If Czechoslovakia was a “far-off country ..about whom we know little”, in Neville Chamberlain’s immortal words, Ostrava was truly a place about which we knew almost nothing when we (Kingston, Surbiton, and District Synagogue) received on permanent loan a sefer torah which originated there. Indeed, it is doubtful if many of our members had even heard of it.
Ostrava (we did not distinguish between the two parts, Moravská and Slezská Ostrava, under their Czech or German nomenclature) was, and is, not a beautiful city. It has no buildings of outstanding historical or architectural interest. It is not the site of any epoch-making battles or peace treaties. It was not the home of any great historical figures nor does it house any major art collections or priceless manuscripts. The local countryside is fine enough, but a Michelin guide book would not suggest it was vaut le voyage!
But it was, and is, an economic power-house and one of the major cities of the Czech Republic.
Its Jewish Community was likewise undistinguished. Unlike many places in Czechoslovakia or nearby in Poland, with long and distinguished history of Jewish settlement, the Jewish presence in Ostrava is only of recent origin. Its graveyard holds the remains of no wonder-working Rabbis nor did any famous sages live there. Dynasties of famous Chassidim did not establish themselves in Ostrava, nor was there a yeshiva whose renown still resonates in our days.
The losses of its population of perhaps 200,000 people in 1930 are insignificant compared to the tens of millions killed during the war. Compared to the 6 million Jews annihilated by the Nazis, the destruction of the Ostrava Community of 10,000 Jews is statistically tiny.
But this very ordinariness is what makes Ostrava and its Jewish community resonate so powerfully with us.
The Jewish Community had its lawyers and bankers, doctors and teachers, shopkeepers, innkeepers and brewers, sausage-makers and jewellers, musicians and writers, politicians, insurance salesmen and farmers, just as the rest of the population. It, too, had its share of divorcees, orphans, widows, children, rich and poor people, and, no doubt, crooks and wastrels. It certainly had politicians and Members of Parliament
Ostrava was a bustling, thriving, growing, dirty, smelly, industrial town with bars and concert halls, coffee shops and coal mines, trams and tobacconists. It was full of busy people going about their everyday lives, and the Jews were an integral part of that. The Jews, too, were busy with making a living, local and national politics, bringing up their children, looking after the old people, training the youngsters, saving for the future, and doing all the everyday ordinary things that we still do today.
And then, in 1938, it was all changed and by 1943, the whole of the community had been destroyed by the Nazis.
We, in busy, bustling, modern, commercial Kingston upon Thames, living our comfortable middle-class Jewish life, can empathise with those living a comfortable middle-class Jewish life in busy, bustling, modern, commercial, Ostrava. We can try and imagine what they lived through. We can even ask ourselves, as we pray in our synagogue, if they, praying in their beautiful synagogues, thought (any more than we now think, perhaps) about the meaning of the great prayer at the heart of the New Year and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) Service:
On the first day of the year it is inscribed, and on the Day of Atonement the decree is sealed, how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who at the measure of man’s days and who before it, who shall perish by fire and who by water, who by the sword,… who by hunger and who by thirst; who by strangling and who by stoning, …who shall be brought low and who shall be upraised.
The first transport from Ostrava with the deported Jews arrived in Theresienstadt on Tuesday, 22nd September 1942. It was the day after Yom Kippur. Within 3 weeks, almost all of them had been transported to the death camps and killed.
Sixty years or more later, there is little that remains of the Jewish Community. The synagogues were destroyed and the cemetery flattened, but they left us, in Kingston, one of the Scrolls of the Law which they would have used in their services. We still use it, today.
And we will keep alive their memory.
Kingston Upon Thames