Czechs and Jews
After visiting the Jewish Museum the children discuss some of the things that have stuck in their minds, and, by talking with other children who did not take part in the excursion, new perspectives emerge on themes like the Holocaust, the history of families, and how little they know about the Jewish community currently living in the Czech Republic.
Jew, Jewish: Definitions of ‘Jewish’ and the question of ‘who is a Jew’ are problematic and unclear. The main reason is that the religious and ethnic aspects of being Jewish are not sharply separated and many different conceptions of them exist. Being Jewish can be understood as belonging to a religious faith (Judaism) or as an ethnicity or a culture. It can also be understood as all of these things together. Less religious Jews understand it primarily in terms of ethnicity and culture. For religious Jews, religion and ethnicity merge into one, as, according to the Torah, these two categories are interchangeable.
Kosher: The adjective ‘kosher’ derives from ‘kashrut’, a ritual set of dietary laws. The rules of kashrut are very complex and almost constitute an entire discipline. In brief: what is not kosher are those foods indicated in the Bible as impure – pigs, camels, horses, asses, pachyderms, birds of prey, sharks, fish without scales such as stingrays and sturgeons (and caviar), reptiles, amphibians, seafood and various other animals. The use and consumption of animal blood is strictly forbidden, and there is a prescribed ritual method of slaughter (shechita). Eating meat and milk products together is not allowed (which is why the branches of McDonald´s in Israel do not sell cheeseburgers) and so on. Special rules also apply to the holiday of Pesach, and there are various other special rules (e.g. kosher pareve, glatt kosher). The kitchen and even the home can be kosher, and the adjective is also used figuratively to apply to other things (e.g. there are even kosher products for cleaning the WC). Alongside the ideological aspects of kashrut its educational effects are also widely emphasised, and it is understood as a continuous reminder of Jewishness/Judaism. Even non-Jews use the word ‘kosher’ in a figurative way.
The history of relations between Jews on the one hand and Czechs and other peoples living in the territory of the Czech lands on the other is very varied. It has both good periods (the Rudolphine period; during the First Czechoslovak Republic; the present) and very bad ones (the mediaeval pogroms and the expulsion of the Jews, accusations of ritual murders, modern age anti-Semitism).
The earliest written records of Jewish settlement in the Czech lands date from the 10th century, but Jewish merchants apparently had contacts with this region as early as Roman times. The initially free status of local Jewish inhabitants later often alternated with oppression and pogroms, when the Jews often became the target of Christian anti-Semitism and various denunciations. On the other hand, during periods of strong royal power, the rulers granted Jews numerous privileges; the decline of royal power (e.g. in the post-Hussite period) was marked by the expulsion of Jews from towns. During the Renaissance, Jewish communities flourished uncommonly well, but a real turning point in their position occurred during the Enlightenment, when reforms opened up the way for the Jewish population to achieve equal status with the Christian population. For the first time in European society, Jews enjoyed full equality before the law, and gradually gained access to schools, universities, and professions. The French Revolution and emancipation served as impulses for the emergence of ideological cleavages within Judaism, giving rise to streams of liberalism, conservatism, isolationism, assimilation, and so on. The Czech lands also saw the emergence of Zionism, the Jewish response to the European nationalism and anti-Semitism of the second half of the 19th century (its most significant manifestation in this country was the ‘Hilsner affair’ ) and the attempt to found a Jewish homeland or state, where Jews would find protection from anti-Semitism.
All the social and political changes that were ushered in during the 18th and 19th centuries were manifested in the Czech lands by the emergence of various Jewish associations, movements, and political parties.
The First Czechoslovak Republic
In Czechoslovakia during the First Republic (despite its imperfect minority policy) relations between Jews and other citizens were generally positive. In addition, during the First Republic Jews in Czechoslovakia were able to declare their affiliation with the ‘Israelite religion’, and Czechoslovakia was one of the few countries in Central Europe to recognise Jewish nationality. This fact was the result not just of an initiative of President Masaryk, but also of the opinions of the Czech intelligentsia which, based on its own experiences in the struggle for national recognition, sympathised with the struggle of the Jews to realise their objectives. Czechoslovak recognition of Jewish nationality was unprecedented and signified recognition of Jewish national unity and the right to the cultural and national self-determination. There was also a pragmatic element to recognition of the Jewish nation: the formal reduction in the number of members of the German and Hungarian minorities in Czechoslovakia.
