Sarah A Cramsey. Journal of Modern Jewish Studies. Volume 7, Issue 1. March 2008.
Shortly after the Second World War, Jewish communities in the Czech lands began to remember the Jewish victims of the conflict through a ceremony called the ” tryzna “. This article investigates the structure and timing of tryzny to understand how Czech‐Jews memorialized the tragedy that had recently befallen their community. By 1952, it became standard practice for Jewish communities to host a tryzna in March to commemorate the Nazi liquidation of the so‐called “Czech family camp” at Auschwitz‐Birkenau in 1944. The proliferation of tryzny ensured that Czech‐Jews mourned and commemorated the dead of the Second World War in a religious and then increasingly public way. What began as small community events, coalesced and grew into national mourning ceremonies. Tryzny link a national story of loss and an awareness of the larger Jewish genocide with Jewish funerary practices. These tryzny evolved within a communist state, in a world where the concept of the “Holocaust” had not yet entered international consciousness.
On 1 September 1945, a mere two weeks after the official closure of Terezín concentration camp, Jewish community delegates from across Bohemia and Moravia gathered in Prague for their first postwar meeting. The participants faced many formidable tasks if they hoped to re‐establish any semblance of normalcy in daily Jewish life. The seven‐year Nazi occupation and concurrent war had dismembered Czech society and decimated Czech Jewry. Within the country, as well as throughout Europe, Jewish life, indeed life in general, had to be completely rebuilt. And yet despite these daunting logistical concerns, delegates at the Jewish Town Hall on that late summer day took time for reflection as well as discussion. At this initial gathering, Czech‐Jewish leaders observed the first tryzna—a religious commemoration dedicated to those Czech‐Jews who perished during the War.
The tryzna, while not uniquely a Jewish ceremony, is essential to understanding the immediate post‐1945 Czech‐Jewish experience and the initial development of a memory dedicated to the Second World War Jewish tragedy in Czechoslovakia. A divine worship service that memorializes the death of an important personality or the collective deaths of many, a tryzna unites its participants in ritual, prayer and contemplation. More intense in scope and emotion than a standard funerary observance, a tryzna is usually held in a public place and is open to all mourners. In the first fifteen years following the end of the War, Jewish communities in the Czech lands hosted at least 120 tryzny, preserving the memory of Hitler’s Czech‐Jewish victims in an openly religious way. Simultaneously a religious ritual and a form of public remembrance, the proliferation of tryzny helped ensure that traditional Jewish mourning practices would influence the memorialization of the genocide in the Czech lands. Once it developed into a standardized memorial service, and it did so quite quickly, it can be seen as representative of a broader memorializing trend during that period. By 1952 at the latest, it became standard practice for each Czech‐Jewish religious community to host a tryzna in the month of March.
Although this historical exploration of religious commemoration belongs to the field of religious history, it also provides a more nuanced understanding of the postwar historiography of Jews in the Czech lands. Especially as we delve into the standard political narrative of Cold War era Eastern Europe, dates must be held in suspicious regard. Usually, the historiography of the Jewish experience in communist Czechoslovakia is dictated solely by dates along a standard trajectory that emphasizes the following years: 1948 (the creation of the State of Israel and communist coup d´etat), 1950 (the nationalization of public institutions and religious bodies), 1951 (the beginning of the Rudolf Slánský show trial and antisemitic purges in the Communist Party) and 1967 (the Six‐Day War in Israel, which the Soviets protested) (see Bulinová; Crampton; Svobodobá). The reality for some Czech‐Jews was much more complicated and interesting. Once historians of communist eastern Europe take up the challenge presented by Laurie Koloski (20) to “see beyond the state”, the postwar life of Czech‐Jews and the public memory they created will stand in sharper relief. This article is a step in that direction.
The existence of a standardized commemorative act such as the tryzna so soon after liberation also calls into question the usual trajectory of Holocaust memory. Many scholars argue that before 1961 survivors did not vocalize their memories of tragic Second World War events. Indeed, most treatments claim that only in the 1960s and 1970s did the idea of the European Jewish “Holocaust” enter international consciousness and the realm of public memory. Robert Kraft (164), for example, notes that “for most of the thirty years following the war, the air filled with imposed quiet”. Saul Friedlander is struck by the same silence that “did not exist within the survivor community”, but “was maintained in relation to the outside world, and was often imposed by shame, the shame of telling a story that must appear unbelievable, and was, in any case, entirely out of tune with (the) surrounding society” (Friedlander, quoted in Hartman 259). According to Aaron Hass (52), for survivors of the Holocaust
mourning has proved problematic … those who were spared were too exhausted, too frightened, and too disoriented to mourn soon after liberation. They felt compelled to continue to run away from death. They were also denied the support and encouragement to mourn as others were too uncomfortable to acknowledge what had transpired.
