It has been sixty years since the end of the Second World War but it was not until last Sunday that the northern Czech industrial town of Usti nad Labem unveiled a memorial dedicated to the 1,000 Jewish residents who perished in the Holocaust. It is one of the most striking memorials in Europe - a massive granite Star of David half immersed into the site of a former Jewish cemetery. It is simple but powerful.
Sunday's unveiling ceremony was attended by town residents, ambassadors from various European countries, and holocaust survivors. Usti nad Labem mayor, Petr Gandalovic:
"This memorial will not only serve as a reminder of those who perished in the Holocaust but also of the Jewish citizens of Usti nad Labem who helped build this town into what it is today - they too deserve credit."
From the 1860s until 1938, the town of Usti nad Labem, with a population of about 100,000, had a thriving Jewish community, who contributed greatly to the town's industrial, economic, and cultural development. Thanks to men like Eduard Jakob Weinmann and Ignaz Petschka, for example, the city played an important role in Europe's coal industry and even had its own coal exchange in the second half of the nineteenth century. But before long a tragic fate befell the city's Jewish community.
On New Year's Eve in 1938, the Nazis burnt down the local Synagogue, which was converted into a meat factory. During the war the great majority of the town's Jewish residents were sent to the Nazi death camps. In the 1950s, the Jewish part of the local cemetery was destroyed, leaving little behind to remind local residents that it ever had a large and active Jewish community. Israeli ambassador to Prague, Arthur Avnon:
"This memorial will remind people of what happened but it's not enough. I think that it is very important to educate the young generation especially about the Holocaust. It is the responsibility of every government in Europe. The past has showed us that human nature can sometimes explode into such atrocities and it is important to educate people about it so that it will not happen again."
Only a few members of the town's Jewish community returned home after the Holocaust. Most of today's 40 or so Jewish residents moved to the city from Western Ukraine in 1945-1946. The unveiling of the Holocaust memorial was part of an international conference, which was held to explore Usti nad Labem's German and Jewish roots.