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Wednesday, 2 September 2009

24 hours in Prague, 70 Years On

I am writing this on the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War. On September 1st 1939 Germany invaded Poland on three fronts and two days later Britain and France declared war. It is a truism to say that nothing was ever the same again - with approximately 60 million dead by the end of the war, how could it be? - and a cliché to reflect that we all still live in the long shadows of those devastating events: Jewish history, British history, European history recognises that the experiences of those war years, and their aftermath, are permanently fused into our consciousness.

As I grow older I find myself more and more aware of how decisively those six years in the midst of the last century have woven themselves into the fabric of my conscious and unconscious life: given time, I could trace the multiple ways in which the contours of my life - its intellectual, emotional and religious preoccupations and affinities, the professional work I do, the literature I’m drawn to, the art and cinema I value, the imagery of my dreams, the countries I visit – have lines of continuity with events that pre-date my birth by nearly a decade.

But I’m not going to indulge that autobiographical impulse here. Just offer one experience from this last Bank Holiday weekend, when I found myself in Prague conducting a tombstone consecration ceremony for a lady named Hana Kvardova , whom I’d never met.

In 1942, as a 12 year old girl, Hana had been incarcerated in Terezin (Theresienstadt), where she remained until the camp’s liberation in 1945. She was from the small town of Uhříněves, just south of Prague – and out of the several hundred Jews who’d lived in the town before the War, she was one of only five who survived the War to return home. (At the cemetery on Sunday was an elderly, stoutly-built woman, dressed in grey and holding a forlorn bunch of yellow carnations, who tearfully recalled the moment she waved goodbye to Hana as she was taken away on 12th September that year – the first day of Rosh Hashanah, as it happens).

As it happens.

During the late 1990s my community, Finchley Reform Synagogue – led by Rabbi Jeffrey Newman and some dedicated members of FRS - had established links with the town of Uhříněves. Some 30 years previously, a Torah scroll that had belonged to the pre-War Uhříněves Jewish community had been given to Finchley Reform, who had applied for a scroll to the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust (see www.czechmemorialscrollstrust.org) at the Westminster Synagogue. (After the war, the Trust had rescued more than 1500 Torah scrolls from the Jewish Museum in Prague where they had been deposited by the Nazis during their occupation of Czechoslovakia. The obsessional rigour with which the Nazis set about collecting and preserving for the future Jewish artefacts while simultaneously pursuing their annihilatory project in relation to real existing Jews involves an unassimilable irony that assaults the imagination).

Following the end of the communist era, some of the devoted non-Jewish citizens of Uhříněves had worked with astonishing determination to find ways of keeping alive the memory of their pre-War Jewish fellow townsmen and women. In October 2000 a group of FRS members visited the Czech Republic at the invitation of the Uhříněves Town Council. While there, they attended the unveiling of a memorial plaque - the result of close collaboration between FRS members and Uhrineves - on the exterior of the former synagogue building (now a double-glazing showroom).

Friendships and connections were forged, including with Hana, and contact has been maintained – I was asked to join an FRS group in June 2008 as an accompanying rabbinic presence, and had the humbling privilege of leading a Shabbat morning service for the group, who were joined by invited guests from the town and the Prague Jewish community. The service was held in the office-cum-showroom, which still retains the pre-War architecture of a shul, with alcoves clearly visible as well as the space where the Ark once was (and ‘our’ scroll once rested). Desks and computers were pushed aside, a rough oval of ill-matched chairs was formed, and after a gap of sixty-six years the old melodies and prayers filled the unfillable space. “Blessed are You, Adonai, who chooses His people in love...”

