As far as life within the Jewish Community of Nikolsburg during the 1930's is concerned, I can be quite specific and will try to give you my recollections of those years up to the time when we had to pack and run. Nikolsburg at that time had about 12900 or so inhabitants, give or take a few. I would estimate that there were approximately 120 to 150 Jewish families, with four hundred or five hundred Jewish souls living there at the time. The majority of people living there at the time were a mixture of shopkeepers, some were landowners, some doctors, lawyers, wine merchants, and horse traders. The rest were in businesses like restaurants, bakers - pastry bakers and bread bakers - and some were dealing in fowl. I suppose that they all made a fairly decent living with some being quite rich and influential.
The community had a Cantor, as a matter of fact his title was Obercantor. His name was Hellman, and the Rabbi was Dr. Alfred Willmann. Religion was the basis which kept the community together. Most, if not all the Jewish families kept kosher households. As far as religion is concerned the community would be best characterized as leaning toward the conservative. There were two synagogues in operation, the so called large temple or Altshul, and the winter temple or Neushul which occupied the first floor of the German Primary School. This building used to house the Jewish Primary School during earlier times but the Jewish school as such, during my time, did not exist any longer. Then there was the German Real Gymnasium, a very renowned institution with a three hundred year history. When I attended the Gymnasium, there was a total of ten or twelve Jewish boys and girls in the various grades. In my grade, for example, including myself, were four Jewish boys and one girl.
Jewish tradition was very much in the foreground. Zionism, which was present in the form of the Maccabi club, was taken seriously only by us youngsters. Our elders tolerated it with a sense of irony as something of a dream whose fulfillment was altogether less desirable . As far as entertainment and Jewish culture was concerned, there always was much activity culminating in plays being produced by a amateur Jewish theatrical group organized by a Jewish women's organization, the WIDSOR, and most often produced and directed by Mrs. Teltscher with the assistance of some of the other ladies. These plays, some specifically for children with us children as actors, and others for adults, were very definite social highlights and were attended not only by Jews but by the population at large. Specific Jewish holidays, for example Purim, were always highlighted by costume dances and dinner parties. All of these events took place at our grandparents restaurant (the Schaffa restaurant on Hauptgasse No. 11) which on the first floor had a very large hall with a stage at one end for theatrical performances. This stage could be taken apart when needed to enlarge the room for dances. Left over props from previous plays were preferred toys for us children to play with.
Lectures on various topics given by speakers from all over, sometimes from Brünn, sometimes Vienna or even further, were also a welcome addition to the normal routine and were also generally well attended.
Anti-Semitism, at that time was not a problem. It started to be a problem only after Hitler took power in Germany, and after the arrival of Mr. Henlein on the political scene. These events, all of a sudden, made the Czech government realize the importance of the border areas, populated predominantly by Germans who had lived there since the Austria-Hungarian era. Only the handful of Jews living in these areas could be considered reliable and trustworthy by the Czech authorities. It was this political situation which might have been the onset of a new prosperity and would have led to a considerable influx in the Jewish population if the occupation of the Sudetenland had not taken place. Several years before the occupation, probably around 1932, the government tried speedily to increase the Czech population of Nikolsburg by distributing land to Czech farmers and by bringing in Czech border guards and Czech State police together with their families, and also by turning Nikolsburg into a garrison town by bringing in the army.
Czech schools were established up to three grades of high school. The younger Jewish boys and girls switched immediately form German schools to the new Czech schools. My younger brothers and sisters were good examples of this change in policy because their basic education was already in Czech. This was also true of all the other Jewish children in their age group.
These changes, particularly the influx of the army and other Czech inhabitants would have had a tremendous impact on all our lives. Prior to this time children graduating from universities or entering various professions had little or no future in Nikolsburg and moved away in search of jobs. For example our uncle Hans, who graduated medical school and became a pediatrician, move to Brünn to make a living. However, for us things would have been more hopeful because a growing community could have absorbed more doctors, lawyers, and so on. All this of course is pure speculation. However, I myself am firmly convinced that none of us would have left Nikolsburg under normal circumstances. We grew up in a very close knit, self sufficient society, and if we could have had a decent livelihood and an opportunity to prosper and progress we would have remained in Nikolsburg if for no other reason than to be close to family.
Physically, the Jewish population was quite dispersed through the entire city. The so called "Judengarten' had, to the best of my knowledge, only four families living there. Several streets, actually the main streets, is where the majority of Jewish homes were concentrated. Streets such as Emil Schweinburg Strasse (also known as Hauptgasse), Brunner Strasse, Schlossgasse, and the city center, the so called Stadtsplatz are some of the places that come to mind.
Nikolsburg was the seat of the regional administration and weekly markets, bringing all the farmers from the region with their produce was another focal point of life.
Of course, even during our times the Schloss Deitrichstein was one of the many important historical points of the city and a truly magnificent tourist attraction. Once or twice a year the Schloss was opened to tourists and guided tours were conducted. Nikolsburg had several other important tourist attractions with historical significance. For example the Heiligenberg with numerous religious shrines, the Pulverturm, and the old city wall of which remnants still existed. As a matter of fact, our grandparents restaurant had part of the old wall as its border together with the remnants of an old turret that provided a good view into the Schlossgarten.
