As most of you know, so many things have touched me about the Olomouc Torah story. The memories are flooding back as we approach the one-year anniversary of that amazing experience in a few days.
One of the connections that sticks in my head is that of Mr. Peter Briess, who, as young boy, recalled sitting with his father in the Olomouc Synagogue and hearing Rabbi Berthold Oppenheim read from the same Sefer Torah that, through the auspices of the Memorial Scrolls Trust, was returned to the community in Olomouc for the first time in 78 years, last October.
Rabbi Oppenheim initiated the construction of the Olomouc Synagogue and served as the spiritual leader of the community until 1939. On October 15, 1942 he was deported to Treblinka, where he was murdered in the same year.
I spoke with Mr. Briess this week on the telephone and he shared some details from his childhood story.
The day the Nazis rolled into Olomouc and occupied the town was a day that Peter could never forget. It was a cold, rainy day, March 15, 1939. Peter recalls watching the Nazi soldiers and armored vehicles passing some 50 meters from his window and encamping in a small nearby park.
The first thing the Nazis and their sympathizers did on occupying Olomouc was to ransack the Synagogue building and set it ablaze. The Olomouc Synagogue was a lovely building built in 1899 and the subject of last year’s Historical Retrospective.
The Nazis prevented the Czech fire services from dousing the flames. Later the Jewish community was forced to pay to demolish the ruins of the building that were not destroyed by the fire.
Peter and his family were able to escape from Olomouc when Peter was 7 years and 9 months old. His mother’s father, Karl Schulhof was an officer in the synagogue in Olomouc and died shortly after the Briess family emigrated to England on June 30, 1939, just before the outbreak of World War Two. Peter suspects that it was from natural causes though he also noted that the stress on his Grandfather with the family leaving may have been more than he could handle.
Peter recounts that most of his family remaining in Olomouc died during the war. His own immediate family’s escape from Olomouc was oddly facilitated because their family home was occupied by the Nazi Gestapo Commandant who moved into the family house at the start of the occupation. In exchange for leaving quietly, Briess’s family was given emigration papers. At that time the Nazis seemed to be more interested in ridding themselves of Jews, rather than slaughtering them.
The Olomouc Synagogue building was never rebuilt. Today, all that is left is a car park that the Jewish community draws incremental income.
My friend Rudolph Dub took me out for a beer at a nearby former Jewish-owned brewery called Moritz near the car park where the synagogue building used to stand.
Olomouc’s pre-war population was about 2500 Jews. Today there are approximately 160 Jews in the community.
Peter shared details of the extensive Olomouc Diaspora that he has information on:
- Rudolph Littmann and Hanna, lawyer
- Paul Fischer and Madi & 2 daughters
- Robert Zaitschek.. timber business
- Eva and Anita Graetzer sisters and nieces of my father who escaped on Kindertransport and later went to Australia
- Erich Briess – malting business (Briess Malt & Ingredients Co., Chilton, WI 53014)
- Paul Bermann later Benton and his wife and son Harry , malting trade (Harry retired in Colorado)
- Frank Briess- partner of my father Hans who went into Delicatessen,sausage manufacture and canning business.
- Robert Briess (later spelled his name Breece), Engineer worked for Babcock and Wilcox
- Friends of my father Henio Lauer and Joschko Hiller, also Lola Beer who became a famous couturier in TelAviv
- Ernst and Grete Siegl- bakery products
- Honza Snabl- escaped by Kindertransport and became a BBC broadcaster with the World Service
Peter has a book ‘The House that Saved Us’, a memoir of his family’s escape from Czechoslovakia in 1939.
It is worth nothing that another series of memories from our trip was inspired by Roman and his wife Radka Gronsky’s recent visit to Peninsula Sinai last month for Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Roman was the community leader from Olomouc most responsible for driving the return of the scroll to Olomouc from Foster City.
Roman witnessed the reading of our new Torah Scroll for the first time, that Peninsula Sinai commissioned and completed, in part, to replace the Scroll that was returned to his community in Olomouc last year.
Things kind of came full circle on that day, don’t you think?
It was great to renew acquaintances and to show Roman and Radka around our beautiful city, in part to return the favor for showing us his beautiful city of Olomouc, last October.