The Great Synagogue of Olomouc

olomouc synagogue

(C)2017 Walter William Melnyk, All Rights reserved

From “Pavel’s Violin”
Chapter 19: By The Theresien Gate
1897

In her day, Maria Theresa had not been a great friend of the Jews. It was an irony, therefore, that so many places crucial to the history of the Jewish people were named in honor of that de facto sovereign, the last but three of the dying Holy Roman Empire. Most were dedicated by her son, Joseph II, perhaps in gratitude for her making his own Imperial career possible. Two of Joseph’s projects, in particular, came to play important roles in the lives, and deaths, of many Olomouc Jews. One was a fortified town near Bohemia’s border with Germany, built between 1780 and 1790. Another was the Theresientor in Olomouc, a triumphal arch in the city wall, completed in 1753. The first, Theresienstadt, would one day become a concentration camp where tens of thousands of Jews died. The second became, in 1897, the site of one of the largest and most beautiful synagogues in Europe. Yet it, too, was doomed to death and destruction.

Rabbi Berthold Oppenheim ascended the bema of the new Synagogue on the proudest day of his life, and the most joyful day in the history of Olomouc Jews. It had begun some two hours earlier as people were entering the Theresienplatz through the Teresien Gate in the northeast. The gate itself was a magnificent Triumphal Arch, intentionally preserved when the city walls had been demolished a few years earlier. It was made with red brick, and faced with granite blocks and friezes. The keystone of the main arch bore an image of the Empress, and above, in Latin, the legend MTHERESA DGRIGHBR and the date MDCCLIII. Maria Theresa, by the Grace of God Emperor of Rome Queen of Germany Hungary and Bohemia, 1753. It had been part of the Theresien Wall, and contained guardrooms within several smaller arches.

Once through the Gate, guests found themselves on a wide greensward with paths winding through trees, shrubs and spring flowers, with the main path running from the Gate to the Portico of the Synagogue. Those who arrived neither too early nor too late encountered hundreds of people milling about, or clustered in small groups in animated conversation. It was a beautiful spring day, a week before the start of Passover. A Sunday morning of light blue skies and large white clouds. And to the left, the magnificent new Synagogue, the morning sun backlighting the massive central dome.

“Herr Gartner! Herr Gartner, over here!” The architect turned and waved, as the cluster of well-wishers approached him. They were upon him in a moment, competing to shake his hand. Jakob Gartner, the renowned architect from Vienna, had been chosen to build the Synagogue, which had been completed in two years at a cost of nearly two hundred fifty thousand gulden. Gartner happily pointed out various architectural features, as the crowd grew larger around him.

The building was designed in the Oriental Byzantine style with alternating layers of red and white brick. The large central dome caught the eye first, topped by a cupola and spire. At the front corners stood two towers with smaller, matching domes, in a rich green. Five arches, three in the central façade and one in each tower, surrounded arched stained glass windows, topped with rosettes. At the peak of the gable were two stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments of the Law. The building measured twenty-two by thirty-nine yards altogether, and the height of the dome was about one hundred and fifteen feet. Perhaps there may have been some sort of synagogue in the old Omolouc, before Ladislav the Posthumous had expelled the Jews in 1454, but certainly it would have been nothing like this. It was a fitting match for the Cathedral of Saint Wenceslaus, across the city.

As 10:00 o’clock neared, the crowd began to hasten through the three front doors, to find the best seats for the concert. The Synagogue had seating for four hundred and forty men and three hundred and four women. But soon there would soon be only standing room. The Jewish population itself was more than sixteen hundred.

The front vestibule in the northwest led directly into the main hall, on the ground floor, for the men. A side stairway led to the women’s balcony, which overlooked three sides of the hall. And in the center of the hall there rose the great dome, an ironwork structure fully as tall as the outside height of the building, and held high by four massive pillars. At the east end of the interior was the elevated bema with the Aron Kodesh, the Holy Ark for holding the Torah scrolls, in the shape of a small temple. Also on the bema were the Table for reading the Torah, and a pulpit for preaching. Beyond the Ark, to the southeast, was a small daily house of prayer, with its own Ark and pulpit, and benches for fifty people. The choir and organ were set above that, facing out into the hall. The organ, a fixture of the Jerusalem Temple, at least according to Scripture, had been reintroduced to synagogue worship early in the century, not without controversy.

The Synagogue organist had been playing a Bach prelude as the guests entered and found their seats. As the music ended, Rabbi Berthold Oppenheim stood, and surveyed the crowded pews. This was the first official function in the new Synagogue, which had not yet seen its first service of sacred worship. That would come on Friday evening, an especially auspicious Erev Shabbat, because it would also be the first night of Passover.

