Residents of a town in the Czech Republic plan to celebrate the dedication of their newly restored synagogue this summer, even though there are no longer any Jews living there.
Miryam Salter of Scottsdale, who was born in the town of Krnov, known as Jaegerndorf in German, left the town in October 1938, when she was 4, after her father’s business was taken from him and he no longer had access to his bank account.
Anyone who left Krnov, which is near the Polish border, by 1938 survived, according to Salter, and those who stayed were deported and murdered.
After a brief time in Slovakia, her family eventually arrived in Tel Aviv/Jaffa on March 23, 1939; she moved to the United States in 1960.
She says that although she felt no emotional connection to Krnov while she was growing up, she remembers the wonderful stories her parents told her about it. So in 1986, she visited the town one day while staying in Prague. “Everything was covered in soot and it was depressing,” she says. Grocery store shelves were empty and she was told before going that she would likely be under surveillance because it was then under communist rule.
A few years later, after the town was no longer under communism, the people in Krnov “cleaned up their environment,” Salter says, which included restoring the buildings.
When Salter’s brother, Gideon Jokl, who lives in Ramat Hasharon, Israel, decided to visit Krnov in October 2012, he found a lush, green town with restored buildings, and learned that the synagogue was being restored by a group of Christian residents, who formed an association that has been actively preserving the town’s Jewish history. He was told that the synagogue’s restoration would be completed in October 2013 so he and Salter, and 13 other descendants of the town, planned to be there.
Although the reopening ended up being postponed to July 2014, the group stuck with their original plan and made the trip last October.
One of Salter’s cousins, Lize Ben Yaacov, who lives in Tel Aviv, was 15 when she left Krnov in 1937. Last year’s trip marked her first return to her hometown, and at age 90 she still remembered where her grandparents’ house was and was able to point out the coffeehouse where her grandfather played gin rummy every afternoon. “She said the synagogue was restored exactly the way she remembers it,” Salter says.
On Friday night, Oct. 10, the town hosted a flute concert at the synagogue for their guests; coincidentally that was also the wedding anniversary for Lize’s parents – they were married on Oct. 10, 1920, in that same synagogue.
One member of the group brought a prayerbook and tallit from Israel and “said the Kaddish for all the people that didn’t make it,” Salter says. She thinks it was the first time a Jewish prayer was said in the synagogue since the 1930s. Because there are no Jews left in the town, the synagogue is used as a meeting place, according to Salter. “They realize that it’s not going to function as a synagogue because there’s nobody to pray there.”
A festive dinner – with kosher dietary laws observed – was held at a house adjacent to the synagogue, a building slated to be used as a Jewish museum.
After dinner, each of the 15 guests of honor shared stories about their families’ connection to the town with the approximately 150 people in attendance.
The following day, residents gave a tour of the town, which included a visit to the mayor’s office and the cemetery, which had been desecrated, Salter says. However, two of the residents who are preserving the Jewish artifacts had found a document showing who was buried in each plot. “We found my great-grandfather’s place,” Salter says. “It was very, very emotional.”
The members of the association told her that now that the synagogue was restored, their next plan was to restore the cemetery. Funding for the synagogue restoration came from the Czech Republic government and from the European Union, she says.
After lunch, the group split up to visit the places where their families lived before the war. Since the town changed from German to Russian to Czech, some of the street names had changed.
She and her brother found the home she was born in, an apartment above a store now owned by a Vietnamese man. He brought them upstairs to see the apartment, which Salter says was very emotional. “Here I am standing, 75 years later.”
When Salter asked one of the locals about why they have done this work, he replied, “Are you nuts? Your people were here 600 years, they contributed greatly to the community, they were part of the community. They’re all gone, and we need to remember them. We need to tell the world that this is what happened here.’ ”
Salter says she is sharing her story because “I think the world needs to know that there is a community like that with decent, wonderful people that are doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”