Czech Scrolls

Klatovy by Dennis Lewis, October 2006

When a number of us met at Heathrow early on a Wednesday morning, I do not think we had any idea just what was in store.

The trip was centred around Richard Barth’s Bar Mitzvah Rishon, to be held in the Czech town where the Barth family had lived for generations up to World War II. Richard would be the sixth generation to read from the Klatovy scroll. In all there were over 60 of us; as well as Tom’s family; about half were from NWSS, plus people from South Africa, the States and Europe.

After the drive from Prague Airport to Klatovy and lunch at the hotel, we walked up to the old Jewish cemetery, high above the town. Tom had discovered the graves of several family members, and it was a very moving experience to stand before these in the gathering dusk of a fine afternoon. What was especially affecting was to see on the gravestones the names of relatives of the deceased who had not had a burial as they had finished their days in Auschwitz via Terezinstadt. At the going down of the sun we remembered them.

There seems to be a local custom among the Christian community of putting ‘yahrzeit lanterns’ on gravestones, several of which were lit and provided a very atmospheric walk back in the near darkness. After dinner, a Klatovy English teacher spoke to us on the history of the Jews in the area. He was clearly very knowledgeable and had done a great deal of research. A non-Jew’s deep interest in the fate of his town’s former Jewish community was most impressive. 

On Thursday a drive through delightful autumn scenery and attractive villages brought us to Dobra Voda (Good Water), where there is a small museum illustrating local Jewish history. Exhibits included some fearsome-looking nineteenth century medical instruments which belonged to the local doctor, and a replica pub of the same era, complete with contemporary newspapers. One can imagine the wintertime scramble for seats near the stove in the corner; no doubt any newcomer trying to usurp a regular would have been given a hard time!

A further short run through beautiful country lanes and we were in Hartmanitz. Just outside the village Tom pointed to some buildings and said “those belonged to my grandfather’s brother – he was a cattle dealer”. Somehow this distilled into one sentence the enormity of what was done to our people in Europe. In Hartmanitz, there is a beautifully restored synagogue with many photographs on the walls, which were interpreted for us by a very knowledgeable curator. The synagogue was originally built in 1883 and confiscated by the Nazis in 1938 (this was in the Sudetenland). It has recently been beautifully restored.

The final visit of the morning was to Spaleny Lesy (Burnt Woods), a clearing in the forest where many citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish, were shot as a reprisal for the assassination of Heydrich, the Nazi overseer of the Czech Lands. A particularly moving moment was saying kaddish there for the first time for the mother and her two brothers, named on the memorial, of one of Tom’s relatives present – almost too painful to bear.

In the afternoon and the next morning there was time to explore Klatovy, a very attractive country town, and to have a look at the synagogue and the Barth family house. A fascinating extra was a guided visit to the Old Pharmacy, founded in the 18th century and operating until 1966. The shop and the dispensary at the back are packed with ancient equipment and examples of old remedies and prescriptions.

Friday afternoon saw us on the coach again, to Pilsen. A visit to the famous brewery (impressive) ending with the traditional tasting (most welcome) was followed by a tour of the second largest synagogue in Europe (after Budapest). We toured the beautiful building and were then given a talk by a member of the now very small local community and heard that the building is no longer used as a synagogue, but hosts exhibitions, etc. Members of that community joined us for an erev Shabbat service, led by Rabbi Larry Tabick. For the only time in our visit it was cold – does a low temperature concentrate the mind or just numb the senses? Here we were joined by Rabbi Tony Bayfield, who delivered the sermon. Reminding us that we were God’s frozen people, he also made us particularly aware of the tragic obliteration of a large section of Czech Jewry during World War II, ending on the hopeful note that some Jewish life from there does continue to this day, albeit in other places – our visit giving strong proof of that.

And so to Saturday morning and the reason for our trip – Richard’s Bar Mitzvah Rishon. This was held in the Town Hall in splendid surroundings, attended by the Mayor and other prominent citizens, a congregation of over 80 people. The service was conducted by Rabbi Jackie and two Klatovy scrolls were read from, our own and one brought from New York by recently identified Barth family members.

This scroll was read by Rabbis Tony Bayfield, Larry Tabick and Cliff Cohen of Thanet Reform synagogue, who also have a Klatovy scroll. Richard leyned beautifully from the Weybridge scroll and altogether acquitted himself really well. We adjourned for kiddush into the equally splendid Council Chamber, where the Mayor made a speech which was translated for us. We then went back to the hotel for a splendid celebratory lunch.

Sunday morning and back on the coach to Prague, where there were tour options or freedom to wander. A dozen or so of us joined the Historic Prague tour with a friendly and very knowledgeable guide, who took us around several of the well known areas and to one new to all of us – Vysarode, one of the original fortified parts of the city on a hill overlooking the Vltava River. Others took the Jewish tour and a few made a visit to Terezin.

Finally, back to the airport and home. This was truly a journey for this writer. For those of us fortunate enough not to have lost immediate relatives in the Holocaust there is perhaps a strange feeling of guilt by non-association. Walking around Klatovy and surroundings with Tom and his family and close family friends one came to a much greater understanding of what had happened in the time of darkness.

It was a memorable visit to the Czech Lands, with mostly excellent weather (the sun shone on the four righteous rabbis who were with us). We owe huge thanks to Tom and Muriel for their hospitality and their highly efficient organisation (which included a very professional Information Package). The amount of work and anxiety neurosis involved is hard to imagine. They certainly gave those who joined them a most memorable trip of great depth – including a chance to learn much more about our people’s history and ending, most appropriately, with a simcha.