The beautiful Synagogue building of České Budějovice

In 2017, I took advantage of the opportunity to visit České Budějovice, the home town of PSC’s second and only remaining Memorial Scrolls Trust torah scroll, and the site of a beautiful synagogue that once stood there. There is an article detailing the visit in my blog here.

Destroyed synagogue building of Ceske Budějovice, 1942

This visit was really moving for me since I doubt any other members of my community will ever visit this town, even knowing the history of our scroll. I felt in no small part that I was representing all of them and the legacy of our Torah Scroll.

My first connection to České Budějovice was sitting on Yom Kippur Morning, holding that MST Scroll during the Rabbi’s Sermon before Yizkor and hearing the “ghosts of that community” speaking to me on that holy day. Who were they, what did their community look like, was there anything left? That 2017 visit answered those questions for me.

Memorial to the Jews of Ceske Budejovice
A memorial plaque to the synagogue

While it’s not entirely clear that our scroll was housed in this building, it is clear that this was an impressive Gothic-style structure and probably housed many scrolls. In fact there are 7 that we think came from Ceske Budějovice and were subsequently allocated to communities all over the world by the London-based Memorial Scroll Trust. (One with us in Foster City, CA, one in Dayton, OH, one in Wilton, CT, one in El Paso, TX, one in San Pedro, CA and two in the UK.)

I recently came across an article in Czech posted by Rabbi David Maxa, the rabbi at Ec chajim Praha, detailing the history of the building. I am also indebted to his colleague and friend David Kraus who shared another article with a detailed history of the town and the synagogue also written in Czech. Thank God for Google Translate! 🙂

The synagogue building was destroyed by the Nazis in 1942, ending, for the most part, six centuries of Jewish life in Ceske Budějovice.

There are photographs at the memorial showing what the building looked like before it was destroyed. It’s a very sad story for me because today there are no Jews in the area, so I have to use my imagination to think of what that large and vibrant Jewish community before the Shoah might have looked like. It was one of the 140+ communities that the Nazis wiped out.

It makes it all the more remarkable that the community where our friends in Olomouc live today actually survived. Today, there are only 10 Jewish communities in the Czech Republic.

Here are some photographs from the article:

Interior of the synagogue
~20th Century
View of the synagogue from the North, early 20th century; collection of J. Dvořák.
The day the synagogue was blown up by the Nazis in 1942. From the collection of F. J. Čapka.
A view of the synagogue with the Palace of Justice in the background at the beginning of the 20th century, from the collection of J. Dvořák.

Ceske Budejovice was founded around 1265. The first Jews probably arrived around 1341, when “King John of Luxembourg” issued a permit from Prague that explicitly allows two Jews and their families to settle in the city. Over the centuries the rapid economic growth of the area, which sits at a crossroads between Austria, Germany and the Czech province of Moravia led to many people settling in the area.

The Jewish community was vibrant with several communal institutions, cemeteries and a “Jewish Street.” All of these disappeared over the years. By the end of the 15th Century there were about 100 Jews who lived in České Budějovice.

Initially a small Gothic Synagogue was built in the town with Hebrew inscriptions of Psalms and colorful floral motifs, including a symbol that could have been either a Star of David, or perhaps a family emblem.

Various accusations of ritual murder affected the Jewish community. In 1505, the city council was told by a criminal facing prosecution for some crime that the Jews had committed the ritual murder of a six-year-old Christian boy whose “blood was to be caught in a bottle in the forest behind the village.” Although the criminal’s ‘confession’ was coerced by torture, the City Council considered it reliable and in 1505, the members of medieval Jewish community were all murdered or forced to leave the area.

Most of the refugees from that time went to Prague and some all the way to Krakow. For the next three and a half centuries, Jewish life in the city essentially disappeared.

Until 1848, Jews were allowed to stay in the city only during daylight hours in order to visit the markets, and at night they were forced to leave the city.

By 1848, many assimilated Czech Jews came back to the area and modern Jewish life really began. Philip Bondy, the first modern Rabbi was hired. Soon, Ceske Budějovice became a busy regional commercial center.

Prayer services were held in a number of smaller prayer rooms. The synagogue building project was created by Viennese architect Max Fleischer (1841–1905), who specialized in Jewish sacred architecture and designed many historic buildings including Vienna’s Town Hall. (Quite a few of these buildings were destroyed in November, 1938 on Kristallnacht.)

The synagogue building in Ceske Budejovice took over 3 years to build and was one of Fleischer’s most important projects. It sat over 500 people.

The building had a richly decorated, Neo-Gothic Aron Ha Kodesh (Torah Scroll Ark) with walls decorated with marble slabs of the Ten Commandments.

