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

Whitwell Children’s Holocaust Memorial

Cattle car 6

Tucked away in the scenic Sequatchie Valley of Tennessee lies the small but impressive community of Whitwell, which boasts a school system second to none. And the cornerstone of Whitwell’s Middle School is their Holocaust Paper Clip Project and Museum.

The Beginning of the Paper Clip Projectpaper clips

In 1998 eighth grade students at Whitwell Middle School began an after-school study of the Holocaust. The goal of this study was to teach students the importance of respecting different cultures as well as understanding the effects of intolerance. As the study progressed, the sheer number of Jews who were exterminated by the Nazis overwhelmed the students. Six million was a number that the students could not remotely grasp. The students asked Sandra Roberts and David Smith if they could collect something to help them understand the enormity of this extermination. The teachers told the students to ask permission of principal, Linda M. Hooper. She gave the students permission to begin a collection, IF, they could find something to collect that would have meaning to the project. After some research on the Internet, the students decided to collect paper clips because they discovered that 1) Joseph Valler, a Norwegian Jew is credited as having invented the paper clip and 2) that Norwegians wore them on their lapels as a silent protest against Nazi occupation in WWII.

paper clips 2Students began bringing in paper clips. They wrote letters to famous people asking for a paper clip. The students also asked people to share their reasons for sending a paper clip. To date over 30 million paperclips have been sent to Whitwell Middle School. In addition, the project has received 30 thousand + letters, documents, books, and artifacts. All of these have been counted and catalogued by students and are on display in the Children’s Holocaust Memorial Research Room located at the school.

The paper clip collection has become a part of the “Children’s Holocaust Memorial” created by the students, staff, and community of Whitwell Middle School. The Memorial contains 11 million paper clips housed in an authentic German transport car honoring the lives of all people murdered by the Nazis. And eleven million other paper clips are contained in a monument honoring the children of the Holocaust. Orginally, eighteen (for chai-Hebrew for life) butterflies (the Christian symbol of renewal and the Children of Terezine) enhanced the grounds around the rail car. Over the years, visitors have left several more butterflies. The students, staff, and community of Whitwell Middle School have transformed the car from a death car into a symbol of renewed life honoring the lives of those murdered by the Nazis. For generations of Whitwell students, a paper clip will never again be just a paper clip. Instead, the paper clip is a reminder of the importance of perseverance, empathy, tolerance, and understanding.

Rail Car History
The Children’s Holocaust Memorial consists of an authentic German rail car that was used to transport victims to concentration, labor, and death camps. The rail car houses eleven million paper clips, one for each victim of the Holocaust. A small park surrounds the car. Orginally there were eighteen butterflies some inlaid with stained glass and others free standing copper sculptures. Over the years visitors have left additional butterflies so the number grows daily. There is also a monument honoring the children lost in the Holocaust. The Holocaust Research Room houses over thirty thousand letters, a collection of Holocaust books, artifacts, and art.

Facts and brief history of the rail car:

This rail car was built in 1917 and used for many purposes over the years. After being bought by a German state-owned company in the late 1970’s, the car was used for intra-company transport and then abandoned. During World War II, the Third Reich used this car to transport prisoners to camps. The car was discovered after the war in Poland, near the town of Chelmno. It was used as a grain car after World War II. The grain holes in the floor and the ventilation hole in the roof were put in after the war. This historic rail car transported 80 to 150 prisoners at a time to the camps.

The rail car at Whitwell Middle School was part of the “German Reichsbahn” and is one of the very last remaining “cattle cars” of the Nazi era. This car was located in a railroad museum in Robel, Germany. Peter Schroeder and Dagmar Schroeder Hildebrand (White House correspondents for German newspapers) purchased the car and donated it to Whitwell Middle School. This German rail car, numbered 011-993, was also used in the European film “Stalingrad” and in the U.S. film “Enemy at the Gate”.

How the car made it to Whitwell:

When the Schroeders purchased the car from the museum in Robel, they took on the daunting task of getting the car to Whitwell. After inspection by technicians of the German rail company, the car was declared “rollable” (maximum speed of 30 miles per hour). The German Armed Forces had the car sprayed and disinfected for foreign insects. The “Deutsche Bahn” had a decorative locomotive in front of the car and towed it under official designation “Special Train Holocaust Memorial”. The car traveled 300 miles to the German port of Cuxhaven.

By special arrangement with the German Armed Forces, the Memorial Car was placed on the chartered Norwegian freighter “MS Blue Sky” and was transported to the United States port of Baltimore.

Upon arrival in the United States, the car had to be cleared through customs and the required inspections of the US Dept. of Agriculture. From Baltimore, the CSX Rail Company transported the car to Chattanooga, Tennessee via one of their flatbed rail cars because the wheel gage of the German car conflicted with American rails. Fletcher Trucking Company of Whitwell, Tennessee provided the transportation for the final leg of the trip from Chattanooga to Whitwell Middle School.

B & B Crane Company donated the services of an operator along with a crane capable of lifting 600,000 pounds to set the car on the tracks at the Memorial site. The tracks, which the car sits on, were donated by CSX Railroad Company. These tracks were made in Tennessee in 1943. Members of the community beautified the area surrounding the car.

The Story Continues: Children’s Holocaust Memorial
Through the efforts of the students, staff, and community of Whitwell, and interested people and groups from all over the world, The Children’s Holocaust Memorial at Whitwell Middle School was dedicated November 9, 2001. Approximately one thousand people were in attendance at the dedication. The dedication was an awesome celebration of what a committed group of people can accomplish.