Commemorative events, such as the Czech‐Jewish tryzny, however, suggest that these interpretations are incomplete. It is true that not one tryzny from the 1940s or 1950s referred to the “Holocaust,” or to the “shoah”. These concepts, at least as these more contemporary authors understand it, did not yet exist.
While the tryzna offered a standard mode of commemoration, there was no universal nomenclature, no singular noun to indicate exactly what these tryzny remembered. Usually tryzny were offered for the “cobelievers who were tortured to death and killed during the Second World War” (“za souvěrce padlé a umučené v druhé světové válce“). Less often, survivors held tryzny for the “tortured and killed Czechoslovakian Jews” (“na umučené a padlé československé židy“). Rarely, Jews dedicated a tryzna to the victims of Nazism and fascism (“na oběti nacismu a fasismu“), and just once to the victims of fascism and racism. In truth, the adjective attached to the tryzna seems inconsequential; in an atmosphere saturated by survivors of the recent wartime atrocities, it stands to reason that most Czech‐Jews would understand who would be remembered at a tryzna sponsored by Jewish religious officials. In fact, this study posits that Hitler’s Czech‐Jewish victims were quite prominent in the greater Czech‐Jewish consciousness and the community’s acts of remembrance, regardless of how they were labelled. Furthermore, it is important to note that as early as October and November 1945, articles in Věstník, the journal of the Prague Jewish Community, put the Second World War European Jewish dead at six million. Thus, within months of V‐E Day the enormity of the Jewish loss is broadcast to Czech‐Jews. There is certainly an awareness of the Jewish tragedy, in both local and continental contexts.
From private and insular beginnings, over time the scale, purpose and audience of Czech‐Jewish tryzny became more public, more political and, finally, an institutionalized remembrance service on the calendar of Bohemian and Moravian Jews. By March 1960, when the Prague Jewish community convened a large‐scale tryzna in conjunction with the opening of the Pinkas Synagogue Memorial, the event commanded national attention. All the while, tryzny remain decidedly religious rituals incorporating common Jewish funerary and memorial practices, despite a growing gentile audience. The annual March tryzna displayed a public expression of Judaism in postwar Czechoslovakia. Here, a national commemorative event for the Czech nation rests solidly on a Jewish foundation. Understanding how a shared public memory of the Jewish tragedy emerged in Czechoslovakia, how it changed over time, how tryzny become inextricably linked with the month of March, and how the commemorations represented a hyphenated Czech‐Jewish identity begins with the events of 1945 in Prague.
Before Bohemian and Moravian Jewish communities dealt with the practicalities of rebuilding Czech‐Jewish life, in September 1945 delegates united to remember the dead of the Second World War in a decidedly Jewish manner. At 7:30 pm on the evening of 1 September, the conference room in Prague’s Jewish Town Hall was abuzz with activity. Survivors, community leaders and government officials stood packed into the wood‐paneled room, with the flags of Czechoslovakia, Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union hanging above their heads. A report of the conference notes that “memories of the fallen and the martyred were the foremost thoughts of the meeting” (Věstník 2 (1945): 10). The memorial service that followed included two songs, a prayer offered by Rabbi Vojtěch Gottschall and the traditional Jewish mourner’s prayer, or the kaddish.
This first tryzna began with a familiar musical opening. The service commenced with a musical selection called “Ma Tovu” sung by Cantor Fried. Usually heard at the beginning of the synagogue service, this collection of biblical verses served as a fitting introduction to the commemoration at hand. This musical prelude drew the congregation into a worship service, not just a professional gathering. The opening placed the Lord within an earthly abode, within this particular synagogue, before the people present and confirmed that individual prayers and supplications would constitute a part of the forthcoming event. This tryzna started just as a morning Shabbat service would, and the “Ma Tovu” helped situate those attending in a religious frame of mind.
