“My father’s grandmother and great-grandmother died in Auschwitz,” Michal, the young professor joining us at the Czech pub announced, after communicating our beer orders to the waitress. I was startled. Hours earlier, as he shepherded us to our new apartment, I’d asked about a majestic building bordered with ornate Hebrew letters that I’d glimpsed from the taxi’s window. “Is that the former synagogue, that’s been turned into a library?” Michal confirmed my Fodor’s guidebook info in part. The synagogue had ceased being active in the early ‘40’s; the restored property was now empty and for sale. I briefly imagined a group of Czech Jews rallying to reclaim it, building fund pledges in hand. But I never would have imagined that this John-Lennon look alike had a Jewish story to tell. But tell us he did, while we nibbled on camembert marinated in oil, a Czech specialty. My inquiry about the synagogue seemed to have given him permission to speak about his family’s nightmare. “They took a 92 -year old woman to the camps!” his outrage apparent. I wanted to hear more. Why hadn’t they taken the entire family? Someone had to have survived, or this Czech native wouldn’t be sitting across from me. “My father’s grandparents, (his great-grandparents) had ‘a mixed marriage,’” Michel offered as the reason others were spared, including the children. I was surprised such distinctions were made. Hadn’t the Nazis tarred all members of a family with the same brush? “They were all secular Jews, but the culture stuck,” he added, then took a big gulp of his beer. Setting his mug on the scarred wooden table, Michel described a local Jewish cemetery that he’d like to show us. “Members of my family are buried there.” Did I hear pride in his voice?
Paul and I visited the empty synagogue in Hradec the next day. It was built in 1905, in the Moorish style of arches, dome, and tile. Sprawled along a well trafficked street, it faces a lush park running the length of a few city blocks, thus occupying a plum city spot. A Hebrew inscription “Together we come to the House of the Lord”, adorns the front, adjacent to a window poster ironically screaming “MEET-UP.” But for a broken side window, the building is a stately, silent reminder of what was.
Approximately 80,000 Czech Jews or about 85%, died in the Holocaust. A plaque on a building at the University where Paul will be teaching designates it as a former “collection center” for the Jews of Hradec, before they were sent to the death camps. Today about 4000 Czech Jews live in the Czech Republic, primarily in Prague. Hradec is not identified as one of the smaller Czech cities with a Jewish community. I’m unaware of any rabbis or services here and I’ll be going to Krakow and then to Prague for the high holidays. There may no longer be any Jews living in Hradec. But I know now that there are young people like Michal who are eager to share the stories of their Jewish heritage.
Yesterday we received an email from him: “Please do not hesitate to contact me if you are interested in any information regarding places of Jewish heritage in the region. My father and grandmother (grandfather is not alive anymore) would be surely delighted to deliver it or to share any memory and knowledge they have.”
We would be honored to speak with them.