“This is a deeply meaningful day for the Jews of Olomouc,” he said. “Nearly thirty years ago, the Jewish people returned after an exile of four hundred years. Far longer than our forefathers sojourned in Babylon, and very nearly as
long as we dwelt in the land of Pharoah. Almost fifty years ago, after the rebellions of 1848, our beloved Emperor Franz Joseph released us from exile for a time, and many Jews in the countryside began to come back to Olomouc. It took another twenty years for our emancipation to become complete, but since then the Jewish community in Olomouc has grown and prospered.”

Martha Oppenheim looked down proudly upon her husband from her own place of honor in the women’s balcony. Their own journey had been shorter and easier than that of the Children of Israel. Berthold came from a family of Rabbis. He had been called to Olomouc in 1892 after serving as Rabbi for two years in Miroslav, south of Brno. He had studied in Berlin and Breslau, and Martha was certain he had a remarkable career ahead of him. He had only been in Olomouc two years when the Jewish community decided they were big enough for a synagogue. And no small synagogue either! One a hundred and twenty feet high with three domes, and room to seat almost eight hundred people. She looked around at the cavernous hall, filled to capacity. “I thank Thee, Lord, I thank Thee,” she thought

“And so,” he was drawing to a close, “all are welcome here today. Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, Czech and German.” He added the last with careful emphasis. “Please enjoy our brief concert.”

(C)2017 Walter William Melnyk
All Rights Reserved

In Absam prope Oenipontum, an excerpt from “Pavel’s Violin”

The great Austrian luthier, Jakob Stainer (c. 1619-1683) used this handwritten label in all his instruments:

stainer_label

Jacobus Stainer in Absam
prope Oeinipontum 16–

“Jakob Stainer, in (the town of) Absam, near Innsbruck, (date)

And this is the title of Part I of “Pavel’s Violin,” the story of Jakob Stainer and his crafting of the very special violin.

from the title page of Part I, a quotation from Paul Stoving, in “The Story of the Violin:”

The Tyrolean fastness will guard his memory,
and the eagle will tell it to its young,
and pine to pine,
and the winds in dark recesses
will mourn the memory of Jacobus Stainer.

And the tale goes on from there:

I. Jakob Stainer and the Making of the Violin

II. In the Palaces of Bishops and Emperors

III. The Jewish Community of the Moravian Countryside

IV. The Great Olomouc (AH-lah-moats) Synagogue

V. In Terezin Concentration Camp

VI. In Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp

VII. The Violin Comes to Pavel

Will Paint  The author, playing Pavel’s violin.

The Violin That Makes the Paradise

FromTerezin Banner “Pavel’s Violin,” chapter 21: “A Violin in Paradise.”

In the so-called “coffee house” in Terezin Concentration Camp, which was all for show, and where prisoners could not buy coffee.

“Přátelé,” she said in Czech, “My friends. I am happy to play for you today. I know the Coffee House usually presents cabaret music, or jazz, but today I wish to be a bit different.” She paused, and the room was silent. “A bit different” could be a dangerous thing.

“Today I wish to begin with an old musical comedy number by Škroup and Tyl. It’s about a dear old grandfather, who longs for the lost days of his youth.” Satisfied the program would be nothing but pious sentimentality, and not wishing to be subjected to such mush, two plainclothes SS officers got up and left, their coffee still cooling on the table. But the handful of Czechs present smiled inwardly, knowing what to expect. As Mira began the first notes of the tune, they sang silently along with her, “Where is my home, where is my home? The Czech country, my home.” They would have cheered at the end, but offered the safer, polite applause instead. Mira looked over to her friends’ table, smiling, as if to say,

“Do you see what I mean? It is the Violin that, for a few moments, makes the Paradise.”

Words of Praise for “Pavel’s Violin”

terezin transportfrom a Reader:

The story is real, a vivid account of the people who lived through an unthinkable time in our history.

Melnyk writes: “I hope you will not just learn about what happened,, but that you will become part of the story, yourself”…….”I hope that you will not only hear the Violin, but you will experience the playing of it”. Well he (the author) takes you there. You are one with the characters, and experience their pain, suffering, hope, and joy. And you hear the music. The wonderful music. The universal language that heals. The Song of Hope…

The author has selflessly pledged to donate all proceeds from the sale of this book to the United States Holocaust Museum and other Holocaust Memorials.