During the First Republic a number of Jewish organisations and clubs operated completely freely in the country. The Jewish Party of Czechoslovakia was even twice elected to Parliament. Disputes sometimes arose within Jewish organisations and communities between conservative and orthodox circles (especially in Carpathian Ruthenia) and progressive Zionists. Despite the democratic atmosphere that prevailed in the First Republic, expressions of anti-Semitism also occurred during this period; and they did so either in connection with the union of Jewish culture and German culture, or, conversely, in the form of national-racist expressions on the part of various fascist groups. A role was also played by Christian anti-Semitism. However, there was much less anti-Semitism in interwar Czechoslovakia than in any other country of Central Europe.
The Second World War and the impact of the Holocaust
During the Second World War, Czechoslovakia, like the majority of Europe, witnessed the greatest Jewish tragedy in history. During the Holocaust the majority of Jews who had lived in Czechoslovakia in the First Republic (where 350,000 had lived before the war) were murdered. During the war 153 Jewish communities were destroyed and roughly 270,000-280,000 people were murdered for being Jewish (in total 345,000 of those in pre-war Czechoslovakia were killed). Many of them were deported to extermination camps located on territory of what is today Poland. Prior to this, many of them passed through Theresienstadt concentration camp.
It is a bitter irony that the post-war transfer of Germans out of Czechoslovakia signified a second blow to many Jews, often for no other reason than that they spoke German. Cases are documented in which people were transferred out of the country immediately on returning from a concentration camp.
After the war around 250,000 Jews remained on the territory of Czechoslovakia (the country lost Carpathian Ruthenia after the war, where the largest Jewish communities had been located – most of the Jews there, however, had also been murdered, and some of those who survived were repatriated to post-war Czechoslovakia).
Many surviving Czechoslovakian Jews took advantage of the opportunity at the end of the war to leave for the newly-forming state of Israel (the British mandate of Palestine until 1948). Out of the pre-war Jewish population in Czechoslovakia, only a fragment remained after the war (14,000-18,000 people).
The period of 1948–1989
Following the creation of the state of Israel, it is no longer possible to clearly separate the relationship of Czechoslovakia (and the Czech Republic) and Czech (and Slovak) Jews to Israel. This concept is reflected in the text below.
After the Second World War, Czechoslovakia very actively supported the emergence of the state of Israel. The Czechoslovak government (by that time communist) recognised the independence of Israel five days after its establishment, and established diplomatic ties. One of the often-cited milestones in the relationship between Czechoslovakia and Israel is that Czechoslovakia was to a significant degree involved in supplying weapons to the newly established Jewish state, and did so at a time when Israel was internationally isolated, during the first Israeli-Arab war in 1948–49. This assistance (which was extremely important to Israel at that time) was provided with the approval of the Soviet Union, which supported the creation of Israel as a counterweight to pro-Western Arab regimes. However, as soon as it was found that Israel was inclined towards the West and was not setting out on the path of ‘popular democracy’, the USSR and the entire Eastern bloc thoroughly revised their stance towards the Jewish state. The paradox is that the top Czechoslovak communist, Rudolf Slánský, who was later condemned for treason as an agent of Zionism, was allegedly against the sale of weapons and the provision of training to Israel.
The court trials against Slánský were the first openly anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic trials in the Eastern bloc states. Out of all the political trials that took place in the 1930s in the Soviet Union and in the early 1950s in the communist satellite states, anti-Semitism was strongest in the Prague trials. Nevertheless, even after the reversal of the Soviet Union’s policy towards Israel diplomatic relations between Czechoslovakia and Israel, though very cool, were nonetheless maintained. Diplomatic relations were formally severed after the outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967, when in the footsteps of the Soviet Union the other Soviet satellite states broke ties with Israel.
In the years that followed the suppression of the Prague Spring, and after the resurgence of the hard-line communist regime in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, the policy of states in the Soviet bloc essentially mirrored the Soviet Union’s hostile policy towards Israel. These states (except for Romania and Yugoslavia) lent political, military, and propagandistic support to anti-Israel Arab movements, including the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. During the normalisation period the PLO even established representation in Czechoslovakia, and in 1988 the Czechoslovak Socialist State recognised the PLO’s declaration here of the (de facto non-existent) ‘Palestinian State’.
