In 1942, sifrei torah and other religious artefacts from throughout Bohemia and Moravia were collected in the Jewish Museum in Prague, for safe keeping. They were never returned as almost all their previous owners had been murdered by the Nazis. So they remained in Prague until, in 1964, 1564 seforim were purchased and brought to Westminster Synagogue, where they were inspected by the Chief Rabbi and the Israeli Ambassador, among others, in May of that year. Those scrolls which were still kosher were sent on permanent loan to communities throughout the world, while others had to be carefully restored before they, too, could be sent out. And so, KSDS received scroll #129 on loan together with a certificate saying that it came from Moravská Ostrava, known as Mährisch Ostrau in German, and it was used regularly in our services.
In 2004, Monica and Alex (z”l) Popper visited Westminster Synagogue’s Heritage Open Day and heard about the rescued Czech Scrolls. They were later invited to the service to mark the 40th Anniversary of the arrival of the scrolls in Westminster and went with Rosalynde and Robert Lewis. They all came back enthused to find out more about Ostrava and the people who lived there; how they lived, and what happened to them. David Lawson joined them, the Kingston Ostrava Group was born and we started to research the history of Ostrava and its Jews and also to make contact with some Ostravaks and their families who had fled from the Nazis before the war or, in some rare cases, had survived the war.
In November 2006, we held a Service of Rededication of our scroll with The Mayor of the Royal borough of Kingston, the Czech Ambassador and Rabbi Ginsbury representing the Chief Rabbi, as Guests of Honour.
As we found more and more information and interviewed more Ostravaks, we produced and distributed a quarterly Newsletter. We now have almost 300 Ostravak families on our circulation list which extends from Australia to Chile and America and on to Israel and much of Europe. Among our readers is an Australian Amharic speaker, from Ostrava! The newsletters, #46 is the latest, not only provide the latest information about whom and what we have found but also help to put long dispersed families and friends in contact once again, in many cases after a gap of 60 years. The enthusiasm of our readers is touching:
“It was a great pleasure meeting you and learning about the work you are doing in perpetuating the Jewish connection with Ostrava which is an inspiration to us all; long may you continue!”
“I opened the attachment about my family this morning and read it to my mom and cried.”
We have also arranged to lay some 30 Stolpersteine on behalf of some of our Ostravaks to commemorate their family members murdered by the Nazis and have arranged a number of social gatherings of Ostravaks in the Czech Embassy in London, to look at old photographs and talk about old, and new, times. They, too, have been enormously enjoyed and appreciated.
The story of Ostrava and its Jews mirrors, on a small scale, the history of Central Europe, the Jews and the Holocaust. Ostrava is 250 miles due east of Prague, on the banks of the Ostravice river in the valley of the River Oder. Until the second half of the eighteenth century, it was a small market town with a population (in the area know known as Greater Ostrava) of less than 2000 with no Jews, who were forbidden to live or even spend the night there. In the 1930’s the population was about 325,000 with about 10,000 Jews. Edicts of Tolerance allowed non-catholics to move, live and practice trades and professions previously barred to them and the discovery of hard black coal in the area meant that the industrial revolution arrived in the Hapsburg Empire, centred on Ostrava. The Archbishop of Olomouc set up the first coal mines and iron foundries which were later taken over and developed by the Guttmann brothers and the Viennese Rothschilds.
Jews became very prominent in trades and professions, arts and culture as well as playing a leading role in brewing, distilling and the hospitality sector. Six shuls, a Jewish primary school,
a children’s home and orphanage, an old-people’s home and an apprentice training school were established. Jews became city councillors and members of parliament. Ostrava was a tolerant and multi-cultural place. The main synagogue followed the neolog (Conservative) service with a mixed choir, trained by the non-Jewish choir master from the local opera and an organ, played by a non-Jew.
The Bobover Rebbe sent rabbi Forscher to Ostrava and he acted as Rabbi, chazzan and shochet to a small shtiebl He was taught chazzanut by a non-Jewish opera singing teacher! Ostrava was a genuine tolerant, forward- looking and technologically advanced city. It had electric trams before London did!
On 14th March 1939 the Germans occupied Ostrava, the day before they occupied Prague, and Jewish life came to an end. Within 3 months, all the synagogues had been destroyed. In 1942, the first mass transports of Jews from Ostrava went to Theresienstadt, arriving onTuesday, 22nd September 1942. It was the day after Yom Kippur. By Simchat Torah they had all been shipped off to Auschwitz and death. At the end of the war, fewer than 300 of the original 10,000 returned to Ostrava.
But the Jewish Community has not been destroyed. It has survived and been recreated in virtual reality through our worldwide network of first, second and third generation Ostravaks. Their family stories, photographs and memories which we have collected have all been sent, six large boxes full, to the Jewish Museum in Prague, with whom we have worked closely throughout this research. There the material will be preserved and made accessible to future researchers and entered on the Museum’s data base.
Our Ostrava sefer has, indeed, proved to be a “Tree of Life to them that grasp it” for the Jews of Ostrava.