Following the cantor’s performance, Rabbi Vojtěch Gottschall offered a prayer to God on behalf of the worshippers, stressing the power of the Lord and asking for protection and good fortune in the coming year. Gottschall’s words focused on the survivors and reaffirmed their belief and trust in God. God’s power was not questioned, yet he was never held accountable for the tragedy that had recently befallen the Jewish people. Instead, Gottschall emphasized God’s goodness and the “countless favours” (“nesčetná dobrodiní“) he offered his adherents (Věstník 2 (1945): 10). Once God’s omnipotence is declared, Gottschall asks for God to grant Israel (the people, not the political state) a brighter future. A prayer of optimistic belief in a time of uncertain transition, this rabbinic entreaty stressed the goodness and power of God.
After Gottschall’s offering, the mood of the tryzna shifted slightly; optimism was replaced by the reality of palpable loss, and mourning began. The second half of the service included the elegy “El moleh rahamim” (“O God Full of Mercy”) and the kaddish, the mourner’s prayer. While not unique to funerals, both this song and this prayer often honour the dead. Additionally, they are often read at yizkor or remembrance services. Unlike kaddish, “El moleh rahamim” specifically mentions the name of the deceased, adding a very personal element to this oft‐used spiritual reflection. On this day, the elegy was amended to “remember those thousands and thousands of victims who fell at the hands of murderers” (Věstník 2 (1945): 10). In this way, the deceased Czech‐Jews were mentioned by a collective name and distinguished from other victims of the Second World War. The gathered mourners asked the Lord to bestow collective redemption on those who had not returned.
Naturally, the first tryzna ends with kaddish, one of the most beloved prayers in the entire Jewish tradition. This Aramaic recitation is arguably one of the oldest parts of the synagogue liturgy (Goldman 59). Jews, having said prayers for the dead since the Maccabean period, had, by the middle ages, formulated a distinct kaddish designed with the mourner in mind (Goldberg 38). Not just a prayer of redemption, the words of the kaddish aid in consolation (Lamm 153). Recited often in Jewish religious services, but almost always at the conclusion of Shabbat, holiday and funerary services, the kaddish, although associated with death, ends on a note of “impassioned hope” (Lamm 154). In truth, it was a perfect ending to the first tryzna for it is here that the commemoration climaxed.
Other tryzny soon followed this initial commemoration, all following the same pattern. In November 1945, students and professors convened in Prague’s Staronová Synagogue to remember members of the university community who perished during the War. In April 1947, Rabbi Gottschall again offered prayers at a tryzna—this one held at Terezín, the former concentration camp. This commemoration marked the second anniversary of Terezín’s liberation and followed a similar format.
Tryzny, however, were not the only public religious commemorations that took place during this time. At monument unveilings and important Terezín anniversaries, rabbis often came to offer words of solace and Hebrew prayers, but these events carried a label like “bohuslužba” (“service of God”, “mass”) or “smuteční slavnost” (“sad gathering”) instead of tryzna. A tryzna was unique as a memorial service specifically devoted to an individual or a group of influential dead. Although the form of the tryzny remained constant immediately after the War, they took place at different times of the year. By 1952, however, it became standard practice to host tryzny annually in the month of March to recall a unique Czech‐Jewish episode: the liquidation of the Czech family camp at Auschwitz‐Birkenau on 8-9 March 1944. For Czech‐Jews organizing commemorations and attending these annual tryzny, the recent Jewish tragedy remained an intimate event, but the commemorations unfolded within a national, even a global, context. By doing so, the Czech‐Jews reclaimed a hyphenated identity (Czech‐Jewish) for the victims while constructing a collective memory for survivors around a solitary event.
The men, women and children who belonged to the so‐called “Czech family camp of Auschwitz‐Birkenau” arrived in Poland from Terezín concentration camp in September 1943. Upon arrival, this set of “privileged” inmates was exempt from Dr Josef Mengele’s infamous selection. Instead, SS guards took them to special barracks where men and women could live in the same space and families would remain, at least nominally, intact. Those too young for forced labour could continue the schooling they commenced at Terezín. Women were allowed to keep their hair. This exceptional designation as “family camp”, however, did not save that initial transport from slaughter. On the day after Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk’s birthday and on the eve of Purim, the Nazis liquidated part of this camp. Of the five thousand people who arrived in Birkenau in September 1943, 80 per cent were killed during that one night. Without question, it was the deadliest night in the seven‐year occupation of the Czech nation.