I did not meet Hana Kvardova on that occasion, but did meet her childhood friend, Libuse Votavova, who had been instrumental in searching out her old Jewish friend, who was living in impoverished circumstances. Libuse had then contacted the Jewish community in Prague on her behalf and helped her find refuge in the Jewish Old Age Home in Prague. She had also been deeply involved in Uhříněves’s work of reparation for the crimes committed against its Jews during the Nazi times. These bare facts fail to convey the emotional resonance of this history: one human story that stands in for a collective story of loss, the death of thriving communities, the struggle of survivors for decades afterwards – and the integrity of some non-Jews in recognising the need to make restitution, to honour those who lived and those who died, and to keep memories and stories alive.

Last Sunday, as we gathered in the beautiful tree-shaded Jewish cemetery in Prague – not the old cemetery in the city centre that all the tourists visit, but the late 19th century one slightly further out in the Zizkov district – I made my way to the far end of the cemetery, past the 40,000 gravestones and the monumental slabs of ivy-strewn marble inscribed with assimilated Germanic names of bourgeois Czech Jewish families who must have imagined that their art deco tombstones and mini-mausoleums would be visited by family members for generations to come.

So much for our capacity to imagine what the future holds, for any of us.

Passing reverently by the grave of Franz Kafka, buried with his parents, (and his three sisters who died in the Shoah), I came to the spot where Hana Kvardova was buried last year. We had a simple ceremony in English, Hebrew and Czech, with my words of introduction and explanation ably translated by Libushe’s grand-daughter Klara. (Last year, Klara’s friend Iva had translated for me at our Shabbat service – and both had the gift of conveying to those assembled the spirit of my words as well as their outer meaning. Thus - as it happens - the Jew is dependent on the non-Jew to help bring fully into being what the Jewish soul carries. There is a mystery and paradox here that would need a Kafka to describe).

Klara’s grandmother spoke powerfully about her old friend Hana and it felt like a chapter was closing – for the participants and Uhříněves itself. Those there to witness this small (but huge) event included old friends of Hana from the town, members of the progressive Prague Jewish community with which Finchley has links, and representatives of Finchley Reform who had helped organize (and pay for) this symbolic yet very real event. At the small reception after the consecration, I approached an elderly lady who had been resting with her stick on the arm of a young woman some distance away in the shade while the ceremony had been taking place. I wondered who she was and why she had kept her distance. She was Hana Fuchsova, and this was her grand-daughter. As a Prague Jew – and she proudly told me she was one of the last remaining of that pre-War German speaking Czech Jewish community to which Kafka also belonged - this Hana too had been in Terezin; and she’d been present at the unveiling of the plaque in 1990.

As we talked – with her grand-daughter Helena translating – she told me fragments of her story: about the boy she’d met before the War, then re-met and married in Terezin. Married? – I wanted to make sure I’d understood this – Yes, married, with a rabbi performing the ceremony. She couldn’t remember his name (in my imagination I wondered if it could have been Leo Baeck, who’d been sent from Berlin in Terezin in 1942). Her husband had been transported to Auschwitz but had survived and returned to Prague after the war. They picked up their life together, had a family – including Helena’s father, who inevitably married a non-Jew and of course together brought up children with no knowledge of Jewish life. A not unfamiliar story in central European post-War families.

As an aside, I asked Helena if she knew all this, and she acknowledged that some parts of it were new to her. So, as it happens, I found that I was facilitating a conversation that helped transmit a family story, a history, a life. So many gaps. So many absences. So much silence. But at that moment I knew why I was there.

So it is that the non-Jewish world needs the Jew - has always needed the Jew - in order to bring to light, to make known, the full richness and complexity of being. The paradox of mutual dependence, and inter-dependence – and all the passionate feelings of attraction and hatred and envy, on both sides, that this unconscious dependence generates.


And in that Prague cemetery, and during that brief ceremony that I’d travelled to Prague for, just for the day, I had a sense that although in so many ways in our own technologically-saturated age we are impossibly distant from those war years, in other ways they are with us still, haunting us still. Nothing is ever over.


...Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night...
...Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return...
...Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out
The music must always play...
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good...
...Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie...
...We must love one another or die...


(from W.H. Auden’s September 1, 1939)

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