Deborah Friedland’s travelogue reflects on the Jewish history of Central Europe.
That we, as Jews, born in the decades after World War II, have a difficult relationship with central Europe is self-evident. Historians provide us with the facts, writers their biographies, filmmakers a record lest we forget a culture that was so swiftly and purposefully destroyed. Never having visited the battleground of evil before and carrying in our hearts the dark legacy of the suffering of the survivors from our own families, I set out with my husband, Jon, on a ten-day road trip across the heartland of the continent to follow the traces. We wanted to witness the fullness of the societies that once prospered and are now little more than wall plaques, stumbling blocks in the pavements or museum photographs. We wanted to honour the dead. We wanted to get to know our ancestors more intimately, and to try and make sense of it all. These are a few of the truths we uncovered.
First and last stop. We strolled in the moonlight through the Jewish heart of the city. A sizeable public garden enclosed by strong wrought-iron railings were decorated with large proud Menorahs. Feet firmly planted, then. Yiddish widely spoken. The characters of Bashevis Singer’s novels singing, squabbling and debating through the trees. How could the Jews here have suspected their fate just a few miles away in Auschwitz?
Driving through forests towards the death camps, the air heavy with public shame. That which the still living families of those collaborating citizens would rather forget. Secret memories of the sharp bangs of gun-metal used for random executions. Was it the pure demonic stares of assassins we could see flashing through the branches of the birch trees? A German teacher herded his class of phone-clutching teenagers into a huddle in front of the famous gates of Arbeit Macht Frei for a group photo. We feared how many of them could make sense of what they saw in this place.
Hotel Schmeidler, Jon’s family’s large and imposing business on the edge of the town, is now a block of flats.
Traffic flowed past on the unprepossessing street. We walked around the run-down property, ghosts reaching out. The kind, softly spoken curator of the synagogue and Jewish museum ushered groups of schoolchildren around the exhibits. The walls were rows of faces: the gentle souls of the town, preserved like butterfly wings in soft black and white photos smiling, trusting, living.
Indignity was heaped on the citizens when the Nazis burned the shul down, then demanded they clear away the rubble at their own expense. Once a street brimming with cheerful Shabbat greetings, friendly rivalries between rabbis, the smell of cholent structuring the day – now a park eerie with silent waddling ducks, tall trees providing a canopy above the memory of homes, businesses, prayers and a way of life.
Next to the river, a damp ghetto. The walls of the house we stayed in, once the Rabbi’s house, had a faint odour from hundreds of years of bad sanitation, winter flooding, probably early deaths and pulmonary illness. Quaint, faded pink and yellow walls, archways dipped momentarily in sunlight. We climbed up to the top of the hill and the best-preserved Jewish cemetery in central Europe. The Nazis could not be bothered to destroy this one – too remote. Each headstone tells its story. The names, the professions, the relationships, the kindness of their characters. A sense of a fully realised, flawed, chaotic, graceful community. We felt the privilege of touching what will pass into the twilight of history. In the leafy stillness, there was an unbroken link.
In the quiet, rarely visited museum, I was moved by the narrative of Margit Elsohn. She had escaped the Holocaust, emigrated to New York and became a successful sculptor. With happy memories of her Jewish childhood in Trevic never far from her mind, her last request before she died was to bequeath several of her sculptures to the city. The modernist shapes offered the duality of nostalgia for a lost world, and the square-faced inevitability of never looking back.
A scale model of the town showed the ghetto as it would have been. Everywhere, you see the fingerprints of dedicated local historians who painstakingly restore memory for the next generation. But wherever there is neglect, abandonment, peeling paint and stained, torn books – there we witness another kind of promise – the vow with a hollow laugh reminding us that no one cared then and will not care again.
Among the beer bikes, the stag and hen parties, the Franz Kafka T-shirts and, for us, the overpriced, greasy, Shabbat dinners, there is still some quiet beauty here. Exquisite art deco interiors, graceful Mucha posters of spring, summer and autumn, shadows and footsteps, walls and clocks. Buying a ticket to see the ‘Jewish sights’ was an uncomfortable experience. It is all well-documented in Auschwitz – the hall of fame of how many Jews there had been in each European country and how many the Nazis purposefully and enthusiastically led off to the gas chambers, aided by the local population all too often. Prague is how a country comes to terms with its treatment of its Jews: turn the shame into a profit. Charge people to see the labelled and itemised artefacts that are nothing more than gallery curiosities in a profane world. We saw a young Jewish man with his non-Jewish girlfriend. He was trying to explain what these ritual objects were, peering into the glass cabinets. Connecting with something that was perhaps stirring inside. The young woman turned away, wandered unmoved to the door.
High above the fairy tale medieval town of bumpy cobbled streets, red rooves, and a winding river flowing gently under its worn, wooden bridge, of marionette shops and photo ops, is a high-walled forbidding castle, looming everywhere. As sure as you can be that this grey stone cliff-like edifice was Kafka’s inspiration for his novel The Castle, we started the long climb. With each step was a question: Who are you? What do you want to know? Do you have the right papers? One can only imagine the myriad of obfuscating rules imposed on the citizens during hundreds of years of pre-industrial civic administration. Inside each courtyard is another courtyard, a passageway, a narrow window through which to survey the town below, a heavy wooden door, rusted lock and key, another courtyard, occasional blooms poking through the cracks. Grey walls painted with Italian style brick facades create foreboding. A wide drawbridge allowed for horses to gallop through. Who lived up there and what did they do? Who looked out of all those tiny windows? How did they treat the town’s Jews?