In the immediate postwar years, the mass murder of the Czech family camp became synonymous with the larger tragedy of European Jewry in the Second World War. Writing in Věstník in 1950, Stan Šteindler (91) commented: “[T]he family camp of Czech‐Jews in Birkenau is not an unknown concept to our public, things are often written about the tragedy of March 8, 1944.” Věstník articles, books and even radio shows produced after Liberation emphasized the heroic nature of this event.
The first mention of the family camp on Věstník‘s pages is in 1945, when the newspaper published a speech given by Dr Rebenwurzl in Prague’s Spanish Synagogue on the evening of 27 October, the eve of Czechoslovakian independence day. His talk paid particular attention to the Czech‐Jewish nature of the family camp victims. Rebenwurzl reminded those in attendance of a “painfully moving” incident that had taken place in March 1944. On their way to the gas chambers, members of the Czech family camp broke into song. “[F]rom the Auschwitz gas chambers thousands of our best citizens said goodbye with the Czechoslovakian national song ‘Kde domov můj?’ and the Jewish [song] ‘Hatikva’.” “The two are linked,” he says, “because both are songs of hope … songs of hope from lips which were conscious that they were going to death!” (Věstník 3 (1945): 1). These victims of racial persecution, these family camp members, he seemed to emphasize, went to their deaths as both Czechs and Jews, singing the national song of each group as they waited to enter the gas chamber. Held up as martyrs for the Czech cause, they become part of a legacy that is at once national, secular and religious. The “Czechness” of the family camp is amplified, but its “Jewishness” is not overlooked. Rebenwurzl’s speech clearly identifies and commemorates these victims as Czech‐Jews.
Two years later, Věstník featured another story explaining how those gassed on that fateful March night went to their deaths in song. In a review of Tovarna na smrt (Factory of Death), Rudolf Iltis offered his assessment of this tragedy. After reminding the readers that the anniversary of the family camp liquidation falls, according to the Jewish calendar, on the fifth of March, Iltis (55) recounts the tragic story about the March mass murder retold in Tovarna na Smrt:
[W]e remember them today, our dead from the night of March 8-9. They are our unknown soldiers, we pay tribute to their memory, we commemorate them as symbols of all our brothers and sisters, killed in the Terezín ghetto and in the Small Fortress, in Izbice and in Minsk, in Auschwitz and Stutthof in Mauthausen and in Dachau, in Oranienburg and Bergen and everywhere else where the Germans operated their machinery of death, their panopticon of terror.
During their wait for the gas chambers, Iltis notes, the words of “Kde domov můj?” and “Hatikva” filled the unbearable silence. He elaborates: “[T]he victims waited for hours before they went” to the gas chambers (Iltis 55). “Still in the gas chambers, they sang” the words of these two national songs until “the German gas smothered” these hopeful melodies (Iltis 55). He declares “their tortured death … a heroic death” (Iltis 55). The defiance evident in this act of resistance is celebrated and, more importantly, remembered both in the book and the review. Iltis warns, “never can we allow ourselves to forget” and encouraged his readers to remember the family camp as well as the Second World War Jewish experience, linking the martyrs of the family camp featured in this new book to Czechoslovakia’s collective memory (Iltis 55).
Rabbi Emil Davidovič echoed Iltis’s warning in a radio broadcast, aired on Czech Radio, in March. Speaking in reference to the liquidation of the Czech family camp, Davidovič implores his listeners to do two things: not to forget (nezapomente) and to remember (vzpomínejte). According to Davidovič (125), those in the family camp “died a hero’s death”. He instructed his audience to remember “not only to grant a legacy to the murdered”, but also because these memories will be included “among countless manifestations of world progress against war, against the continuation of the Nazi spirit (and) against the destruction of man by man and nation by nation” (Davidovič 125). To reflect upon the experience of the Czech family camp is to reflect upon a global struggle against evil. When he describes the unfortunate victims of Nazism, standing behind a barbed wired fence, one response comes to his mind: “be vigilant” (Davidovič 125). It is not enough to remember the tragedy for its own sake, he warns, one must remember it in order to struggle against its repetition.
If the pages of Věstník, the archives of Czech radio and book sales are indicative of broader trends in the Czech‐Jewish community, the event of 8-9 March 1944 loomed large in the minds of communal members. This event also permeated the community’s memory of the War‐time Jewish tragedy, becoming the axis around which religious and later civic commemoration revolved. By 1952 it had become standard practice to host a tryzna in commemoration of the March liquidation of the Czech family camp. Celebrated annually within the same time frame, this remembrance occasion evolved into a yahrzeit‐like observance. The initial postwar tryzna provided a pattern that was repeated throughout the years and across the Czech lands, and March became the accepted time during which Czech‐Jews marked the anniversary of wartime deaths in a religious manner. Between 1952 and 1960, an average of 20 tryzny occurred each year—almost always during the month of March.