Escape to Freedom

I am having the great  joy and privilege to be working with Tom Lenda on a sequel to his Holocaust memoir, “Children on Death Row: The Hate and the War.”  Tom’s descriptions of his family’s time in Terezin concentration camp, his father Pavel’s time at Auschwitz and his violin, were the inspiration for my novel, “Pavel’s Violin.”  It is an honor to know Tom and to be working with him.

Tom&PavelsViolin

Tom Lenda (Tommy Lustig) with Lucie Carlson

The new book, “Escape to Freedom,” will be the story of Tom and his wife and daughter, Rose and Hana, as they escape from Communist Czechoslovakia, and make their way around the world, to Germany, Australia, and the United States.

You can go to Amazon today and get Tom’s book, “Children on Death Row,” published under the name he had back then, Tommy Lustig, and also my book, “Pavel’s Violin.”  Then later this year watch for “Escape to Freedom.

Toms Book 2  Pavels_Violin_Cover_for_Kindle

Three for the Price of One

When you purchase a copy of “Pavel’s Violin: A Song of Praise,” you make the world world a better place in three ways:

  • You get an exciting historical novel, that traces the journey of a special Violin from its inception in the Austrian Alps, through palaces of Emperors and Bishops, the countryside of Jewish Moravia, the Great Synagogue of Olomouc (AH-luh-moats), the horrors of the the Terezin and Auschwits concentration camps, until, after liberation, it finds its way to a survivor of those camps and becomes – “Pavel’s Violin.
  • You learn some European history, and experience first hand the camps, transport trains, and gas chambers of the Holocaust.
  • You contribute to Holocaust Awareness, that this might never happen again.  All the authors royalties are contributed to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Survivors and Victims Resource Center. (Per book that is $6.73 for each paperback, or $5.52 for each Kindle version.)

Get Your Copy Today

Pavels_Violin_Cover_for_Kindle

 

This Holy Place: Dies Heiligtum

This tune appears several times in the tale of “Pavel’s Violin.  Played in Part I by Jakob Stainer, and in Part III by Beylke, daugfhter of Levi ben Le’ev.  (C) 4 July 2016 Walter William Melnyk

Heiligtum-1

Dying at Auschwitz – an excerpt from Pavel’s Violin

An excerpt from “Pavel’s Violin,” chapter thirty, “Naked in the Night.”

(C) 2017 Walter William Melnyk, All Rights Reserved.  Do not duplicate.
Use the link to the right to purchase “Pavel’s Violin” on Amazon.

Auschwitz BarracksMira looked to her left, through the chain link fence and barbed wire, across the train tracks and the infamous arrival ramp, to the barracks of the Women’s Camp. Despite the hour, one building still had a light burning in one window. Mira had once been told the building was the Music Block, the barracks of the Auschwitz Women’s Orchestra. She had seen or heard them occasionally, from a distance, over the past six months. Often playing as work details left in the morning, or returned in the afternoon. Sometimes they gave concerts for the Nazi SS officers. Occasionally she had seen them playing on the arrival ramp, as Jews exited a new transport and were selected for life or death by the feared Doctor Mengele. She fixed her eyes upon the one lit window, the one that often remained lit when all else had gone dark. She had been told the room belonged to the conductor of the orchestra, the world famous violinist Alma Rosé. How Mira had wished she could talk with Alma! How she had wished she could play her own Violin beside her in the orchestra. But it could not be. The Women’s camp was in a different world.

“Still, I have been able to play for the families,” Mira thought. “Still, I have been able to teach Beáta, who is getting quite good.”

There was a momentary lull in the rumbling of the trucks, and Mira could hear the faint sounds of a violin coming from that lighted window in the Music Block. She strained to hear the tune. Chopin’s Etude in E, Tristesse. It was rumored to be Alma’s favorite piece, and she often played it late at night. Sometimes it could be heard drifting across the silent camp, a song of lost love, of hopeless resignation.

A song lives in me,
a lovely song,
it stirs up memories
within my heart.
My heart was still.
Now that tender song cries out again,
calls me, everywhere!

Life was far off,
dreams gone away,
My Heart! how calm
you were so long ago,
so long ago.

Now it all wells up again,
all my joy, my heart’s desire,
deepest yearning, sleepless anguish
lives!

I just want peace,
peace within my heart,
never to recall
that song.

Mira remembered the words, as the music drifted across the horrible selection ramp. She would never see Joseph again. Had she ever wished to forget the pain by forgetting him? She would not have thought so. Who was it Alma had loved so dearly, that she so longed to forget? Longed to forget, as the only way to find peace?

“Well,” Mira thought, “I will find peace soon enough tonight.” She hugged Beáta and Mirek closer. They had been so strangely quiet. “I hope it will come quickly, when it comes.”