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UNESCO Třebíč ghetto scene of denial Jewish heritage

By Missing Peace

Statue depicting crucifiction of Jesus in Rear Synagogue in Trebic Ghetto

By YOCHANAN VISSER

An abridged version of this article appeared at the site of Yediot Acharonot : http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4282231,00.html

 Fresh manifestations of European anti-Semitism raised their heads once again when Jewish religious leaders were physically attacked by thugs in Berlin and Vienna at the end of August.

 The Berlin attack was widely reported by Israeli media and was condemned by the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem.

Recent data show that anti-Semitism is on the rise again, and especially in Eastern Europe. The situation seems to be worst in Hungary, Poland and Ukraine. A recent Jewish Anti Defamation League poll carried out in Hungary, for example, revealed that a majority of that country’s population holds anti-Semitic views.

 Exception

There are European countries however, where the situation seems to be better at first sight. One of them is the Czech Republic.

Data presented in the Prague Jewish community’s report, showed that during 2011, there was no year-on-year increase in the incidence of anti-Semitic events.

Indeed, visitors to Prague are likely to come away with the impression that all is well with the Jewish community of the Czech Republic. Thousands of tourists annually visit the well-maintained Jewish historical sites of Prague, including its beautiful Spanish synagogue.

At least five kosher restaurants cater to a mainly Israeli clientele. Israeli tour groups continue to travel to Europe en masse despite last month’s terrorist attack in Bulgaria.

On Shabbat, Jewish outreach groups including Chabad and Shuva Yisrael organize prayer services and Shabbat meals that address the needs of Jewish visitors.

It might be said that what seems to be impossible in Israel is an everyday thing in Prague. Secular Israelis and religious Israelis are happy to sit together around a shared Shabbat table together with Czech Jews.

Indifferent

A member of Prague’s Jewish community told me that, at worst, Czechs are generally indifferent to the Jews. An immigrant to the Czech Republic from Switzerland, he said the relative absence of Muslims in the Czech Republic contributes to the tolerant climate. He said he is proud of the situation in the Jewish Quarter in Prague.

But the fine state of preservation of Prague’s Jewish Quarter in Prague contrasts starkly with another Jewish heritage site in the Czech Republic: the former Jewish ghetto in Třebíč, founded in the second half of the fifteenth century.

The Třebíč ghetto is advertised by the Czech government as the best preserved Jewish ghetto in Europe and as a symbol of historical co-existence between Christians and Jews.

It is evidently for this reason that UNESCO added the Třebíč ghetto to its prestigious World Heritage List.

The European Union and the Třebíč municipality provide the funding that has enabled the restoration of the houses in the former Ghetto which were bought up by locals following the fall of the Czech communist regime in the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

History

Visitors to the Třebíč Ghetto will immediately notice that, apart from some notes at the entrance to the ghetto and the information desk in the former New (Rear) Synagogue, no attempt has been made to tell the full history of Třebíč Ghetto’s Jews.

In stark contrast to the wall of names at the entrance of the Warsaw Ghetto and the memorial in the Lodz Ghetto in Poland, there is no memorial of any kind to the 1,700 Jews – the majority of the town’s community – who perished in Hitler’s death camps.

The abandoned homes of Třebíč’s Jews have been turned into cozy apartments, shops and pubs that serve the local population.

Other than its two synagogues, the only building still recognizable as part of the ghetto is its hospital. Still bearing a huge sign identifying it as the “Krankenhaus”, the structure was recently renovated. But instead of becoming a museum, the ghetto hospital has become a gentrified apartment building for the Czechs.

Former hospital in Trebic Ghetto

Shocking

The most shocking example of ignorance of Jewish history and religion at this UNESCO site is to be found in the so called ‘Rear Synagogue’. The building today serves mainly as a cultural and exhibition centre for the local population.

The synagogue’s renovations were funded by the Třebíč municipality. Jewish religious and ritual items are displayed in showcases in what had previously been the woman’s section on the synagogue’s upper floor. They include an open Torah scroll with its text visibly on display (forbidden according to Jewish law).

In the main hall of this holy site, the Hebrew texts on the walls and ceiling and a solitary menorah (candelabrum) remind visitors that this building once served as a house of worship for a largely vanished Jewish community.

To the left and right of the niche that formerly hosted the Holy Ark containing the Torah scrolls, two small statues are on display today. One depicts the biblical incident of the Sin of the Golden Calf, as described in the book of Exodus. The second replicates the crucifixion of Jesus.

Interior Rear Synagogue Trebic Ghetto

 

Spokeswomen

Dasa Juranova, a spokesperson for the Třebíč Ghetto’s management, explained to me that the statues were made by blind artists. The exhibition and the choice of the statues was the work of the director and the management of the site, she said.

Another member of the Czech management of the Ghetto, Lenka Nevrklova whom I interviewed in Telc (another UNESCO site), conceded that not enough was being done to explain the history of the Jews of Třebíč.

However the display of statues in the synagogue of the former Ghetto – a matter clearly prohibited by Jewish law – and the choice of the statues testify to something far worse than negligence.

It is obvious that its Czech management regards the site as a part of the Czech heritage and not as part of the Jewish inheritance in Europe.

Insensitivity

Insensitivity of this kind to matters of Jewish religion and history is hardly unique to the Czech Republic.

In fact it has become a worrying trend in Europe. It finds its expression in attempts to prohibit circumcision and ritual slaughter in several European countries. Among them are traditionally liberal countries like the Netherlands which historically was one of the countries where Jews enjoyed very broad freedom of religion.

In Germany, this trend has already lead to criminal charges being brought last month against a rabbi following the ruling of a Cologne court that circumcision constitutes an illegal form of bodily harm to babies and infringes their rights.

The Chief Rabbi of France, Giles Bernheim, has recently warned about the growing rejection of Jews and Judaism in his country. Anti-Semitic incidents in France have increased by 53% compared with the same period last year.

It is encouraging that some in Europe have apparently seen the writing on the wall and have taken to the streets to protest the rise in anti-Semitic attacks. But clearly much more needs to be done.

Link

There is obviously a direct link between the ‘growing rejection of Jews and Judaism’ and the rise in anti-Semitic attacks in Europe.

It is true that the current upsurge in Jew hatred in Europe is directly connected to the demonization of the Jewish state of Israel, as Jonathan Tobin recently pointed out in Commentary Magazine.

 Anti-Semitism in Europe has a longer history, however, and has always been fed by distortions about Jews and their history and religion.

The way to combat this problem is to educate the masses, not only about the Holocaust but also about Jewish history and religion.

 UNESCO world heritage sites are uniquely fit to provide this type of education.

Therefore UNESCO as well as the Czech government should take action to rectify the situation in the Třebíč ghetto.

A first step should be to respect the holiness of the Rear Synagogue and to ban the exhibition of statues at the site. Better and complete information about Jewish life in the Ghetto and what happened during the Holocaust is long overdue as well.

Yochanan Visser is the director of Missing Peace, an Israel based information office and a free lance journalist.