Evidence for these tryzny dominates the issues of Věstník. Near the beginning of each year, a list of planned tryzny, from Plzen to Ostrava, was produced. Spread out over days and even weeks so that a rabbi could attend each event, the handful of rabbis who lived in postwar Czechoslovakia often celebrated half a dozen tryzny in different cities each year. Věstník also included synopses of tryzny that elaborated on the attendance and structure of the ceremony. While there was no hard and fast tryzna arrangement, certain prayers and songs could be expected and the format set by the first one in Prague remained the same. Almost every tryzna covered in Věstník included kaddish, “El moleh rahamim” and was attended by representatives of the Jewish religious community.
The 1950 tryzna in the community of Olomouc, for example, culminated with the recitation of kaddish and “El moleh rahamim” in front of a monument dedicated to War‐time victims (Věstník 12 (1950): 143). On 12 March of that same year, 500 people gathered in Plzen’s great synagogue to commemorate the dead. In the midst of the great hall, which was “almost full” of people, Rabbi Davidovič urged those present “to work together toward peace and (to) remember all the victims … so that peace is redeemed” (Věstník 12 (1950): 143). After Davidovič’s thoughts, “El moleh rahamim” and kaddish were recited; then the Torah was opened and a full synagogue service commenced. This event in the Plzen shul, however, was also “designed for the wider public and representatives of government departments” who came to participate (Věstník 12 (1950): 143). Clearly of a Jewish nature, this event was not held solely for a Jewish audience and indicates a shift towards a civic as well as a religious commemoration.
A similar crowd packed Prague’s Jerusalemská synagogue for a tryzna in 1951. The large reform shul was, according to the Věstník report, “full until the last seat” (Věstník 13 (1951): 155). Cantor Salomoun Weisz sang and Rabbis Sicher and Davidovič spoke. This “pious act was closed with the kaddish prayer, [those present] recited it along with Chief Rabbi [Sicher] so that all participants prayed together” (Věstník 13 (1951): 155). The report of this tryzna ends on a note of communal unity. Those Prague Jews and non‐Jewish guests in attendance concluded this commemoration in unison. This tryzna, like the others, became a public yahrzeit service, which urged the Jewish community to assemble in order to mourn and remember. In the same month, a small number of mourners convened in Olomouc. Three members of the community, each of whom lost at least one parent during the War, stepped forward to offer personal reflections. After these individual thoughts, those present united in the recitation of kaddish and other hymns (Věstník 13 (1951): 157). The individual mourner was recognized and given support, but the greater loss of the Jewish tragedy was also reiterated. Tryzny encouraged remembrance on a communal—arguably a national—scale.
As the decade of the 1950s went on, tryzny became increasingly public ceremonies while still retaining their religious nature. The 1955, 1956 and 1958 commemorations in Plzen illustrate this trend. These remembrance ceremonies began at 11:00 am, when the community gathered at the cemetery, in proper yahrzeit form, to say prayers in the shadow of tombstones and the newest monument. That evening at 5:00 pm the group reconvened in the synagogue for the final half of the tryzna observance. Speaking before 400 people on 20 March 1955, Jewish community member Dr Max Popper “urged those present never to forget and to support [the] government which, with all its power, is working to ensure peace throughout the whole world” (Věstník 6 (1955): 12). The Jewish tragedy had acquired distinct political overtones indicative of the more public nature and audience of tryzny. After Popper’s thoughts, the service ended, as expected, with kaddish and silence. This event, which lasted all day, drew observers to both the grave and the shul.
A 1956 tryzna in Brno, the second largest city in the Czech lands, also shows the growing public nature of these events. In Brno, representatives from the Ministry of the Interior and the state department of religious affairs gathered with citizens throughout Moravia to commemorate the family camp liquidation. P. Řezniček, a recent graduate from the local music academy, played religious pieces from Mendelssohn and Dvořak. After this musical introduction, Dr Spitze, the president of the Jewish community, offered some words. Rabbi Feder then led the congregation in readings of “El moleh rahamim”, kaddish and the aleinu. Věstník reported that the “participants left with touching emotions” from the “dignified celebration” (Věstník 4 (1956): 8).