The Czech-Moravian Jewish community had a Reform practice and liturgy, with a Rabbi, two Cantors and a choir with a conductor and an organist. There was no “women’s section” (or “Mechitzah”) in the synagogue. Women sat on sides and men sat in the main aisle. The absence of a women’s section was apparently very rare, even in a very “Reform-oriented” community like Czechoslovakia, which made this community’s observance very different from their more “radical” Reform cousins in Germany.

(This reminds me of the community in Olomouc which today, while Orthodox in practice does not have a walled off women’s section with a mechitzah. Women sit in the back of the sanctuary.)

Helga Smekalova, a survivor of Terezin, telling me her life story standing in the “Women’s section” at the back of the Community Prayer Room in Olomouc. Note the absence of any physical barrier.

By 1925, there were 1423 Jews registered in the community, the vast majority were bilingual in German, as the town is located very close to the border with Germany and the so-called “Sudetenland” which was infamously ceded to Hitler in 1938 as part of the Munich Accords, signed by Britain’s Neville Chamberlain.

When the Nazis marched into the Sudetenland in September 1938, occupying/conquering the area without firing a shot, it is worth mentioning that many Jews in České Budějovice got a “head start” fleeing their Nazi oppressors. Many fled into Moravia or the neighboring province of Bohemia. Many went to Prague and some fled the country altogether, though most of the Jews of Czechoslovakia were deported to places like Terezin and from there to the death camps in the east. Estimates that as much at 80-90% of the pre-war community of Bohemia, Moravia and neighboring Slovakia perished in the Shoah.

Ceske Budějovice or “Budweis” in German is about 2.5 hours south of Prague and very close to the German border, and is the “home” of the original Czech Budweiser beer (It’s much better than the “drek” which is called Budweiser in the US.)

On April 18, 1942, 910 Jews in Ceske Budejovice were deported to Terezín by the Nazis (Transport number “Akb” as listed in Nazi deportation records). The oldest was a 93-year-old woman Marie Ehrlichová and the youngest Jiříček Lederer, who was barely a year old. Afterwards, several partial, smaller deportations took place and the vast majority of the Jews died either in Terezin or further along the way in the Nazi death machine in either Auschwitz or Treblinka.

The last Rabbi of the town, Rudolf Ferda (1889–1944) was deported to Terezín on April 18, 1942, and, from there to Auschwitz on October 16, 1944 , where he died. According to testimonies from Terezin, Rabbi Ferda helped his fellow prisoners and participated in cultural and religious life in the Terezín ghetto.

Rabbi Ferda

The beautiful synagogue building was blown up on July 5, 1942 by the Nazis with the cooperation of the German/Nazi collaborator Mayor of the town Friedrich David. Even before the blast, someone had leaked information about the impending destruction and many artifacts were smuggled out and saved, including a wooden fragment of the Aron Kodesh (which is now stored in the South Bohemian Museum).

Since České Budějovice was one of the collection points for the Central Jewish Museum in Prague, some of the remnants are probably located in the collections of the Jewish Museum.

Both towers and the ceiling collapsed in the explosion while the perimeter walls remained standing. Using pickaxes, the German authorities encouraged people to sell usable bricks and other materials to interested parties who used them for minor repairs and modifications of their homes in Budějovice and the surrounding towns.

The Nazi Mayor attempted to flee the area in May, 1945. He took his personal car and drove toward the advancing American Army fearful that the Red Army might capture him. But he was recognized before leaving and the vehicle was stopped. There are two versions of what happened to him. The first is that he shot himself and the second was that he was shot. Either way, a fitting end to a horrible Nazi collaborator.

After the liberation, only twenty-eight people returned to Budějovice! This tragedy was repeated all across Czechoslovakia, including in the area where our friends live today in Olomouc.

The surviving Jews attempted to return to the area after the war but without a Rabbi or any communal leadership, the community quickly foundered under the oppressive rule of the Czech Communist government.

It is very interesting to note that pilots who served in Israel’s fledgling Air Force may have trained at or near the airport in České Budějovice.

A memorial to the victims of Nazism was built in October 1950 in a cemetery that had been ravaged by the Nazis but had begun to be repaired. Unfortunately, roughly half of the tombstones were destroyed or stolen. The community officially disbanded in 1970.

The demolished site of the synagogue remained in Ceske Budejovice until 1999. Today, few if any Jews live in the area most having emigrated or assimilated. However in 1992, a memorial to the synagogue and victims of Nazism was built by the Office of the City of České Budějovice and the Jewish Community and inaugurated on July 5, 1992.

May the memories of all the Jews killed in the Shoah, but particularly those from Ceske Budejovice be for a blessing!

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