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CZECH MEMORIAL SCROLL

Kol Chai is privileged to have on loan a Torah Scroll from the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust www.memorialscrollstrust.org. These scrolls were saved from Nazi destruction and were brought to the UK in 1964. The label indicating which town the scroll was saved from was missing from our scroll, but a piece of paper glued to one of the rollers bears the words (in Hebrew) “For the Popper Family”.

More about Czech Memorial Scroll loaned to us

The number painted on the roller by those working for the Czech Jewish Museum in 1942, shows that they collected this scroll from a town called (in Czech) Roudnice nad Labem. “nad Labem” means on the River Elbe, and the place was known in German, the language spoken by most Jews in the area, as Raudnitz an der Elbe. It is a small town with a population of 13,500. The first synagogue there was built in 1619, and the first rabbi in town was recorded in 1650. During the seventeenth century, Most Jews traded in grain and wine, raised cattle, or worked as artisans and peddlers. About a third succumbed to the plague in 1713 and many were murdered after the expulsion from Prague in 1744. The Jewish archive in Roudnice Castle ends in 1728, so we do not know whether or not those who survived were expelled from Roudnice and where they moved to. The next we know is that on the initiative of Rabbi Abraham Kohn (1811-1870), a public Jewish religious school with two classes was founded in Roudnice in 1841. But from the second half of the nineteenth century many Jews moved to larger towns. Roudnice was the native town of Austrian writer Seligman Heller (1831-1890); Slovak opera singer Mirko Pick-Horsky (1878-1945); and of Czech writer Arthur Breisky (1885-1910). In the year of his death, 1910, there were 9,249 people in Roudnice, of whom 320 were Jews – that means that the Jewish community there was about half the size of Kol Chai.

What happened to them after the Nazi invasion? Czech Jewish life was very severely restricted. You could be fined for illegally crossing a street to which access had been forbidden, for illegally buying fruit, for violating shopping hours fixed for Jews even by a single minute. After Reinhard Heydrich (yimach shemo) arrived in Prague in September 27th the policy was to “germanise the Czech vermin”. The “man with the iron heart” as he was known, had been one of the organisers of Kristallnacht in November 1938. Now he set up about implementing the final solution for the 50,000 Jews of Bohemia and Moravia. The Synagogue in Roudnice was closed in October 1941. Since 1940 the small fortress outside the town of Terezin had been used as a prison camp, but now Heydrich decided that the Nazis would take over the whole town, moving out the inhabitants so they could bring the Jews in. The Jewish inhabitants of Roudnice must have been terrified – Terezin was only five miles away and they were the nearest town with a Jewish population. Although it was clear that Terezin had already been chosen as the concentration camp location, in November 1941 the Nazis made a show of consulting Jewish leaders: they put forward a dozen different towns, including Roudnice, but each one was rejected on some pretext or other. Terezin was to be the place. Transports there from Prague and other towns began on November 24th 1941, On February 19th 1942, the notorious Wannsee conference adopted the final solution, and Eichmann briefed the Jewish leaders of Berlin Vienna and Prague on the forthcoming mass deportations to the East and to Terezin. But the deportations were already under way. The Jews of Roundice nad Labem had all too little time to wait. The so called transport Y began in Kladno Bohemia on February 22dn 1942. Its last stop before Terezin was to pick up Jews from Roudnice. More followed on Transport Z which took the same route four days later on February 26th 1942.

What remains? The synagogue has all but disappeared, rebuilt under the communists in the 1950s. But two Jewish cemeteries remain. The old one originated probably in 1613 with last known burial in 1896. The isolated urban/suburban flat land on a hillside has no sign or marker. Reached by turning directly off a public road, access is open with permission via a continuous masonry wall, a continuous fence, and locking gate surround. Vandalism has been severe, and there are somewhere between 100 – 500 gravestones left, with Hebrew German or Czech inscriptions..
The new cemetery originated in 1890 with last known Jewish burial probably before 1943. The suburban agricultural flat land, has a sign or plaque in Hebrew mentioning Jews and Jewish symbols on gate or wall. Reached by turning directly off a public road, access is open to all via a broken masonry wall without a gate. The 20-100 stones, few in their original location, date from 1890-20th century. The marble, granite and iron finely smoothed and inscribed stones, multi-stone monuments or obelisks have Hebrew and Czech inscriptions. Some have metal fences around graves. The cemetery has special section for children but no known mass graves. Within the limits of the site are the ruins of a pre-burial house with Hebrew and Czech wall inscriptions.

In 1990, the writer Helen Epstein, author of “Children of the Holocaust”, visited Roudnice and found on Jan Hus Street, still standing, the house built by her grandfather in 1900, and a man still living on the street who remembered her father. But apart from this, there are few accounts of Jewish visitors. In 2002 an appeal was launched for the proper fencing and restoration of the new Jewish cemetery. But I have found no update or indication that anything had been done. For the most part, the lives of the Jews who lived there have been forgotten. It may be that the most important memorials of all are the scrolls from the town deposited with us and three different congregations. This scroll is our link to their past, their assurance that they will not be completely forgotten. Every time we use our Czech scroll, we renew that link with the past. May their memory be for a blessing, for we carry with us their memorial. We are enriched by their history.

Rabbi Dr Michael Hilton

More info at: https://memorialscrollstrust.org/

Video of cemetery: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EztNRKXkfYQ