Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Around the Jewish World Non-jewish Group Promotes Jewish Heritage of Czech Town

June 9, 2006
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Marie Leskovjanova’s father is not speaking to her ever since she named her dog Chaverah, or “friend” in Hebrew. Leskovjanova, one of the founders of the Association of Friends of Jewish Culture in Mikulov, explains that not everyone understands her passion for her town’s Jewish heritage.

“My dad is worried that somehow I am bringing danger to my husband and daughters,” says Leskovjanova, who like everyone else in the association is a non-Jew.

Referring to her father’s fears of anti-Israel terrorism and anti-Semitism, Leskovjanova explains: “There are a lot of well-educated people in this country with odd ideas. But this is a product of communism, where ignorance of Jews was the norm.”

It is that ignorance that a core group of non-Jews is working to combat in what was for several centuries one of Europe’s most significant Jewish educational centers.

Leskovjanova’s association, for instance, is focused on the preservation and documentation of the 4,000 headstones in the Jewish cemetery, the largest in Central Europe, where the famous 18th-century rabbis Samuel Shmelke Horowitz and Mordecai Benet are buried. These burial sites have been visited by Chasidic pilgrims.

The efforts of the Jewish culture supporters went into full gear at the end of May during the town’s reportedly first-ever Jewish cultural weekend. There was a klezmer concert, an exhibition of Moravian Judaica not shown since before World War II, a kosher wine tasting with several little-known Central European brands and an exhibit of photos of Israel by JTA’s Jerusalem-based photographer, Brian Hendler.

The events, attended by some 200 people, raised questions about whether it’s possible or even wise to try to revive Jewish culture in a town where Jewish life was extinguished, a recurring theme in Central and Eastern Europe.

Jan Richter, the historian for the Regional Museum of Mikulov, who organized the events, explained what he sees as a need for continuity: “Jewish history is not dead, Jews are not a dead race. Just because they don’t live here anymore doesn’t mean what they did should be forgotten,” he said.

“It’s important to show the Jews that today, we regret what happened to them and the people of Mikulov should realize that the town is not theirs only. They should be aware of the fact that 60 or 70 years ago was a very different place.”

Expelled from other so-called royal cities, Jews first set up businesses in the 16th century in Mikulov, then known in German as Nikolsburg. At its zenith in the early 19th century, the Jewish community had 12 synagogues and comprised 42 percent of the some 6,000 people living in Mikulov, a ratio unrivaled in the Czech lands, Richter said. The number shrank to 800 by the 1930s, he said.

But if you ask Czechs today about Jews in Mikulov, they are most likely to scratch their heads and wonder what you are talking about, since under the Communist regime Jewish history was not an acceptable topic in the school curriculum.

Compounding the historical amnesia is the fact that all of Mikulov’s residents moved there after 1945, following not only the Holocaust, but the expulsion of the town’s entire population, ethnic Germans, by the Czechoslovak government.

Although the town is now a tourist magnet for its wine culture, red-roofed Baroque architecture and massive hilltop chateaus, the town’s cultural and business leaders are beginning to see potential in its Jewish history and are taking great care to spiff up the old Jewish quarter.

That new awareness impressed one of the stars of the Jewish-themed weekend, 83-year-old William Teltscher, who fled Mikulov to England with his family shortly before the Nazis arrived in 1938.

Teltscher’s father was the local representative of the Jewish political party and the creator of the Jewish Central Museum of Moravia-Silesia in Mikulov 70 years ago, and it was that collection that was on display at the town’s only surviving synagogue, along with Hendler’s photographs.

“When I came back for the first time in 1968, the old Jewish quarter — the synagogue, our house — it was all falling apart. Now it looks better than when there were actually Jews living here,” he said.

Some might argue that tributes to the town’s Jewish roots border on kitsch.

There is a sign in Hebrew for kosher slivovitz at a cafe that sells it as a $40 souvenir, even though slivovitz that costs about one-fourth the price is usually kosher. A cast-iron sculpture of the Golem that looks like ET watches over the frequently inebriated patrons of a popular pub. The latest restaurant opening in a former synagogue is called Templ, but nothing inside pays tribute to the building’s history. As a band blasts the 1932 classic “Bei Mir Bist du Schoen,” Teltscher notes humorously that he doesn’t know any Yiddish because people in Mikulov spoke German.

But the owner of the Efram art gallery across from the Alt-Schul Synagogue thinks it would be unfair to belittle non-Jews’ efforts to respect their town’s past occupants.

Sylva Chludilova spent her life’s savings renovating part of a house in the former Jewish quarter and turned it into a Jewish-themed art gallery with pictures of rabbis, works by a modern Jewish artist and klezmer tunes wafting into the street.

“The neighbors didn’t like what I was doing at first, but when they saw it was bringing something positive to the town, now they are absolutely proud of this shop, which shows people change,” she says.

So the non-Jews are changing, but what about the Jews? Samuel Fleischman, an American descendent of Horowitz, just bought a home in Mikulov and hopes to attract more Chasidic groups there for yahrzeit pilgrimages and even summer getaways from nearby Vienna.

Then there is Josef Hlavenka, the only Czech Jew in town, if Jewish law is taken into account. His mother survived six concentration camps. Hlavenka, in his 50s, said it was important that people were finally “remembering what people like my parents grew up in. If there was a Jewish community in Mikulov I would be the first to join.”

Recommended from JTA