Around the Jewish World in a Czech Town, Chanukah is Time to Mark Jewish Community’s Rebirth

A dozen children with disabilities singing folk songs and playing lutes, a five-table porcelain exhibition and 200 VIPs, mostly non-Jewish, packed into the small room of a Jewish community center to mark the first night of Chanukah. It might not seem like much, but it’s the biggest public event the Jewish community of Teplice, Czech Republic, has hosted since before World War II.

“This event means the Jews of Teplice are back!” community chairman Oldrich Lada, 45, exclaimed to an audience of businesspeople and regional politicians.

Once the second largest Jewish community in what was then Czechoslovakia, with 6,500 members in 1937, Teplice’s Jews now number just 124, three-quarters of them 65 and older.

Once a world-famous spa resort that grew shabby under the Communist regime, the city also was home to one of Central Europe’s largest synagogues, which the Nazis destroyed along with every other Jewish public building in town, except for the community headquarters.

In the 1990s, while the nine other Jewish communities of the Czech Republic were busy getting back property from the state to fund social projects and architectural restoration, Teplice was dormant.

“We had a wonderful leader, but he was in his 80s and really didn’t have the energy to deal with rebuilding the community from the ground up,” said Lada, who was elected chairman two years ago after his predecessor’s death.

Lada’s agenda is to rebuild the community by increasing its financial assets, promote awareness of the community among non-Jews and preserve the region’s remarkable Jewish history. The last two goals can be achieved only after the first is fulfilled, he noted.

Those are big ambitions for the head of such a small Jewish group, but Lada’s results so far have been impressive.

“It’s not how big a community is, it’s how active it is, and that’s where Teplice is succeeding,” said Ladislav Matuska, a young Jewish business consultant from Most who recently joined the community.

Lada was able to get back a hospital that was nationalized by the Communists in the town of Usti nad Labem, and plans to turn it into a hospice for elderly Jews. But he also wants to use part of the facility as a profit-making medical center that can support the hospice.

Two years ago, Lada helped the community obtain another piece of its property from the government, a ski resort in Klinovec with six slopes and accommodations for 35. The community rents out the resort, and Lada hopes it can be expanded.

Meanwhile, one can’t help but notice Lada’s bright yellow car with its insignia for Kofala — a popular soft drink — and the Kofala sign on the Jewish community building. He clearly has learned a few marketing tricks from the beverage company, for which he’s the regional manager.

If Lada seems more oriented toward business than religion, he has nothing to apologize for, said Tomas Kraus, executive director of the republic’s Federation of Jewish Communities.

“Lada has accomplished an incredible amount in Teplice. He really is a model for what can be done to raise awareness of Jewish interests,” Kraus said.

With the money Lada has obtained, along with contributions from the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee, he was able to reopen community headquarters that were closed for more than four decades, and started a senior citizens club on the premises. The facility also boasts a prayer room and three Torahs where the Czech Republic’s head rabbi will conduct Chanukah services Dec. 12.

Lada is negotiating with town authorities to get back the plot of land where Teplice’s synagogue once stood, and hopes to build another house of worship that could double as a cultural center.

“We want to make it into a historical museum dedicated to Israeli aviation, which was supported in its early stages by Czechoslovakia,” he said.

The city has told Lada that if he can find investors, they’ll transfer the deed for the plot to the Jewish community.

Lada also has been trying to restore the region’s links with its departed members.

After launching a Web site for the community, Lada heard from 78 people with roots in Teplice. He found new supporters all over the world by putting up pictures of Jews who lived in Teplice before World War II and who he suspected might have relatives outside the Czech Republic. The site receives 800 to 900 visitors a day.

“We heard from a woman in Las Vegas who saw her mother,” he said.

Lada believes some of the people who discover Teplice will help maintain the region’s 25 cemeteries.

As for opening the community to new members, Lada knows that’s his greatest challenge. The last Bar or Bat Mitzvah in Teplice was held in 1992.

“It’s standard in the Czech Republic to have to prove that your mother was Jewish before a community will accept you, but we can accept those whose father is Jewish,” he said. “Hitler didn’t discriminate when he sent people to the gas chambers; why should I?”

There might be many people with Jewish heritage in the region, Lada said, and he wants to encourage them to join the community.

“We need a spiritual leader. There is a rabbi from Australia with Teplice roots who promised to move back next spring,” he said.

There’s even a scheme to import Jews: The director of the Teplice spa group has signed a contract with a Russian travel agency that promises to send Jewish clients whom the community hopes to address.

Playing a larger role in the wider non-Jewish world also is important to Lada.

Teplice Jews give lectures in the local schools, one of which participated in a Jewish Museum of Prague project to help children learn about Jews who lived in Teplice before the war. In September, the whole town was invited to a festival of Jewish cuisine.

“We also sent someone by request to a Christian kindergarten to explain what Chanukah is, because the teacher felt the kids were confused,” he said.

Then there was the musical performance on Chanukah by children from a local facility that treats brain disorders.

After they sang, guests looked at the porcelain on display, which comes from the Czech Porcelain factory in nearby Dubi. The granddaughter of the Jewish family that owned Czech Porcelain until 1938 was on hand, and expressed her joy at seeing the company’s delicate blue-and-white dishes on display for the first time in a Jewish context.

Attending the opening of the exhibition was Radek Spala, who works in monument preservation at Teplice’s City Hall.

“There has been a phenomenal change in the Jewish community since Lada took over. I think he realizes that to keep the community alive, he must make it interesting to everyone, not just Jews,” Spala said.

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