The tryzna celebrations guaranteed perennial space in Věstník were those hosted by the Prague Jewish community. From 1955-1959, the structure of these Prague tryzny remained constant and mirrored that of the first tryzna hosted by the Prague Jewish community in 1945. First, the cantor would sing part of Psalm 144, asking the Lord “what is man?” After this introduction, a “sad speech” follows, which is, perhaps, tantamount to the hesped, or eulogy, of the standard funeral service. Next, the cantor returned to sing the heartrending words of “El moleh rahamim” and Psalm 16. After these words, which serve as a confession of continued faith, the tryzna drew to a close. In culmination, each year Chief Rabbi Gustav Sicher led the congregation in kaddish, the mourner’s prayer. On this note, the service ended. While this was a religious service for the Jewish dead, the service was open to all Czechs (including government officials) regardless of creed. More than just a spiritual commemoration, it was a remembrance act built upon the concept of national injury.
The tryzna theme stressing the dual identity of Czech‐Jewish victims resonates throughout the words of Rabbi Richard Feder, a frequent participant of tryzny. Born in Václavice, a small town of 440, in 1875, Feder studied in Vienna and received his doctorate in philosophy in 1899. By 1903 he was made rabbi in Kojetín (Moravia) and later in Kolín. In June 1942, Feder and his entire family were deported to Terezín concentration camp. In three years, he lost his wife, his three children and all his grandchildren. Feder was among those in Terezín when the camp was liberated in 1945. After the War, he became Chief Rabbi of Moravia in 1953 and, upon Rabbi Sicher’s death in 1961, Chief Rabbi of the Czech lands as well. The government of Czechoslovakia conferred a medal on Feder, a prolific writer and well known religious figure, “in recognition of his part in reconstruction and his ‘uncompromising stand in the fight against fascism and for peace'” in 1965. Feder died in 1970; he was survived by no immediate family members.
On 14 March 1954, Feder delivered the main speech at the Prague tryzna in the Jerusalemská synagogue. This man, so familiar with despair, offered words of gratitude: those who remain must rejoice that they are alive. He declared, “enjoy, my friends, enjoy every day, every hour, every second of your life and give thanks to God that you can breathe his air, belong to his sun, and look upon his beautiful nature with wonder” (Věstník 4 (1954): 27). Feder noted that those present have three obligations: “[F]irst it is our duty that we remember our murdered co‐religious from time to time, and second it is our duty to faithfully cling to our old and beautiful Judaism and strive for its continuance” (Věstník 4 (1954): 27). Finally, these mourners “must show everywhere and specifically at home, through honest work that we are good and loyal citizens, and that we understand and fulfill our duty to our homeland. In turn, it will be made clear that the fascists massacred six million Jews, [committing] crimes against humanity” (Věstník 4 (1954): 27). In short, Feder argues that simply by living good lives and serving their nation Czech‐Jews can draw attention to the crimes of Nazism. The link between these two activities is unclear, but it could be that Feder supposes that a country with loyal, hard‐working Jewish citizens would be more willing to publicly condemn the crimes of the Second World War than a nation without them. He stakes the commemoration in the identity of Czech‐Jews. Feder ends his speech on an optimistic note, hoping that future generations will live in peace and that all nations of the world will live as a brotherly community so that “all people will have the certainty that Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald and Terezín will never return” (Věstník 4 (1954): 27).
During a speech delivered at a 1955 March tryzna at an unknown location, Feder stressed the hyphenated identity of those lost. He emphasized the idea that those who died on the night of 8-9 March 1944 were simultaneously Czech and Jewish. A prisoner in Terezín for almost three years, Feder remembers celebrating Czech holidays during the internment in the camp. No doubt, as a rabbi in the camp, he knew many of those deported in the September 1943 transport to Auschwitz‐Birkenau. He maintained that they left the family camp as Czech‐Jews and it follows that they died as Czech‐Jews.