I think that I can say without hesitation that the relationship between the Jewish Community and the German speaking Gentile Community took a turn for the worse right after Hitler became a prominent figure in Germany (1933). Of course, Henlein had been on the scene for quite some time in Czechoslovakia before then. However, he was not seen as a great threat to national unity and prior to the arrival of Hitler his following was quite small.
It may appear rather naive in retrospect, but the Jewish population of Nikolsburg initially did not consider Hitler a serious threat to their existence. They were convinced, as were many others, that the stories coming out of Germany were greatly exaggerated and that all the commotion would soon die down again. Sadly, as they were soon to discover, they were wrong in their assessment of the situation.
Although some latent anti-Semitism was always present, it became far more evident after 1933, especially to us students attending the German State Real Gymnasium. Fights between Jewish students and Gentiles became a regular occurrence and racial slurs were frequently heard.
The tensions between the Jewish and German population became even more strained with the influx of Czech settlers, the opening of Czech schools, and the promise to turn Nikolsburg into a garrison town. The Jewish Community were naturally elated by these developments and wholeheartedly supported the "Czechification" of the community by sending their children to Czech schools and by openly demonstrating their allegiance to the Czech Republic and its President.
As a result of these actions taken by the Czech Government, a consensus developed within the community that they were safe and well protected and that there was no need to panic. Life went on very much as usual almost to the very end.
I have to add, and I do not mean to show any disrespect toward our parents and our elders, but we, the younger generation, did not agree with their assessment of the situation. As early as 1936/37 we tried to persuade them to emigrate to Palestine or at least to move to Brunn but we were not successful. Some of my friends had better luck and were able to persuade their parents to allow them to leave with the Youth Aliah. However, my brother and I were never interested in going by ourselves. We wanted to leave as a family.
Even when the threat of war with Germany appeared imminent and the Czech Army moved into Nikolsburg nobody made any attempt to leave. There was no panic, only the will to stay and fight. The cellars in our homes were reinforced against possible air attack. The wine cellar in our grandparents' restaurant was considered the safest place and was stocked with water, non-perishable food, and candles. The army organized us youngsters into helpers. We were taught to drive cars or motorcycles and trained to be used for whatever needs may arise.
The fortifications built since 1933 to protect the border with Austria were quite formidable and everyone was convinced that if war started we would be able to repulse any attack. Unfortunately, no one had predicted the Munich agreement which ceded the Sudetenland and its fortifications to Germany.
When the Czech Government, under pressure form Great Britain and France capitulated and withdrew its troops from the Sudetenland, the Jewish Community was devastated. In retrospect it is hard to believe that the community had been so short sighted as not to have an emergency evacuation plan in place. What followed was a disorganized panic driven exodus with each family left to its own resources. Many, like ourselves, had relatives in Brünn who were willing to provide temporary shelter.
My older sister was accepted by the Youth Aliah for emigration to Palestine. She happened to be in the right age group and thanks to our long standing affiliation with Zionist organizations, specifically with Maccai Hazair, she was accepted. She had an uneventful journey and after arriving in Palestine became a member of a youth kibbutz in Hulda.
Bella, a cousin and myself left Brünn on March 3, 1939 by means of an illegal transport. There were some seven hundred of us, a mixture of young, middle aged, and older people, most of them traveling as families. We left Brunn by train for Bratislava. There we were transferred to some Danube Tourist Boats flying the swastika flags. They brought us to Constance on the Black Sea were we boarded the ship that was supposed to bring us to Palestine. It was an old freighter, rusty, barely seaworthy, and hardly large enough to accommodate seven hundred people.
Our transport would make international headlines on two occasions. First, when the British navy intercepted it and ordered the captain to stop. The captain ignored the order and tried to escape. As a result we were shot at and suffered two deaths, several injuries, and a very large hole in the side of the ship. Despite the damage, we were able to make it back to Athens where the Jewish Community kept us alive and supplied for at least a month.
When Italy declared war on Greece the Greek government ordered us to leave immediately. The problem was that the ship that we were on was a wreck (it was the Agios Nikolaios), was listing strongly to one side, and was useless as a seagoing vessel. Again the Jewish community of Athens came to the rescue. They chartered another ship and a fishing barge that we were to take along in tow. The plan was that when we approached Palestinian territorial waters, we would transfer from the ship to the barge and attempt to break the blockade on our own. That was when we made headlines for the second time. We broke the blockade and entered Haifa harbor safely. The Jewish population of Haifa stood by us and Britain gave in and allowed us to stay. We were taken to a holding camp in Athlite where we were place under quarantine for four weeks. We were well treated, given medical attention, and eventually granted legal emigrant status. After quarantine was lifted we were free to go and I joined my sister who had by that time settled in Ramat-Gan. I found work at the Cafe Piltz, which at that time was the most elegant place in Tel-Aviv, and worked there as a waiter until I enlisted in the Czech Brigade in 1942.
Copyright © 2000 John Schaffa, by permission of Kurt Krakauer
Copyright © 2009 Bob Lenk
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