American Boys Choir from Princeton, N.J., who sang songs fashioned from the children’s poems written in Terezin collected in the volume “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.”
The chorus was conducted by Cantor Charles Davidson of Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Elkins Park, Pa. Davidson wrote the music, under a commission by the Cantors Assembly.
The state protocol of Herzog’s visit began Monday, when the Israeli head of state visited the presidential residence in Prague to return Havel’s call on him in Jerusalem last year.
They discussed strengthening relations between their countries, prospects for peace in the Middle East and making available Jewish sites and objects in Czechoslovakia.
Havel said Czechoslovakia is looking hopefully forward to the proposed Middle East peace conference and is ready to contribute to its successful outcome.
He mentioned in that connection the government’s decision to halt arms exports to the Middle East, for which his office had an important role.
On Tuesday, Herzog met with Alexander Dubcek, chairman of the Federal Assembly, who was the Czechoslovak leader during the Prague Spring of 1968. Herzog addressed members of several committees of the Czech parliament, which is not presently in session.
With members of the foreign diplomatic corps attending, the Israeli president recalled the words of Jan Masaryk, who, as foreign minister more than 40 years ago, said, “The foundation of a Jewish state was one of the greatest political ideas of our times” and “anti-Semites are potential murderers, whose place is in prison.”
Herzog spent Wednesday in Bratislava, capital of the Slovak republic.
Before ending his visit, he and Havel will attend a performance of Verdi’s Requiem at Prague’s Smetana Hall. The work was performed by the Terezin prisoners from 1943 to 1944.