This exploration of collective memory in the post‐1945 Czech lands culminates in 1960, when a twist on the standard March tryzna brought together two distinct commemorative endeavours. The unique circumstances of this tryzna escalate the event’s meaning as Jewish funerary services were showcased on an undeniably national and public stage. Beginning in the great hall of the Jewish town hall, this tryzna ended inside the Pinkas Synagogue, where a new monument dedicated to the victims of Nazi fascism had recently been established. The Věstník coverage of the event begins by reminding readers: “[T]his pious act is held each year at the beginning of March for this reason: on the night of March 8-9, 1944, 4,000 Czech Jews were killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz‐Birkenau, women, children and the elderly. They went to their death singing our national hymn ‘Kde domov můj?'” (Věstník 4 (1960): 4). Notably, the legend growing out of this story has changed slightly as no mention of “Hatikva” is made, perhaps in order to focus on the Czech nature of the victims. The article continues: “[T]he memorial service held this year had a special meaning and a special nature” (Věstník 4 (1960): 4). First, 1960 marked the fifteenth anniversary of liberation when the Soviet Army “liberated the remainder of Jews from the concentration camps” of the Third Reich (Věstník 4 (1960): 4). Second, the commemoration revealed the tensions of the Cold War and hostility to the West, as the article noted the potential of “fascism, racism and anti‐Semitism to seriously endanger human civilization” (Věstník 4 (1960): 4). This is not the first time political discourse has entered the tryzna, but it is one of the first instances of Cold War‐inspired polemical language colouring this commemorative event. Clearly this tryzna reflects the tenor of the time, but while politics entered Věstník‘s coverage, politics did not fully dictate the event.
After praising Soviet soldiers and insulting the West, Věstník‘s description of this special tryzna follows. About 500 people participated in this service, which began in similar fashion to those celebrated in the past. Head cantor Šamuel Landerer opened with his rendition of “Ma Adam?” and Rabbi Feder offered some words. “These acts of remembrance,” he said, “are mementos for the living, so that the legacy of our dead is vigilantly preserved and so that the crimes [běsnění] of fascism and militarism are never dismissed” (Věstník 4 (1960): 4). Feder emphasized that this memorial service, while dedicated to the dead, was in fact intended for the living. Participation in this tryzna helped ensure that another genocidal destruction would not occur. The tryzna had assumed a new meaning. More than just a memorial service, this act of commemoration had become an act of protest.
Following Feder’s words, the entire congregation left the Jewish town hall to commence a funeral march. Their destination: the recently opened Monument to the Victims of Nazi Fascism in the Pinkas Synagogue. From the Jewish town hall, the tryzna participants turned down a winding street, aptly named “At the Old Cemetery” (“U starého hřbitova“), and entered through the back entrance of Prague’s famous Jewish cemetery. Following the gnarled path through upwards of 11,000 graves, the walk ended at the Pinkas Synagogue, the second oldest shul in the Jewish Quarter. Situated near the eastern banks of the Vltava River within walking distance of Old Town Square, the Pinkas Synagogue has been part of Prague’s topography since the sixteenth century. Orthodox services were celebrated in the Pinkas until 1938, when the building was closed by the occupying Nazi forces who relegated it to storage space for the collections of the wartime Central Jewish Museum. Under the 1950 nationalization law, the Pinkas Synagogue officially became part of the renamed State Jewish Museum in Prague—an institution funded solely by the communist government. Within a week of nationalization, excavations on the site commenced. Curators used documents and synagogue records describing the Pinkas to restore the building to its original sixteenth‐century style. By 1955, structural construction was complete, and the State Jewish Museum incorporated the building into the synagogue network of the institution. At the onset of renovations, the research team believed that the Pinkas would become an exhibition hall, housing a permanent exhibit dedicated to the years between 1938 and 1944. However, during the reconstruction process, the plan for the Pinkas drastically changed.
By 1955, Hana Volavková, the director of the State Jewish Museum, and her research team had determined that the Pinkas Synagogue would not become a museum exhibit hall. Instead, curators imagined the walls of the Pinkas as a monument to the Czech‐Jewish War dead. Volavková noted that the Pinkas Synagogue had a special destiny and was to “fulfill a sacred purpose as a shrine” (Volavková, The Pinkas Synagogue, 119). Rather than house Judaica items and event chronologies, painters would inscribe upon the walls of the Pinkas the names of the 77,297 Czech‐Jewish victims of Nazi genocide. Curators organized the names of the murdered, first by town of birth and then by surname. Next to each name, artists inscribed the corresponding dates of birth and death of each respective victim. Artists covered the entryway, main nave and women’s gallery of the Pinkas with names from floor to ceiling. In her book on the creation of the monument, Volavková notes that in the Pinkas Memorial, individual Jews, once “degraded to numbers and transports during the war” have “obtained their homes and human faces again” (Volavková, quoted in Pařík 38). According to a poem by Arnošt Lustig, the Pinkas Memorial became a “mass grave”; the “Wall” of names an epitaph for a surrogate “tomb” (Luštig, quoted in Volavková, Story of the Jewish Museum, 326). Situated next to the Old Jewish Cemetery, the Pinkas Memorial became a graveyard for those Jews who had no grave. Here was a deeply religious memorial devoted to the recent Jewish tragedy built with the funds and resources of the Czechoslovakian communist state. An ideal pilgrimage destination, it was fitting that the 1960 Prague tryzna should conclude inside its memorial space.
