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A TORAH SCROLL FROM THE SHOA
From Velke Mezirici to Congregation Solel
Jews in Moravia and Bohemia
While the Jewish population of the Czech lands was smaller in number than, for example, Poland or Germany, Prague was, nevertheless a very important center of Jewish culture and learning, and Jewish settlement dates back many centuries. The earliest written records of a Jewish presence are found in the early part of the tenth century. Settlement grew but was interrupted by violence and persecution associated with the first crusades at the end of the 11th century. Jewish settlements grew around Prague in the 12th century and later became an independent Jewish Town with autonomy in its affairs and eventually representing all the Jewish Communities of the region. In the following centuries, Jews experienced fluctuations of freedom and persecution. There were restrictions on settlement, ownership of property, trades, etc. typical of Europe in that age. In the 1500s, the Czech lands became part of the Hapsburg empire under which the Jews experienced a great deal of restriction and persecution, including various periods of expulsion from royal towns and undue taxation. Finally, in 1848, with the first Austrian constitution, the Jews of the Crown lands were emancipated and obtained full legal and civil rights. These legal rights offered unrestricted freedom of movement and settlement and many Jews left small towns and villages for larger cities or went abroad. The Torahs and ritual objects from these communities that ceased to exist were given to the Jewish community in the local district town which also took over responsibility for the cemeteries.
At the end of WWI, Czechoslovakia became an independent country and for 20 years was the only parliamentary democracy in the region. Jews had full civil and legal rights and the country's first president became involved when a Jew was accused of ritual murder. After the Munich Accords, in September of 1938, Jews in the Sudetenland area annexed by Germany were subject to the Nuremburg Laws and most fled to the interior of the country. On Kristallnacht, at least 35 synagogues in the region were destroyed. Six months later the German occupation and the formation of the Protectorate clearly signaled the beginning of the end of the Jews of Czechoslovakia.
The town of Velke Mezirici is in the Moravian region of Czech Republic. It is near the main highway from Prague to Brno, about 86 miles southeast of Prague at 49o 21' N, 16o 01' E. The town is very pretty, and is set between two rivers, in a hilly, canyon-like area. It's name means between the rivers in old Czech. There is a beautiful chateau started in the 13th century, several gothic churches and a renaissance town-hall. The town also has the notoriety of having the Czech Republic's tallest highway bridge.
The Jewish community of Velke Mezirici was among the most notable communities in Moravia. The earliest records of their history were lost in fires that destroyed much of the Jewish Ghetto in the 1800s. However, it is thought that Jews first made their homes there in the 15th century. The first written records of their presence are from the year 1636.
In 1679, at least 22 Jewish families are recorded in the town, in 1790, there were 888 Jewish residents which accounted for 26% of the total population. The population peaked at 1,116 in 1857, still around 1/4 of the total population. In 1851, the Jewish Town was administratively and politically joined with the city. The Jewish population steadily declined, as the increased freedom and opportunity encouraged migration to more urban or even foreign locations. The Jewish population dwindled below 100 in the 1930s. When the last permanent Rabbi, Dr. Michael Weiner died in 1901, the position was not filled. The duties of the Rabbi were performed by the Head Cantor until his death in 1925, and by rabbis from the near-by towns of Trebic and Znojmo.
Records indicate that of Velke Mezirici's permanent Jewish residents after the German Occupation, 13 left for other locations prior to deportation, four died after the occupation but before deportation, 52 were deported to Terezin, 7 were arrested and killed. Only six people survived the war and returned. Presumably none of them are still living. The Jewish quarter of Velke Mezirici was built in the northeastern part of the city, within the protection of the city walls, but separated from the Christian section of the city by the Oslava and Balinka rivers. Originally there were 32 houses, all for single family use. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Jewish quarter contained 101 individual buildings, 63 of which are still standing today. These included the rabbinate, a mikva, and Jewish school.
The Jewish quarter is an interesting and important example of early city planning and distinctive architecture, and much effort has gone toward preserving its character.
In Velke Mezirici, there are many well-preserved signs of the former Jewish community. Of the original three synagogues, two remain. The oldest and smallest one (of unknown origin) served as a "Winter Prayer room" until the Second World War, but was demolished 1962. The older of the two remaining ones is thought to have been built in the beginning of the 16th century. It is built in the gothic-renaissance style. It has a very valuable classicist style portal above the main entrance. The vaulted ceiling and interior walls were decorated with traditional paintings and liturgical inscriptions in Hebrew. After the construction of the new synagogue in the year 1870, this synagogue was used as a warehouse. The old synagogue was restored and opened as a museum and landmark in 1996. The upstairs "womens' gallery" has a permanent exhibit dedicated to the history, religion and culture of the Jews of Velke Mezirici. The downstairs area is used as a gallery space to host special exhibitions and occasional concerts of chamber music.