Walking through fresh spring grass along the river, we found a simple white building open to the public. The synagogue, beautifully restored and with its exhibition of photos and art commemorating the great and good Jews of the town, has a serenity and a sadness. Steps lead up to a velvet curtain in sumptuous purple behind which an ark will never be opened again. Black and gold columns on either side of the Bimah and from the ceiling hung rustic pewter candelabras with white glass globes. We are truly sorry. But here’s something to remember them by.
On the crowded motorway out of Prague, the sun was bright. The glaring metal and glass cityscape gave way to beautiful hills and farmland. Tall trees shaded well-planned villages not cursed by ribbon development. Clean, prosperous town squares offered rest stops. As night was falling, we prepared to enter the beating heart of central Europe. The imperial authority of the Hapsburg towers everywhere: in the heavy eagle’s wings on palace gates, on the weighty laurel shaped leaves wrapped around monuments and filling the solid shapes of shopfront lettering. Everywhere there is gold.
The Jewish Museum of Vienna tells a different story, however. Of a rich Jewish businessman lending large sums of money to the Emperor to fight a war and in return losing his capital as well as his citizenship. Of the ladies who entertained philosophers, writers and artists in their elegant salons. Debating politics, religion versus secularism and always the gossip of the day breathed over tea in exquisite china cups. Of the Viennese community of Jews as it is now, with their identities sometimes strong, sometimes no longer intact at all. Of depressing loss as manifested in the huge displays of Jewish artefacts, all vitality drained out of them.
Changing to another currency and a rapidly altering landscape where forests darkened the now wilder pastures, we headed east to the faded grandeur of another famed capital. Spread on two sides of the Danube, this sprawling, down at heel city felt authentic, hip and mysterious at once. The birthplace of Theodor Herzl, it felt as if in the Buda hills, or in the now lively resurrected Jewish quarter, were hidden stories of simultaneous bravery and treachery, of a Jewish life lived a little less predictably.
The Great Synagogue, with its enormous dome, its rich fabrics and with two floors of seating for the women, had the impact of one of Europe’s acclaimed cathedrals. Perhaps, in order to assimilate into the post-Enlightenment world, or because reform Judaism was the growing stream of the day, it aimed to please the non-Jews more than the Jews. The Christian design manifested in the huge organ, the velvet adorned pulpit, the wooden pews, gave the synagogue a strange ambiance. You could not imagine the intimate cries of the shofar at Rosh Hashana echoing down those aisles like a child’s tears. Instead you could imagine that it was a deliberate statement of wealth and an insistence that the Jews were a force, a community not to be trifled with. Still, we know the numbers – who was dragged away by Nazi soldiers or by conspirators, who survived, who made it to the Holy Land. The 600,000 Hungarian Jews killed.
On a long drive north, we passed industrial zones from the brutalist, Communist era, now shabby parcels of land from the previous feudal one. Everywhere, we sensed the denial of a country that has willingly disposed of its Jews. At Auschwitz, there is a whole exhibition about Slovakia which was key to understanding this tragic land. But what mistrust and ambivalence still burned in the hearts of the people? What fears that the Jews would come back for their property?
Curiosity leading the way, we randomly turned off at a sign to Lucenec. Little did we know it had had a very large population of Jews. Behind a car park, large trash receptacles and some trucks lazily abandoned for a lunch hour in the sun, we saw the white façade of the synagogue. ‘One Euro’, the sulky attendant demanded. Beautifully restored glass and metal doors, an exhibition of photographs, and looking up, meticulously painted Hebrew words could be made out in the four corners under a magnificent dome: Torah, Emet, Chesed, Avodah: Torah, Truth, Kindness, Service. The trade-off was that the restoration could happen if in return the town was given the beautiful building for a community centre. Given its owners needed it no longer.
A palpable hatred seemed to spread across the skies of Slovakia like an ancient stain that could never be removed. The karma of this country did not seem to be a happy one. We shuddered under those malevolent clouds and were relieved to cross the border.
Hidden behind the tinkling cow-bells, Swiss style chalets and pizza parlours of this Polish ski resort, was a little-known Jewish community, members of which had camped out in the mountains during the war. The community had asked the municipality for a cemetery which was eventually granted. But where was it? No one seemed to know but thanks to Google we managed to locate a certain field which seemed promising. Hiking for half a mile up a gravel track, past snarling dogs, forbiding fences, overgrown fields, we were on the verge of giving up when we eventually staggered into a clearing past some alien-looking haystacks. We waded through the nettles to a pair of rusted, padlocked gates with a Star of David on the front. Inside the large enclosed area was nothing but wild, overgrown weeds, and years of neglect. An inscription on a memorial headstone which had been placed there decades earlier paid homage to the Jews of Zakopane.
Taking in so much in such a short time, there was need for some reflection, both joyful and sombre. This is what I learned:
Judaism is a tree of life. Those who try and cut it down will suffer in the end.
Having broken its relationship with the Jews, Europe is now in the throes of its own existential crisis.
There is not enough positive and in-depth Jewish education. Too many people are alienated and cut adrift because through no fault of their own, they don’t know enough about their own culture, values and religious teachings.
Israel needs the Diaspora. The Diaspora needs Israel.
Zionism is the force that breaks the victimhood paradigm of how we react to the Shoah.
[Cover image: Postcard of the Schmeidler Hotel, which also housed a restaurant (right) and Daniel E. Littner’s kosher butcher store, 1912. Collection of Mirosław Ganobis.]