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Around the Jewish World Czech Town Explores History As First Bat Mitzvah Held Since 1938

June 21, 2005
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A young girl on the verge of womanhood reads the names of Shoah victims to an international audience and television crews, in a country that’s not her own. It’s safe to say that Hana Pike’s bat mitzvah wasn’t your typical passage into adulthood.

Hana recited the names of the departed in Austerlitz, now called Slavkov, a Czech town long known as the site of Napoleon’s greatest military victory over Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

But Slavkov and its 6,000 or so residents now have a modern claim to fame: On June 4 the town hosted its first bat mitzvah since 1938.

There were a few twists, which one has to expect in a country where most of the Jewish population was wiped out by the Holocaust. For one, Hana is British.

Second, the Slavkov synagogue that Hana’s Nottingham congregation helped restore has no regular religious services, since there’s only one Jew in town.

The bat mitzvah was not so much a sign of things to come but a remembrance of the town’s Jewish past.

“I especially think of the former Jewish children of this town who, like me, celebrated good times and worshipped with their parents in their synagogue — but who, unlike me, were deprived of celebrating their bar or bat mitzvah,” Hana said at the start of the service.

It was a Torah from Slavkov, held by the Nottingham congregation, that first brought the two towns together.

“To come here for my daughter’s bat mitzvah was extremely special,” said Hana’s father, Neil Pike. “Not just a historic occasion in her life, but in the context of the town.

“To see 90-year old Erik Stracht,” a Czech native now living in England, “after the service embrace Hana, who was named after his 6-year-old niece who died in Auschwitz, tells the story better than any words can,” he continued.

The 24 members of the Nottingham Progressive Jewish Congregation who came to wish Hana the best were not strangers to Slavkov.

In fact, they’ve been bombarded with information about the town since 1990, when Neil Pike discovered that the congregation’s Torah scroll originated in Austerlitz. Pike felt it was his duty to find out more about the town.

Like more than 1,000 other congregations around the world, Nottingham received a Torah on permanent loan from the Memorial Scrolls Trust in Westminster, England. The trust purchased, preserved and then loaned out 1,500 Czech scrolls that were discovered in the basement of a Prague synagogue in the early 1960s.

Unable to speak Czech, Pike felt stymied in his search — until an article in the magazine of another British congregation piqued his interest.

It turned out that author Erik Stracht, whose mother and many relatives had come from Slavkov, was the only member of his family to make it alive out of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia.

In 1990 Stracht went back to the area for the first time since before World War II. He discovered Slavkov’s only remaining Jew, Ruth Matiovska, 74, and Ruth’s former schoolteacher, a non-Jew dedicated to chronicling the town’s history, including that of the 90 Jews who lived there before the war.

Through extensive research and letter writing, Pike, Stracht, Matiovska and the former schoolteacher discovered the fate of the Austerlitz Jews, which camps they died in or where they might have fled to.

They also gained the interest of those related in some way to the town’s previous Jewish residents, re-establishing links that had been cut by Nazism and communism.

The fruit of their efforts is “The Jews of Austerlitz,” a book in English and Czech.

But that wasn’t enough for Pike. After his first visit to the town in 1994, he raised funds for the placement of a memorial stone outside Slavkov’s Jewish cemetery.

“At first the town council was not interested in bringing up matters from the past, but when they saw that perhaps remembering Slavkov’s Jewish heritage might attract more visitors, they began to change,” he said.

Change was much needed, according to Stracht, who describes what he found in 1990:

“To my surprise the old synagogue was in a neglected state and was used as a furniture store. There was not a single sign in the town that referred to its Jewish citizens who had perished in the Holocaust, including my grandmother and two cousins.”

After the initial push from Pike and Stracht, the town awakened to its Jewish history.

Children who didn’t even know what the Holocaust was suddenly were given first-hand accounts in the classroom by Matiovska, Holocaust studies were introduced in high school, along with general lessons on tolerance and the perils of racism.

The Nottingham congregation created a Jewish-themed essay contest for students at the Slavkov high school; each year, the winner receives a menorah.

Back in England, Pike established an Austerlitz Shabbat, during which young members of the congregation read aloud the names of the 10 Austerlitz children who died in the Holocaust.

“This helps these kids realize what the 6 million means much more than any book or lecture,” Pike said.

Pike also commissioned a play about Austerlitz with congregation members as actors under the eye of a professional director.

The play, the “Austerlitz Scroll,” which focuses on the town’s Jewish citizens and particularly Matiovska, was translated into Czech and performed by high school students on the day of Hana’s bat mitzvah.

Still, Pike wasn’t satisfied: Here was this empty synagogue, dating to 1867, that needed restoration. The town needed little convincing and came up with its own plan to renovate the synagogue, with the support of the district government.

Another historic site, the town’s Jewish school, was reopened on the day of Hana’s bat mitzvah as a center or exhibitions on Jewish life.

Following Slavkov’s projects with the Nottingham congregation, local interest in Jewish subjects has become “enormous,” town administrator Pavel Dvorak said. He said he has been flooded with calls from people wanting to visit the Jewish school.

He noted that 60 people from the area were invited to Hana’s bat mitzvah, but more than 120 showed up. The bat mitzvah attracted Jews from Israel, Germany, France and Canada whose families came from Austerlitz.

Two U.S. congregations with Austerlitz scrolls also were represented, and the BBC and Czech Television covered the celebration.

Meanwhile, the celebration also marked a turning point for Matiovska, now a member of the Nottingham congregation.

“It’s important for people today to know what happened in the past, about the Holocaust,” Matiovska said, “but also about Jewish culture — and that is why having a bat mitzvah in this town means so much.”

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