A Holocaust story and its relevance today

Ostrava Nesselroth passage

I’ve been reading the story of how a liberal, prosperous community succumbs to nationalism and xenophobia. In relatively short order, it descends into violence and murder as democracy and the rule of law collapse. Ultimately, it is transformed from a progressive centre of enterprise and culture into a backwater. Its Jewish community is wiped out.

This is the story of Ostrava in the Czech Republic and the rise and fall of its Jewish community. It’s also the story of my father and scores like him who managed to escape the fate of the overwhelming majority of Ostrava Jews and establish lives for themselves elsewhere.

Ostrava and Its Jews by David Lawson, Libuše Salomonovičová and Hana Šústková is a labour of love that pieces together a picture of the community from archival records alongside the testimony of survivors. It represents in microcosm, a rich and detailed portrait of European Jewish life and its relationship with wider society before the Holocaust swept it all aside.

Once the industrial powerhouse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Ostrava between the wars was the coal and steel producing centre of democratic Czechoslovakia and sustained a vibrant artistic scene. After the Second World War, its dynamism diminished and only now, thirty years after the end of Communism, is it finding its feet again. Its era of prosperity coincided with a flowering of tolerance and integration, during which Jews were among the immigrants who were drawn to Ostrava and became leaders of its economic development. Some of the characters in the story are scions of the Rothschild family. Others are grafters who scratch together a living and end up growing successful businesses.

In many ways, it seems to have been a golden age. The growth of Ostrava came late – beginning around the turn of the 19th Century – brought on by the Edicts of Tolerance, which allowed Protestants as well as Jews and others greater freedom to move and settle around the Austro-Hungarian empire and participate in commerce. Development was rapid. Ostrava grew from a community of 3,000 people to more than 200,000. Tolerance was beneficial for the migrants, who were able to shed the binds of their traditional communities, but also for the prosperity of Ostrava:

“These migrants, determined to seize the opportunities offered and, freed from the constraints of family, religion, or custom, all of which had been left behind, made the town into a dynamic forward-looking and advanced place. It had electric trams before London, and photographers operated there within a year of the development of photography. The Rothschilds and Guttmanns developed the coal, iron and steel works to rival anything in Sheffield or the Ruhr. The new migrants built and patronised theatres, opera, and concert halls. They became doctors, lawyers, engineers and musicians… The immigrants transformed Ostrava into a cultural centre and economic powerhouse.”

The Jewish community of pre-war Ostrava comes across as both deeply integrated into broader society and diverse in itself – socially and culturally Jewish more than it was religiously so. Secular atheistic Jews rub shoulders with the observant; religious practice ranges from the orthodox to reform Jews; and the orthodox employ a Christian organist and a non-Jewish opera singer. Marrying out is not unusual. The community enjoy all the normal things people enjoy: theatre, music, socialising in coffee shops and bars, promenading on the main drag.

The book is strangely uplifting as a contribution to Holocaust literature. So many of its tales culminate in adventurers cheating malign fate and overcoming adversity as refugees. There’s the young man who reaches England with a group of others in a private aircraft and manages to prevent their deportation by acting mad as he’s being escorted back to his plane (the pilot refuses to fly them). There’s the socialist Jew (my grandfather) whose contacts in the resistance lead him under the border through a mine works into Poland. His wife and her 11-year-old son (my grandmother and father) managed to follow him by crossing the border in broad daylight. It was only by chance that they got across. My grandmother had sent my father to play in the woods while she tried to persuade the Polish border guard that they’d been visiting Ostrava for the day. After about an hour, he got bored and returned to his mother and the guard, in effect, turned a blind eye to let them through. There were others who were tipped off by Nazi officers that they needed to leave immediately. The tales of escape accumulate so that you must pinch yourself to remember that this was not normal. The authors warn us to be careful in our reading. It’s the account of Jews who prevailed:

“Survivors all say that their survival was just a matter of luck and that people who were stronger, cleverer, richer or better connected than they, all perished. It is, however, not as simple as that. Luck was necessary, to be in the right place at the right time or not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, otherwise you were killed. But it was not enough for ultimate survival. Organising an escape from pre-war Ostrava involved strength, initiative, contacts and probably money as well as luck. Survival in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz required great strength, physical and psychological, as well as luck. Those who were mentally and physically not so strong, who had little or no money or education, were unlikely to have much chance either of getting out of Ostrava before the Holocaust or of surviving the camps. So they did not live to tell the tale. Those who did survive and were able and willing to tell us of their experiences disproportionately came from the upper echelons of Jewish society and whose life had, indeed, been very comfortable. Possibly they either did not remember or even did not know about the hard and difficult lives that others experienced.”

The industrialised killing that awaited about 90 per cent of the Jewish community appears here largely in the interstices of the main account: relatives and friends of the protagonists who weren’t so fortunate and ended up, as the authors repeatedly and correctly put it, murdered. I appreciate this plain speaking. So often we read of the victims of the Holocaust as having been gassed, or killed or simply perishing. The quiet insistence that runs through this book that they were murdered reminds us that this was criminality on a mass scale, not simply an artefact of war.

