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Town in Czech Republic Home to Proud, Historic Jewish Past

February 14, 2005
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Expelled from Vienna and Lower Austria in 1421 by a duke’s decree, Jews seeking to stay along the commercial route between Vienna and Brno found refuge in Mikulov, the closest town right across the border. The expulsion of Jews from the Moravian royal cities of Brno and Znojmo set off a further wave of emigration to Mikulov — Nikolsberg in German — in 1454.

Records show that for centuries most of the city’s Jewish residents made their living in the retail trade — playing an active role in the wine business cultivated by the ruling Dietrichstein family, which took the rare step of encouraging Jewish settlement — and as grocers, butchers, tailors, cobblers and bookbinders.

The hilltop castle of the Dietrichsteins, now the regional museum, is the most visited attraction in the town.

For the three centuries, until 1851, Mikulov was the seat of Moravian Jewry and rabbis came from all over Europe to study at its yeshiva.

Jewish luminaries of Mikulov included Rabbi Yehudah Loew ben Bezalel (1553-1573), kabbalist Rabbi Shmuel Ben Hirsch Horowitz (1773-1778) and talmudist Rabbi Mordechai ben Abraham Benet (1789-1829). The graves of the most celebrated rabbis are preserved on the Rabbis’ Hill at the Jewish cemetery and are visited by the rabbis’ followers.

Many Jewish cemeteries were destroyed or neglected to extinction under communism, but the 4,000-grave cemetery in Mikulov has been saved. A well-known cemetery expert, Jaroslav Achab Haidler, is recording the inscriptions and symbols on each of its graves, a back-breaking task.

The religious life of Mikulov naturally was influenced by outside events.

The arrival of the Jewish immigrants from the East after the 1648 Chmielnitski rebellion brought Chasidic ideas to the community.

Thousands of refugees fleeing from Galicia during the first World War also found refuge in Mikulov.

By the early 19th century, there were 11 synagogues in the city. Jews made up 42 percent of the town’s population and maintained ritual baths, a hospital and a yeshiva.

After the Vienna-Brno railroad was built in 1841 and bypassed Mikulov, its importance as a Jewish center began to fade.

Many families left the overcrowded ghetto for the larger cities where they were newly permitted to settle.

The Jewish population slowly declined and most of those who remained fled in 1938, when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia.

In 1941, the Nazis deported 39 Mikulov Jews to the Terezin transit camp.

“The few Jews who returned after the war met open hostility from the gentiles who were occupying their houses and left,” according to “Synagogues Without Jews,” a book by Rivka and Ben-Zion Dorfman.

In the 1970s only two synagogues remained in Mikulov and the Communist authorities tore one of them down.

The Regional Museum of Mikulov, seeing what was at stake, made every effort to preserve the Altschul, or Old Synagogue, whose interior had been destroyed by the Nazis and partially restored in the 1970s. The post-Communist restoration process took 12 years and the synagogue re-opened as a showcase for Mikulov Judaica.

The synagogue dates to 1550, but was rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1719.

As for the Jewish ghetto, most of the picturesque houses in the Jewish quarter were pulled down and destroyed in the 1950s. A tiny part of the Jewish quarter has been preserved next to the synagogue in Husova Street.

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