Here, in front of the names of the murdered and fallen, the tryzna continued. Head cantor Šamuel Landerer sang “El moleh rahamim” and directed a male quartet in the singing of two more psalms. Then, Rabbi Feder stood before the congregation again, only this time he “delivered in Hebrew and Czech the prayer for the dead, ‘kaddish;’ on this note the entire pious gathering solemnly ended” (Věstník 4 (1960): 4). After this communal recitation, those assembled, including representatives of the Education and Cultural Ministry, a delegation from the Union of Anti‐Fascist Fighters, members of the Czechoslovakian press office and correspondents from a German newspaper, dispersed. The portion of the tryzna held in the Pinkas Synagogue was broadcast later that evening by Czechoslovakian television. Furthermore, Dr Iltis, a prominent member of the Prague Jewish community and editor of Věstník, spoke about the meaning of the tryzna on Czech radio in Czech, German and English (Věstník 4 (1960): 4). Far from just an insular communal event, this tryzna was accessible and publicized to Jews and non‐Jews alike. Concluded in a monument created by state funds and belonging to a state institution, this tryzna can be envisioned as an event of national mourning. Of all the March tryzny analyzed thus far, this 1960 commemoration is distinct in location and scale and stands at a convergence of memory narratives. It is, at once, a yahrzeit, a national event and a monument unveiling.
In the first fifteen years after the Second World War, Czech‐Jews constructed a public memory of the wartime Jewish tragedy through commemorations inspired, in part, by religious traditions. Starting immediately after the War, the tryzna became an annual ritual in the lives of Věstník subscribers. For Czech‐Jews, their communities and those authorities and neighbours associated with them, the March tryzna was, throughout most of the 1950s, the only perennial religious event that publicly recalled the recent Jewish tragedy. This micro‐historical evaluation, however, is just one strand of a more complex and complicated story about creating a collective memory of the genocide of the Jews in Czechoslovakia, and it produces its own perplexing historiographical predicament. As John Lewis Gaddis notes, historians work to release their subjects from the standard storylines of the past and, perhaps, save them from oblivion. At the same time, any work can only capture part of the past. Gaddis (135) cautions all of us that “in ‘mapping’ the past, the historian too is laying down a grid, stifling particularity, privileging legibility, all with a view to making the past accessible for the present and the future … the effect is both constraining and liberating: we oppress the past as we free it”. My evaluation necessarily prioritizes the development of one collective memory discourse at the expense of others, omitting, for example, the way in which memory was repressed or constructed in different communities, such as the Roma or Catholics. Nevertheless, the story of how tryzny were developed and changed constitutes a valuable corrective to more simplified versions.
Well before the word “Holocaust” entered the world’s vocabulary, the Jewish tragedy pervaded the newspapers and tryzny of Czech‐Jews. These Czech‐Jewish survivors confronted the horrors of the Second World War head on, buttressed by their religious faith. Moreover, Czech‐Jewish communities held their tryzny within a communist state that was intent on controlling religious activities and religious expenditures. After religious groups were nationalized in 1950, the communist government became the official overseer of all things religious. In spite of the official atheist doctrine of the Czechoslovakian communist government, Czech‐Jews said kaddish for the recent dead alongside state official in memorials constructed with state funds. They memorialized the substantial number of six million alongside the Czech family camp number of 3,792. Conceived, led and attended by eyewitnesses of wartime atrocities, these tryzny from the 1940s and the 1950s become a priceless transom through which we can visualize memorialization in the immediate postwar years and the dilemmas intrinsic to survivors. Finally, it makes us question the standard historiography of post‐1945 Jewish life and the development of shoah remembrance in the Czech lands, as well as in communist eastern Europe.