And while the book honours the memory of those who died, the sense of uplift is not inappropriate. It’s important also to honour those who managed not to become victims, who had the foresight and determination to engineer their own fate. And, as in Schindler’s List, the impact of their survival echoes through the subsequent generations. They went on to have families. And, thanks to the endeavours of David Lawson and his associates, they have formed a dispersed network of Ostrava Jews so their community is in a sense reconstituted.

Emilie & grandchildren
My great-grandmother Emilie, with all her grandchildren. Heinz, my father, is on the right at the end. Pauli, Kurt and Edith (back row left to right) were all murdered by the Nazis. Eva, on her grandmother’s knee, escaped on a kindertransport. Vera, between her and Heinz, survived the war in Vienna in fear of her life.

As interesting as the story of Ostrava and its Jews is the story of how it came to be told. After the war, it was discovered that there were accumulated in Prague Torah scrolls from synagogues throughout Czechoslovakia that the Nazis had destroyed. They were brought to London from where the Westminster Synagogue organised their dispersal to diaspora communities around the world. One of these scrolls, from Ostrava, ended up in the synagogue of Kingston upon Thames. There David Lawson and a number of other members of the Kingston synagogue initiated a project to enquire into its provenance. My father was the first of the Ostrava survivors that they found, coincidentally living just a few miles away.

David’s leadership of the project is an inspiration in itself. A retired management consultant, he spent the intervening fifteen years not just pursuing the story – with the help of collaborators in Ostrava and Prague – but finding his way to more and more Ostrava exiles around the world and connecting them into the project. I was present at one reunion when two elderly gentleman studying a school photograph recognised themselves as class mates who hadn’t seen each other for some 70 years. There’s a moral purpose to the project that memorialises the essential decency and normality of a community that was demonised then pulverised:

“It was not the Garden of Eden or Utopia, but it was a close approximation to a good civil society. And it was all destroyed within three months, in 1939. The Germans invaded Ostrava on 14 March 1939 and by the end of June all the synagogues had been destroyed, Jewish doctors, lawyers and civil servants had been prevented from working and Jewish children barred from school. Civic life and the rule of law disappeared.”

Ostrava’s story may seem of marginal interest to most people. But it has universal relevance. The echoes with our own era of the breakdown of liberalism and tolerance are impossible to ignore. We do not take seriously the threat to civilised order until nemesis is upon us. But the warning signs arise before the descent.

As I write, British democracy is in chaos – unable to resolve the deadlock over Brexit – and antisemitism has infected the main party of opposition. As the scholar David Hirsh has argued in Contemporary Left Antisemitism, many left-wingers, schooled to equate antisemitism with Nazism, struggle to recognise as antisemitism forms of bigotry that fall short of the final solution. But the Ostrava story shows that the catastrophe of Nazism was not simply the expression but the culmination of nationalistic and antisemitic sentiments which had become normalised by the time of the Nazi invasion. Antisemitism, in this sense, is a lead indicator of the threats to democratic ways of life.

For me, the story is a strange one. At some level, I owe my existence to the Holocaust. I grew up British with mixed heritage – with a pan-European sensibility and sensitised to antisemitism and racism from an early age. My upbringing was left-leaning and this seemed like common sense given our inheritance. I instinctively recoil from Brexit because it seems that the flawed co-operation of nations is preferable to competitive isolation. But I’m also averse to arbitrary authority and recognise that an alternative reading of Ostrava’s story could cause me to celebrate Brexit as a reinvigoration of Britain’s democratic impulse. The bigger point here is to lean towards tolerance and the respectful exploration of difference of view. This quality seems in desperately short supply at the present time.

Most of all, Ostrava underlines that the institutional order that we take for granted is much more precarious than we imagine:

“Immigration and tolerance lay behind and drove the tremendous economic and cultural flowering of Ostrava. The efforts and successes of 150 years were destroyed by racism, bigotry and totalitarianism within a few days and have barely been recreated now, over 70 years later. And this destruction was carried by what was probably the most cultured, educated and technically advanced nation in Europe.”

When massive political and social forces are at work, our ability to influence them can be minimal. In such circumstances, our agency must be directed to survival. Before things reach that state, we should attune ourselves to the indicators of transgression and not allow the abhorrent to become normalised.

Ostrava and Its Jews by David Lawson, Libuše Salomonovičová and Hana Šústková. Available from Amazon.

I will be taking part in a discussion of ‘Ostrava and Its Jews’ with David Lawson on 24th January. David and I will be in conversation and will hopefully be joined by a representative of the Holocaust Education Trust. Please join us at Waterstones, 2-4 The Broadway, Crouch End, London N8 9SN at 7.15pm. More details here.

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