Czech Memorial Scroll
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Congregation Beth El’s Bulletin. It was written by Rhonda and Larry Ginsberg.
“Each Memorial Scroll is a messenger from a community that was lost, but does not deserve to be forgotten.”
Congregation Beth-El is now home to the 19th century Holocaust Torah Scroll #1334 from the Town of Polna in Bohemia. (presently located in the Czech Republic 70 miles southwest of Prague). Your editors wish to thank those congregants who donated to the Holocaust Torah fund, Past President Sharon De Fala and Rabbi lea Paskind; without their support our quest for a Holocaust Torah would not have reached fruition.
Between September 28, 1938 – October 1, 1938 at a meeting in Munich among Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Great Britain), Edouard Daladier (France), Adolph Hider (Germany), and Benito Mussolini (Icaly), Czechoslovakia was forced to cede the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany. Neither the Czechoslovakians or the Soviets were invited to the Munich Conference. Czechoslovakian President Benes was, told that: “If you do not submit, you stand alone.” By ceding the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia lost 800,000 citizens, much of its Industry, and its western mountain defense to the Nazis. The German army had basically unfettered access to the rump of Czechoslovakia. Within the next few months, Hungary annexed part of Slovakia including Carpatho-Ruthenia and the Poles annexed Zaolzie. Great Britain and Germany signed a peace treaty. “Peace for our Time” was proclaimed by Neville Chamberlain upon his return to London. President Roosevelt informed the US Ambassador in Rome that: “I am not a bit upset over the final result.”
THE WORLD DOES NOTHING
March 15, 1939, the Nazis annex the rump of Czechoslovakia. The Germans set up the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia which includes Polna and the pro-Nazi puppet state of Slovakia. The anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws are imposed on the Jews in Czechoslovakia. September 1, 1939, the Nazis and Soviets invade Poland; so much for PEACE FOR OUR TIME. During 1942, the approximately 40 Jews residing in Polna were transferred to the Model Ghetto at Theresienstadt and then sent to the death camps in Poland, probably AuschwitzBirkenau where most perished. (Sources state that either 3 or four of Polna’s Jews survived the Holocaust). Polna’s Torahs and ritual equipment were sent to the Museum of the Extinct Race (the Central Jewish Museum) in Prague.
Polna was most likely founded in the mid-12th Century and was situated on the border between Bohemia and Moravia. The area was ruled by significant aristocratic families and changed hands and allegiance during the Hussite Wars, The Thirty Years War and other conflicts between the Catholics and Protestants of the Holy Roman Empire and later the AustroHungarian Empire.
By 1532 there was a significant Jewish community in Polna, including both merchants and moneylenders. Though settled among Christian neighbors, the Jews suffered from discrimination, being unable to perform certain civic duties such as military service or night watch. They were further restricted economically and were unable to sell meat to Catholics or testify against Catholics in Court. Following the Thirty Years War when the Feudal lord, Cardinal Dietrichstein excluded Protestants from his diocese in 1654 he did not exclude the Jews. However, he did establish a ghetto in 1676 which was moved to its present location in 1681. The Jews were allowed to maintain an autonomous municipal Court with a Jewish Judge, run their cemetery on the edge of town, construct a tannery, and dug a well. In 1682 the Town of Polna agreed to build a synagogue with vaulted well and mikvah funded by the Jewish community and assessed an annual rental. There were 50 Jewish families by 1714 when they obtained a permit to build a community hall. By the end of the 18th century there were 87 families and by the mid-19th century the Kehillah’s population peaked at 128 families or about 770 people. Some of the more affluent Jews were permitted to move out of the ghetto. In 1863 the synagogue and much of the ghetto and town were destroyed in the worst fire in Polna’s history.
THE HILSNERIADE BLOOD LIBEL
A 19-year-old Czech Catholic girl, Anezka Mruzova’s body is found on April I, 1894. Another girl, Marie Klinova’s body was discovered in the same forest on October 27, 1898. It’s Passover and Mruzova’s corpse has been found with her throat cut. THE JEWS HAVE KILLED HRUZOVA TO MAKE Matzoh! LEOPOLD HILSNER, a simple-minded Jewish vagrant is charged with murder, tried, convicted and sentenced to death on November 19, 1900. Anti-Semitism runs rampant; a pogrom is initiated, and Jewish merchants and stores are boycotted. Hilsner is of course not guilty. Thomas Masaryk a friend of the Jews who will become Czechoslovakia’s First President following World War I and the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is appalled. He demands a retrial to· “defend the Christians against superstition” and to clear Hilsner. On June 11, 1901, Emperor Franz Joseph commutes the sentence to life imprisonment. On March 24, 1918 Franz Joseph’s successor and nephew Karl Franz Joseph pardons Hilsner, the innocent victim of lies of ritual murder who spent 19 years in prison. (Note, in 1961, Mruzova’s brother confessed to killing his sister to save the cost of her dowry). The last Rabbi of Polna, Dovid Alt emigrated in 1920 and most of the ghetto homes were sold to Christians. 85 Jews resided in Polna. Only 40 remained when the Nazi’s confiscated all Jewish Property and deported the Jewish population of Polna in 1942.
SYNAGOGUE WITHOUT JEWS
The derelict synagogue of Polna was used under the postwar Communist Czechoslovakian regime as a warehouse for chemical fertilizer. When threatened with demolition, the Club for Old Polna acquired the synagogue and repaired it after 1989. The building was returned to the Federation of Jewish communities in 1994 and both the synagogue and Rabbi’s residence were renovated and restored as part of the Revitalization of Jewish Landmarks program between 201 I and 2014.