South Moravia is a region in the Czech Republic known for many things – a sunny climate, interesting folklore and reasonably good wine. Being the most visited region of the country outside Prague, many people come for historic sights, chateaus and mediaeval castles. But few visitors realize the region along the borders with Austria and Slovakia boats a number of Jewish monuments from times long gone. Most of them now belong to the Jewish Community in Brno which has one man to take care of them – architect Jaroslav Klenovský.
After decades of neglect, Jewish monuments around the Czech Republic got a new lease of life after the fall of communism in 1989. Synagogues, Jewish streets and cemeteries were rediscovered by tourists as well as locals who began to show some interest in the dilapidated buildings in their neighbourhoods that were once proud witnesses to the vibrant life of Jewish communities. The little town of Strážnice recently saw its synagogue reopen after a long renovation project, helmed by Jaroslav Klenovský.
“The renovation of the synagogue in Strážnice has taken a long 15 years. In 1993, it was restituted to the Brno Jewish community which gave it in 2002 to the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Czech Republic. The unfortunate fact that the renovation took so long was also reflected in the quality of the work, and its costs.”
Jewish settlement in Moravia took a different path from that in Bohemia. While in Bohemia, most Jewish people lived in Prague and other big cities, those in Moravia were expelled from royal towns and cities in the 15th century, and settled in small towns and villages. After Jews acquired equal rights in the Austrian Empire around mid 19th century, they moved to big cities like Brno, Olomouc, and even Vienna. I asked Jaroslav Klenovský if there were differences between synagogues in Bohemia and Moravia.
“Of course synagogues in general are often similar but there are always some regional specifics. In Moravia, these specifics are some very well preserved synagogues from the 17th and 18th century with painted interior decoration which was made by refugees from the east, from Poland and Ukraine. You won’t find synagogues like that in Bohemia. On the contrary, Bohemia has many synagogues from the historicizing period, especially using the Moorish style, such as the Jerusalem synagogue in Prague or the synagogue in Čáslav. No such synagogues have been preserved in Moravia.”
The Holocaust saw the end of Jewish life in most places in Moravia, and after the war only the Jewish community in Brno was revived. Today, most Jewish monuments in South Moravia belong to the Brno community. Apart from their own synagogue and community centre, they take care of seven synagogues and 14 cemeteries, with an annual upkeep budget of some 3 million crowns, or just over 200,000 US dollars.
“Jewish ‘real estate’ and monuments in South Moravia belong to the Brno Jewish Community and the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Czech Republic. In both cases, we have certain inside funds but that’s always only a part of the money. We always try to use all the opportunities at various offices and institutions and we apply each year for grants for the maintenance and renovation of these monuments.”
Jaroslav Klenovský, who is not Jewish himself, started working in Jewish monument care in 1980, after he graduated from the architecture programme at the Brno Technical University. He says that part of Moravian heritage was little known back then.
“Well, that story is almost 30 years old. I started working at the Brno Institute of Monument care. At the very beginning there I saw that there was a certain area which nobody was interested in. For me it was very interesting; I was drawn more and more deeply into this area, and that’s why I am so involved with Jewish monuments today.”
Today, the biggest problem with the renovation of old synagogues, cemeteries and other monuments, is acquiring sufficient funds. That is a change from the communist days, when the main issue was actually getting the authorities to approve renovation projects.
“At that time, the situation was of course completely different. There were some money back then, but there were no contractors. There was no way of restoring synagogues, either. They were all used for different purposes, mainly as warehouses. Apart from their own synagogue, the Brno Jewish Community only had cemeteries which had been neglected since 1938 and 1939. We only did basic maintenance, removing plants and bushes, and whenever a piece of a wall collapsed somewhere, it was fixed. But there was no way any systematic rehabilitation of ceremonial halls, for instance could be done. This was also due to the fact that these issues were overseen by the Communist Party officials known as ‘church secretaries’ who approved anything to do with religion, and they wouldn’t allow things like this.”
Before the war more than 360,000 Jews lived in the whole of Czechoslovakia. Today, there are an estimated 6,000 in the Czech Republic – with Brno the only city with a living community in South Moravia. Most South Moravian Jewish sights are now run by non-Jewish groups – who wishing to celebrate local heritage – use them as museums and venues for all kinds of Jewish-themed events and festivals, in towns such as Mikulov, Třebíč, Holešov and Boskovice.
“These four places are really old centres of Jewish culture in Moravia. But at the same time, these are towns where Jews don’t live anymore. The culture that’s remembered now is something that used to be there. We are in very close contact with these civic activities. I think the cooperation works fine, we try to help with the organization and the contents of such cultural events.”
Although the Czech Republic does not have a big problem with anti-Semitism, the country’s far-right groups are on the rise and last year, a group of neo-Nazis even wanted to march through Prague’s Jewish quarter on the anniversary of the Kristall Nacht pogrom. Does vandalism on Jewish sites reflect anti-Semitism?
“These acts of vandalism unfortunately occur all the time. Just yesterday we got a report from the police about an attack by vandals on the cemetery in Prostějov. From my own experience, I can say that the vast majority of these cases are not anti-Semitic but rather just plain foolishness. The teenagers who do these things in most cases have never seen a Jew in their lives; they are just fools, stupid fools who need to express themselves. But I mentioned Prostějov where the situation is a little different. There it’s homeless and unemployed people who make some extra money for alcohol by stealing metal parts of the tombstones and selling them for a couple of crown in the nearest scrap metal depot.”
“I’m afraid that is an improper question. No synagogue has been built here since from before the war, with the exception of Liberec, which was a very special case. No synagogues have been built here, and no synagogues will. That’s out of the question. But I designed renovation projects for synagogues, before as well as during the restoration works.”