The newer synagogue, next door, was started in 1867 and completed in 1870 to the designs of the well known architect August Prokop. It is a very large structure of red brick. The interior is lined with beautiful dark wood, embellished with painted and embossed decorations. The interior of the synagogue was destroyed by the Nazis in 1940 and it was used thereafter as a warehouse. It has recently been converted to a shopping center, which holds a lease on the property through the year 2002. It was a very interesting conversion because they constructed false walls in front of the interior walls so that no further damage is done to them, but at least the building is well-maintained and will not become dilapidated. The synagogues and cemetery in Velke Mezirici are under the administration of the Jewish Community of Brno, and they carry out all the maintenance of the sites. I was told recently that the lease for the shopping center will probably be renewed, as the Brno Jewish community and the municipal authority of Mezirici lack the resources to restore the building and they do not have an immediate use for it. The Jewish cemetery is across the river from the synagogues, on a hill overlooking the Oslava river. Local Jews purchased the land in 1650.
The cemetery is enclosed by a massive stone wall with a metal gate. The wall underwent repairs in the 1980s and again in 1999. There is a ceremonial hall built in the year 1880. In the ceremonial hall, there is an inscription which reads "The truth will grow from the ground and the just will be looking down from the heavens". There are around 1300 gravestones in neat rows, the oldest legible one dates from the year 1677. The area is strongly prone to an overgrowth of vegetation which must be cut regularly. As the cemetery is built on a slope, there is a problem of gravestones falling over. Also, in an attack by vandals in 1974, 100 gravestones were toppled. Currently, approximately 13% of the gravestones are fallen.
The routine maintenance of the cemetery is carried out by employees of the Jewish Community of Brno. The local caretaker died and a replacement has not been found.
Over the years several members of Solel have had occasion to visit Velke Mezirici, the synagogue/warehouse and the cemetery.
Torah Scrolls at Westminster Synagogue
In the years after the German occupation, the Nazis systematically collected and catalogued all Jewish possessions and property from the Jewish communities they were decimating throughout Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia; especially religious and ritual objects. It is often said that it was collected for the future creation of a museum to the extinct Jewish race. However, historians at the Prague Jewish Museum state emphatically that no evidence or documentation exists to support this theory. This collection was massive and included more than 1,500 Torah scrolls. It was warehoused in the buildings of the Prague Jewish community. After the war, the property was added to the already deep holdings of the Jewish Museum in Prague. Some of these holdings traveled around the world in the "Precious Legacy" exhibit. The small remains of the Jewish community of Prague desperately lacked the resources to maintain the museum and it came under the control of the State. The museum holdings were maintained meticulously but the Torah scrolls could not be properly maintained or displayed and it was clear that they would begin to deteriorate. Under the Communist regime they languished more.
In the early 1960s, a British art-dealer negotiated with the communist regime of Czechoslovakia to obtain the Torahs, with the understanding that they would pass to a non-commercial entity. In February of 1964, 1564 Torah Scrolls arrived at Westminster Synagogue in London, to the newly formed Czech Memorial Scrolls Center. They were systematically catalogued and evaluated, and sorted by condition. A Scribe set out on the enormous task of restoring the scrolls and they were gradually placed on permanent loan to synagogues and institutions around the world. Many were distributed to Jewish congregations in the United States.
Current additional information is available from the Czech Torah Network at http://www.czechtorah.org/
A Scroll Comes To Solel
In 1982 Bernie Kravitz introduced the idea of having Congregation Solel take custody of and responsibility for one of these scrolls. At the end of 1982 Congregation Solel was made the custodian of a Torah scroll that had been written in 1900 for the synagogue in Velke Mezirici in Czechoslovakia. Congregation Solel received scroll #748 at the end of 1982. At the ceremony when the scroll was brought to Solel and placed into the ark, it was first presented to the youngest member of the congregation who was able to carry it and then passed to Herman Edwards, the first president of the congregation.
Subsequently the Fine Arts Committee at Solel commissioned artists to produce accoutrements for the scroll. Mimi Kravitz Omilinsky produced a breastplate, crowns, and a yad, in the shape of a flame, all of hammered brass. Barbara Lewis wove a mantle with the motif of a flame within a flame. The Torah was placed in a portable ark that has usually been in Room 13 and was used for services held in that room on Shabbat morning. Recently the scroll has become worn to the point that it is no longer used for reading during services except on special occasions.
The major source of information was Lisa Feder in her talk at Congregation Solel in April 2001. Additional material, including photos to be accessed from this web page, was obtained from the 1990 videotape, Our Precious Torah, produced as a gift to Solel by General Learning Video of Northbrook from tape and stills provided by congregants.