May 2020 and we have just celebrated, in a lockdown way, the 75th Anniversary of VE Day. Had this virus not arrived we would, in this synagogue, be holding our annual Czech & Slovak Shabbat and on 6th May I was due to return to Kolín to open another exhibition on the theme of Rabbi Richard Feder, the last rabbi of the community. But hey-ho… here we are on YouTube/Facebook. Last night a wonderful reminder that, to some extent, due to work NPLS has been doing for over 40 years, there is real hope of a revival of Czech Jewry and the newly appointed Rabbi David Maxa graced us with his Zoom presence. Hope for the future when so often our Czech weekends have been about the past. Forgive me, if that is where I am about to take you now.
Take us back 75 years to May 1945, to Terezín the concentration camp where most of Kolín’s Jews had been taken in 1942 and most of these onwards to Auschwitz and other places of death. But on 9 May 1945 the Red Army reached Terezín and liberated it. On 14 May they had to install two weeks of quarantine due to the typhus outbreak brought by thousands of Jews driven there on death marches from other camps. Now let Rabbi Feder take up the story. I am using his words found in Židovská Tragedie… Jewish Tragedy – the Last Act, which we at NPLS published in English five years ago:
“Our big fear that the period of quarantine would be extended luckily turned out to be groundless. After a medical examination they furnished us with pink ID cards. This marked an end to all the formalities. The gates of the concentration camp were opened on Tuesday 29 May.
On Thursday 31 May a special coach was sent by a local municipal committee to pick up the few remaining Kolín Jews. Our joy was huge and indescribable. We quickly bid farewell to our friends, loaded up our small bundles, got on the coach and, at half past four in the afternoon, we left that vale of tears where we had been held for three years. We went through the gate and suddenly found ourselves in a country of new, beautiful freedom that had been gained by great sacrifice, whose value we appreciated the most, since we had missed it the most. We saw fields, meadows, gardens, forests, villages and people, merry and cheerful people, Czech people from whom we did not differ in any way once we had taken off the Jewish badge. It was a public holiday at the time and everybody was beautifully dressed and they all waved their handkerchiefs at us. We were so moved that we hardly spoke throughout the journey. We could see clear traces of war everywhere: destroyed tanks, cars shot to pieces, barricades and soldiers. Three hours later we arrived in our beloved Kolín. When we drove into the square I said aloud the old Jewish eulogy: “Blessed art thou, Lord our Lord, King of the universe, who hast granted us life and sustenance and permitted us to reach this season.” We were welcomed at the front of the boys’ school by sisters of the Red Cross and they afforded us our first delightful hospitality, for which we were very grateful.
We were home again. We followed the example of the spider. You know what a spider does when somebody destroys its web? It spins another one and does not bother about the effort involved. It is necessary, and it does it for itself, which is why it likes to do it. So, we started a new life in a new home. Perhaps it will be a happy life, for we are old, and our good friends have remained faithful. Even people we have never spoken to come up and welcome us, reassuring us that they often thought about us. We like to believe them, and they certainly believe us when we tell them there was not a single night we did not think of Kolín, its square, streets, parks, pine woods, its beautiful Labe River, which we missed so much, and all our friends.”
In a letter we have in our archives at NPLS, Rabbi Feder wrote to a Dr Bondy in Kutna Hora:
“After arriving in Kolín I went to hospital where I lay for four weeks. I am now back in my old home Na Hradbach 4 and working. I am getting furniture piece by piece. Of my large library I have not found a page. The gestapo destroyed all the books and archives of the Jewish community. But I try to forget as nobody in my family returned.”
“I am working” he wrote… and there was much to do. But first, with his family murdered, his community decimated he actually had to go through various bureaucratic procedures just to re-register the congregation. And then aged 70, when he could have retired, apply to the Jewish community in Prague for permission to become rabbi of Kolín. Only the Nazis had caused an interruption to his service and there were no other rabbis around. Bureaucracy survived the war.
And so Feder with just a handful of members set about reviving the community. The synagogue to clean and rededicate – the Nazis had used it to store bloodstained military uniforms. The New Cemetery had been bombed (by the British I believe) and many stones overturned. And a year after his return he wrote the book, maybe the first record of a community’s destruction in the Shoah. And, with scant resources, he had designed and built the impressive memorial in the New Cemetery with the names of everyone in his community who had been murdered.
A few other survivors returned from other concentration camps. Erna Meisner returned from Belsen and though she says people were generally nice she went to the house of a pre-War friend whose mother greeted her with “Hm, so you did return”. Erna’s mother had left property with her and she was not going to give it back. But most were kind, and Erna’s son sent me a photograph taken last week of Erna, now aged 98, in the Jewish Care home in Prague where, in Covid-19 isolation, she is faithfully looked after by non-Jewish carers.
The late Hana Greenfield returned and recalled that a few months later “Rabbi Feder reminded us for that first Rosh Hashanah to cut up an apple and dip it in honey in the hope of a new and sweeter life.” Hana recalls going to see Anka, her family’s cook who refused to leave them until the day of their deportation. “After the war she brought me back to life, cooking and caring for me.”
Another survivor I am in touch with, Ishka Lichter, recalled the time before the War she saw: “three people immersed in lively conversation in the street. Dr. Werner, Rabbi Feder and the Czechoslovak Church curate, whose name I cannot recall. I was eight and a half years old when I saw them, but the image stayed with me the whole of my life. Yes, there was dialogue in Kolín. It was part of my upbringing – tolerance and respect.” I can only hope that this was the atmosphere the few survivors felt in 1945 when they returned to Kolín after their terrible experiences and the realisation that they were alone, and their families murdered.
Another survivor: Pavel wrote: “When I returned to Kolín, I longed to go to synagogue as soon as possible. The rabbi started to welcome the Shabbat Queen, but when it was over there was nobody to wish Gut Shabbos. Nobody to my left, nobody to my right. I looked up – women’s gallery was nearly deserted. My mother, sister, grandmother…they used to wave to us…but all are gone. “But we remained Pavel”, the Rabbi stood next to me. “We are obliged to carry on, it is a great task for us.” There were twelve men and five women there that Shabbat. We said goodbye late in the evening. We went home with a certain idea how to carry on. And we also felt that however abandoned and desolate we are, there is always somebody who will embrace us, who will listen to us, and who will advise us: our Rabbi Feder.”
75 years later our own synagogue is empty this morning, with only the rabbis and chazanit present. But we are here in our homes joining them. And despite having to live in very strange times, we might listen to Rabbi Feder: “We are obliged to carry on” and we do so: our community is in great spirit and enthusiasm. Ingenious technology has kept us in touch and we are more than carrying on. And this Shabbat we recall our Czech and Slovak communities and know that we are carrying on their traditions, that we have played our part in keeping alive their memory and that for over 40 years, their memory has inspired us to carry on.
As Rabbi Feder did on arrival back in Kolín 75 years ago, let us say the Shehecheyanu: Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheynu melech ha-olam, shehecheyanu, v’kiymanu v-higiyanu, lazman ha-zeh.