During the normalisation era Czechoslovakia continued its hostile policy towards Israel, and was one of the few states in the Soviet bloc that did not grant Israeli citizens entry into the country. In the governmental campaign to discredit Charter 77, one of the claims made was that it had been founded at the initiative of ‘anti-communist and Zionist headquarters abroad’.
However, even in this period there were strange exceptions: even though Israelis were not allowed on Czechoslovak territory, Israeli communists were allowed to negotiate here with representatives of the PLO. During normalisation, the Soviet Union also several times allowed Jews to emigrate from the Soviet Union to Israel. These émigrés travelled by special trains across Czechoslovak territory into Austria.
It was not until 1988 that the first significant changes occurred in Czechoslovakia‘s policy towards Israel, the first trade agreements were signed between businesses in the two states, and Israeli tour groups were granted permission to visit Czechoslovakia.
Jewish communities in Czechoslovakia were to a limited degree allowed to operate in Czechoslovakia during the communist period. Like Christian churches, however, they were the target of interest from and infiltration by the secret police. During the normalisation period the communist regime tended to look down on Czechoslovak Jews, and it was during this period that many valuable Jewish monuments were left to ruin or were even destroyed.
It was only the revolution in 1989 that led to a fundamental turning point in the state’s attitude towards the Jews (and Israel). Diplomatic relations at the level of state representation had already been renewed by 1990. Thus, after Hungary, Czechoslovakia became the second post-communist country to renew diplomatic relations with Israel. The current relations between Israel and the Czech Republic are described on both sides as good (for example, there have been no visa requirements between the two countries since 1996) and in the area of policy Israel describes the Czech Republic as one of its most allied states in Europe.
However, following the initial wave of euphoria that accompanied the aftermath of November 1989, a number of difficulties soon emerged in connection with the issue of the restitution of Jewish property confiscated by the Nazis during the Second World War and then by the communist regime. In the legal chaos of the post-communist period, even the partial redress of property injustices was a long process, and some restitution cases have still not been concluded today. This fact has drawn criticism from representatives of Jewish communities and international organisations dealing with restitution issues, and from Israel itself.
In the Czech Republic around 4,000 people profess Judaism (however, it is very likely that there are many more people living here who have Jewish roots but do not profess Judaism). Twenty years after 17 November 1989, the revival of Jewish cultural and religious life in the Czech Republic has been very strong. Jewish communities in the country (the largest being located in Prague) are very active in many areas: the restoration of Jewish monuments, museums, and exhibits, rememberance of the Holocaust, educational and cultural events, and so on. At the civic and unofficial level of Czech Jews and supporters of Israel there exists a wide array of contacts with Israel, which is largely owing to the fact that there are many people in Israel who by origin have ties to Czechoslovakia or the Czech Republic. Moreover, Czech citizens taking advantage of Israel’s Law of Return continue to leave for Israel. At present mainly Czech students use this opportunity. In Israel itself there are several variously formalised compatriot organisations.
Alongside the Jewish communities in the Czech Republic today there are also a number of more or less formal associations, such as the Czech Union of Jewish Youth, Bejt Praha, the Jewish Liberal Union, and others. The international Chassidic movement Chabad Lubavitch is present in the Czech Republic, and there is also a branch here of the Jewish Agency for Israel (Sochnut), which deals with issues connected with migration to Israel. There is a Jewish preschool, primary school, and secondary school in Prague. Religious life has also revived (the ordination of new rabbis, or the arrival of rabbis from abroad, the construction of ritual baths, the importing of kosher foods, and the opening of kosher restaurants, vineyards, and so on). Given the great diversity of opinion within the Jewish community in this country (especially in Prague) there have also been internal conflicts over the administration of Jewish affairs. Various anti-Semitic incidents have occurred as the Czech extreme right and Neo-Nazis have become more active. Overall, however, there is a positive atmosphere surrounding the relations between Jewish and non-Jewish Czechs, comparable to that of the First Czechoslovak Republic period.
Note: This text draws on sections in the chapter ‘Československo, Česká republika a vztahy k Izraeli a Palestině’ in Čejka, M.: Izrael a Palestina – minulost, současnost a směřování blízkovýchodního konfliktu, Barrister & Principal, Brno 2007.
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