Today, the students serve as docents for the Memorial conducting tours, leading people in learning activities, and responding to inquires about the project. The work of the students is the subject of a documentary titled “Paper Clips”, presented by One Clip At A Time HMA, is a production of the Johnson Group, in association with Miramax Films and Ergo Entertainment.

The Museum Collection

And that’s not all. A room just inside the school entrance has been turned into a museum, with thousands of exhibit items, from photos, to books, to various items of Judaica, to an Ark housing a Torah Scroll, to artifacts of the concentration camps.

Clockwise from Upper Left: Ark with Torah Scroll, Various Artifacts, Museum Library, Volumes of Letters from Visitors and Survivors.

Links:

Visit the Whitwell Holocaust Museum Home Page

Purchase the Paper Clips Documentary

The Children’s Holocaust Museum on Trip Advisor

Currently, all of the author’s royalties from the sale of “Pavel’s Violin” go to support The Whitwell Children’s Holocaust Memorial.

Living on a Star in Terezin: a Poem

terezin-aerial-view
Terezin Concentration Camp

Living on a Star in Terezin

When I was young I’d lie
upon the cool grass at night
and gaze upon the sky.
And sometimes I would wonder why
I could not live there, on a star,
and in the heavens dance!
Clean and bright, and pure they are,
I thought, to my earth-bound sight;
tiny, shining beacons of the night.
Now, no longer young, and soon
perhaps to die,
now indeed I live upon a star,
between the river and the plains
that stretch as far
between here and home
as if among the starry skies I’d roamed.
A fortress battle-star of brick and earth:
the tortured turf now sick with sorrow,
void of mirth or stellar dance;
Eight pointed prison bastion of a star,
that is an ugly scar
upon a battered dream.

© 2017, Walter William Melnyk

A Child Survivor of Terezin

Tommy Lustig’s wonderful memoir, “Children on Death Row: The Hate and the War,” about his imprisonment in Terezin at 6 years old, and his father’s experience in Auschwitz, was the primary inspiration for my historical novel, “Pavel’s Violin: A Song of Hope.”  I am just finishing up the wonderful experience of helping Tom to edit his memoir, and it will soon be republished on Amazon in print and Kendle editions.  This will be the tenth edition of his work.  Watch for it coming soon, with this new cover:

Final Cover

 

It Must Be The Hat – A Poem

Tevye

It Must Be The Hat

Why the hat?
Why do we always wear a hat?
What’s with that, I asked,
with the hat?
He looked at me with eyes
as brown as the hat, wise
as the Good Book.
“Look,” he said. “Look,”
and touched the brim
of his brown hat.
“It’s not a whim,” he said,
“of man or God, that
I wear a hat, a hat as brown
as any clod of clay.
It reminds me, in a subtle way
that, like this hat I, too,
am like that bit of clay.
Anyway,” (he looked at me
and winked an eye,
and raised his pointed fingers
to the sky) it keeps the sun off
and the rain.
And otherwise I can’t explain it:
the hat, I mean.”
He tipped the visor up,
and scratched his head.
“Of course it just might be,” he said,
“we never get a chance to put it down
before we’re yet again
run out of town.”

©2017 Walter William Melnyk

Passing Out the Shit: A Poem

Cattle car 2

Passing Out the Shit Bucket
at Zgorzelec Station

Pass out the shit bucket, he said,
on the siding, in the rain.
The stench had closed our lungs for hours,
for miles, as the wheels clacked
over crumbling rails.
Stumbling, stumbling over emptied pails
of shit the nazi cursed
and shot old Josef for the fun of it.
And Josef, tumbling out the door,
rolled in the stinking stuff, but he
was dead already, and cared no more.

©9/3/2017 Walter William Melnyk

from ch 32 of Pavel’s Violin

Shit Buckets, Rage, and Laughter: an excerpt from “Pavel’s Violin

cattle car

“Pass out the shit bucket,” shouted a guard. And be careful with it, I don’t want your filth all over me.” While the bucket was being emptied, someone saw a signpost by the siding.
“Zgorzelec,” he said. “It’s Poland. My God, we’re in Poland.” And the door slid shut.

“It’s not the things you’d think would be the problems,” Pavel said to Aaron. Aaron was standing on Pavel’s shoulders with his face at the window slot, trying to get some fresh air without cutting his nose on the barbed wire. Moments at the window were at a premium, and available only to men who were already close by.

“What are you saying?” asked Aaron, nearly chocking on his small breath of fresh air. “What do you think our problem is, if it’s not the stench in here!” They had been traveling for nearly two days. Most men had not yet had the chance to sit for a few moments. Most had not gotten anywhere near the bucket. And the stench was so bad they had no desire to get any closer. Many just relieved themselves where they stood. Some people cursed them for it. Others understood, and wept.

“It’s not the stench,” Pavel went on. “Or the hunger or thirst, or the constant standing. It’s not even the dying,” he said, glancing toward the growing pile of corpses in one corner. “The real problem is the sheer, crushing boredom. The real problem is suffering and death have become so commonplace for us that we are growing bored with it.” He turned to the others in the car as Aaron clambered down off his shoulders.

“Don’t let yourself get bored!” He shouted at them. “Don’t let this become normal. Rage! Rage at the horror!”

“Getting angry won’t help,” someone said.

“Couldn’t hurt,’ Pavel retorted. “Chicken soup, you know.” And everyone who was still able burst into thankful laughter. “That’s it,” Pavel thought. “That’s what we need. Laughter. Rage and laughter.”

From Chapter 32, “Whatever It Takes,” 2-3 October 1944
“Pavel’s Violin” (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.