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Ignoring Jewish history
Op-ed: Display of statues at Třebíč Ghetto synagogue another example of European insensitivity

Fresh manifestations of European anti-Semitism raised their heads once again when Jewish religious leaders were physically attacked by thugs in Berlin and Vienna at the end of August.

 

Recent data show that anti-Semitism in Europe is on the rise again, especially in Eastern Europe. The situation seems to be worst in Hungary, Poland and Ukraine. A recent Jewish Anti Defamation League poll carried out in Hungary revealed that a majority of that country’s population holds anti-Semitic views.

 

There are European countries however, where the situation seems to be better at first sight. One of them is the Czech Republic.

 

Data presented in the Prague Jewish community’s report showed that during 2011 there was no year-on-year increase of anti-Semitic events in the Czech Republic.

 

Indeed, visitors to Prague are likely to come away with the impression that all is well with the Jewish community of the Czech Republic. Thousands of tourists annually visit the well-maintained Jewish historical sites of Prague.

 

A member of Prague’s Jewish community told me that, at worst, Czechs are generally indifferent to the Jews. He said the relative absence of Muslims in the Czech Republic contributes to the tolerant climate. He also said he is proud of the situation in the Jewish Quarter in Prague.

 

But the fine state of preservation of Prague’s Jewish Quarter contrasts starkly with the former Jewish ghetto in Třebíč.

 

The Třebíč Ghetto, founded in the 15th century, is advertised by the Czech government as the best preserved Jewish ghetto in Europe.

 

It is evidently for this reason that UNESCO added the Třebíč Ghetto to its prestigious World Heritage List.

 

Visitors to the Třebíč Ghetto will immediately notice that no attempt has been made to tell the full history of Třebíč Ghetto’s Jews.

 

In stark contrast to the wall of names at the entrance of the Warsaw Ghetto and the memorial in the Lodz Ghetto in Poland, there is no memorial of any kind to the 1,700 Jews of Třebíč who perished in Hitler’s death camps.

 

Their abandoned homes have been turned into cozy apartments, shops and pubs that serve the local population. The European Union and the Třebíč municipality provide the funding that has enabled their restoration.

 

Other than its two synagogues, the only building still recognizable as part of the ghetto is its former hospital. The structure was recently renovated. But instead of becoming a museum, the ghetto hospital has become a gentrified apartment building for the Czechs.

 

Educate the masses

The most shocking example of ignorance of Jewish history and religion at this UNESCO site is to be found in the so called ‘Rear Synagogue.’ The building today serves mainly as a cultural and exhibition center for the local population.

 

Jewish religious and ritual items are displayed in showcases on the synagogue’s upper floor. They include an open Torah scroll with its text visibly on display (forbidden according to Jewish law).

 

In the main hall of this holy site, to the left and right of the niche that formerly hosted the Holy Ark containing the Torah scrolls, two small statues are on display today. One depicts the biblical incident of the Sin of the Golden Calf. The second replicates the crucifixion of Jesus.

 

Dasa Juranova, a spokesperson for the Třebíč Ghetto’s management, explained to me that the choice of the statues was the work of the director and the management of the site.

 

Another member of the Czech management of the ghetto, Lenka Nevrklova, conceded that not enough was being done to explain the history of the Jews of Třebíč.

 

However, the display of statues in the synagogue of the former ghetto - a matter clearly prohibited by Jewish law – as well as the choice of the statues, testify to something far worse than negligence.

 

It is obvious that its Czech management regards the site as a part of the Czech heritage and not as part of the Jewish inheritance in Europe.

 

Insensitivity of this kind to matters of Jewish religion and history is becoming a worrying trend in Europe. It finds its expression in attempts to prohibit circumcision and ritual slaughter in several European countries. Among them are traditionally liberal countries like the Netherlands, which historically was one of the countries where Jews enjoyed broad freedom of religion.

 

In Germany, this trend has already lead to criminal charges against a rabbi following the ruling of a Cologne court that circumcision constitutes an illegal form of bodily harm to babies.

 

The chief rabbi of France, Giles Bernheim, has recently warned about the growing rejection of Jews and Judaism in his country. Anti-Semitic incidents in France have increased by 53% compared with the same period last year.

 

It is encouraging that some in Europe have apparently seen the writing on the wall and have taken to the streets to protest the rise in anti-Semitic attacks. But clearly much more needs to be done.

 

There is obviously a direct link between the ‘growing rejection of Jews and Judaism’ and the rise in anti-Semitic attacks in Europe.

 

It is true that the current upsurge in Jew hatred in Europe is directly connected to the demonization of the Jewish state of Israel, as Jonathan Tobin recently pointed out in Commentary Magazine.

 

Anti-Semitism in Europe has a longer history, however, and has always been fed by distortions about Jews and their history and religion.

 

The way to combat this problem is to educate the masses, not only about the Holocaust but also about Jewish history and religion.

 

UNESCO world heritage sites are uniquely fit to provide this type of education.

 

Therefore UNESCO, as well as the Czech government should take action to rectify the situation in the Třebíč ghetto.

 

A first step should be to respect the holiness of the Rear Synagogue and to ban the exhibition of statues at the site.

  

Yochanan Visser is a a freelance journalist and the director of Missing Peace, an Israel-based information office.  

 

 

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