The Sermon That Changed (not just) My Life

Rabbi Andrew Goldstein outside the former synagogue in Nitra, Slovakia, now a cultural center and Holocaust memorial

Rabbi Andrew Goldstein outside the former synagogue in Nitra, Slovakia, now a cultural center and Holocaust memorial

 

For decades, London-based Rabbi Andrew Goldstein has traveled to central Europe helping in the revival of Jewish life. In particular, he has forged close ties between his own congregation and the town of Kolín in the Czech Republic, whose Jewish community was destroyed in the Holocaust but whose baroque synagogue, medieval ghetto and ancient Jewish cemetery still stand.

He describes in this essay how it all began with a sermon he gave in 1978….

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The Sermon That Changed (not just) My Life

 

By Rabbi Andrew Goldstein

 

A sermon I gave on Yom Kippur 1978 gave a new focus to my life and to that of my congregation – the Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue. In that sermon I reminded the congregation that the Torah Scroll I had just read from was a “Czech Memorial Scroll” from the town of Kolín, one of the 1,564 scrolls from around Bohemia and Moravia that were taken from Prague and sent to the Westminster Synagogue in London in 1964, the year before our congregation was founded.

At that time, I knew almost nothing about Kolín, an industrial town in then-Communist Czechoslovakia, 55 kilometers east of Prague. I could only convey the few facts I could glean from the Encyclopaedia Judaica. Nonetheless I managed to tell an emotional story about the former Jewish community in Kolín, which was destroyed in the Shoah. I ended by asking – “if anybody happens to go to Prague, maybe they could make a side trip to Kolín and start some real research.” At the end of the service, one of the congregants, Michael Heppner, came up to me and said, “I go on business to Prague once a year; I will see what I can do.”

In the decades since then Michael and I have made countless visits to Kolín, The early trips in Communist times were not easy, but they were full of excitement: I felt as if I was in a Cold War spy story and indeed eventually I was advised by the British authorities not to go back.

We were lucky that two of the staff in the Kolín Town Museum had been directors at top Prague museums but lost their jobs and were relegated to this very minor museum after the Soviet-led invasion in 1968 that crushed the reformist “Prague Spring.” Their act of defiance was to research the Jewish history of Kolín – something of a taboo subject under Communism — and give us copies of valuable documents from the archives.

Jews first arrived in Kolín in the 14th century; the town’s old cemetery dates from the early 15th century and contains many important graves, including that of the son of the fabled 16th century Rabbi Judah ben Bezalel Löw, or Maharal. (There is also a New Jewish cemetery, which opened in 1888.) Kolín had an important yeshiva and a significant medieval ghetto; at one time the community was second in Bohemia only to Prague. In June 1942, some 480 Kolín Jews were deported, and very few survived: there is a memorial to them in the New Cemetery. The community’s rabbi, Dr. Richard Feder, was one of the few who did return. He briefly restarted the community, but in 1953 he moved to Brno and eventually became the chief and only rabbi of Bohemia and Moravia, dying in 1970.

The Old Jewish Cemetery in Kolín. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Andrew Goldstein

The Old Jewish Cemetery in Kolín. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Andrew Goldstein

Kolín’s ornate baroque synagogue, dedicated in 1696, features an impressive Ark donated by the Austrian financier Samuel Oppenheimer. When we started our visits, the synagogue still stood, in the heart of the old Jewish quarter. It seemed in surprisingly good condition, but deserted and, at our first visit, used as a storage space for large, red, Communist propaganda banners.

There were still, however, piles of prayerbooks on the benches under the vaulted ceiling, covered in dust. “Miraculously” – one could say — they somehow “fell into my bag,” and so we rescued many. In 1982 we were also able to save a historic decorative wooden Ark surround, originally from a 19th century synagogue in the nearby village of Malín, that was stored in the chapel of Kolín’s New Jewish Cemetery. The chapel ended up being demolished — but only after we had brought the Ark surround to England: it now is the focal point of our synagogue. And we also successfully lobbied the Communist authorities not to liquidate the New Cemetery itself. (Other furnishings that were saved now grace synagogues in South London and Denver, Colorado.)

After the Velvet Revolution in 1989 I got involved in setting up the Reform community in Prague and was invited to lecture and take services in Plzeň, Brno and Olomouc. Then I was invited to lecture in Bratislava and eventually became their “liberal rabbi to the Orthodox community” and to travel all over Slovakia, visiting the many synagogues that stood in ruins or, of late, have been being restored.

(In this video from August, 2011, my wife and I recite and sing prayers in the former synagogue in Liptovsky Mikulas, Slovakia, which forms part of the Slovak Jewish Heritage Route.)

 

Throughout the years, time and time again, I’ve kept going back to Kolín. And I haven’t gone alone.

We have brought large groups there on many occasions. In 1992 we came to Kolín to dedicate a plaque to the memory of the 480 Jews murdered in the Shoah. In 1996 we celebrated the 300th anniversary of the synagogue, and a member of our synagogue wrote a musical play, “Stones of Kolin,” which was performed in the town theatre. In 2002 and 2012 we marked the 60th and 70th anniversary of the deportations. In 2015 we commemorated the return to Kolín of the pitifully few Jews from Terezín by publishing an English translation of the account by Rabbi Feder, describing the fate of his community in the Shoah. Moreover, we take a group of teenagers to Kolín every year to ensure that at least one Jewish service is held annually in the synagogue.

Simchat Torah in Kolín, a Torah scroll displayed in front of the Ark in the baroque synagogue. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Andrew Goldstein

Simchat Torah in Kolín, a Torah scroll displayed in front of the Ark in the baroque synagogue. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Andrew Goldstein

So — the sermon changed my life also changed that of my congregation. And over the years – over the decades by now — our interest has also inspired the citizens of Kolín to take on the challenge of keeping alive the memory of their lost Jewish community.

They have restored the synagogue and it is used as a concert hall. They have installed in it a permanent exhibition telling the history of its Jewish community. They mount regular temporary exhibitions, for example, on the life of Rabbi Feder; or on the “lost Children of Kolín” researched and produced by students at local schools. And now they are cooperating with us in installing over 50 Stolpersteine in the center of town, in front of houses from which Kolin’s Jews were deported. There will be booklets (obtainable in the town information office) telling the story of the former Jewish citizens marked by these brass plates.

Our next visit to Kolín is set for Shavuot…30th April to 2nd May 2017. We who use the Kolín scroll still today in London will pray in the synagogue and meet with local people; we will dedicate the Stolpersteine trail. We will celebrate the achievements of the Jews of the town and, in a way, also celebrate the persisting connection with past and present that continues to make such an impact on all of our lives.

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January 16, 2017

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Rabbi Dr Andrew Goldstein is the Emeritus Rabbi of the Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue. Read more about Rabbi Goldstein, the Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue, and their connection with the Czech scrolls here: http://npls.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/CzechSlovakScrollbooklet.pdf

For information and full program of the upcoming Shavuot events contact Rabbi Goldstein at agoldstein@f2s.com

 

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