Ostrava and its Jews: 'Now No-One Sings You Lullabies'

Photo: Valentine Mitchell Publishing House

David Lawson had never heard of Ostrava when, fifteen years ago, his London synagogue received a Sefer Torah that had belonged to a once vibrant community in that industrial city. Now, it’s fair to say, he is an expert on both the history of Ostrava and the key role Jews played in its development over centuries. I asked Mr. Lawson, co-author of the new book “Ostrava and its Jews: Now no-one sings you lullabies”, how it all came about.

Photo: Valentine Mitchell Publishing House
“The book is about the history of Ostrava and its Jewish community. This started because in London, the synagogue in Kingston in which I was a member has got a scroll of the law, the five books of Moses, on loan from the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust that came originally from Ostrava, and this provoked an interest – How did we get it? Where is Ostrava? What are the people like? What happened to them?”

Mr. Lawson’s initial curiosity not only resulted in a book – co-authored with a local Holocaust survivor from Ostrava turned genealogist (Libuše Salomonovičová) and a prominent archivist and social historian (Hana Šustková) – it has given birth to a virtual new community of ‘Ostravaks’ and their descendants, helping to reunite extended families.

“One of my co-authors, Libuše Salomonovičová, is a fantastic genealogist of the Jews of Ostrava. She has enormous patience and a great interest, so she digs out family histories and this then becomes a tremendous synergy in that, because I speak English and I’m on the web, people find me and say ‘My grandfather came from Ostrava and I’d love to know more about him’. I then get in touch with Libuše, and three days later she will have rushed off to the archives and come back and said, Yes, the grandfather was born in this place, had a shop in that place.”

David Lawson,  photo: Archive of the University of Southampton
“And suddenly, we start to build up, from the archive facts, and from the people I know, the oral history. So, we then put them together. Libuše was able to introduce an English and American side of the family to a Polish-Czech side of the family, and neither of them knew the other existed. Since the war, they had assumed that was all there was of the family.”

In collecting oral histories, compiling genealogies and combing through archives, the authors assembled a detailed portrait of greater Ostrava’s Jewish community.

“And what has come out of this is – well, to me – a remarkable story, that the development of Ostrava as a city is very, very closely connected to the development of the Jewish community. The two effectively started about the same time in the second half of the 18th century with the Edict of Tolerance – so, when Jews were suddenly allowed in and could practise trades and professions – and at the same time, hard black coal was discovered in the Ostrava region, so the Industrial Revolution – coal, iron and steel production suddenly happened. So Jews – and Protestants, come to that – could move into Ostrava and there was some reason to do so because there was work.”

Former synagogue in Ostrava,  photo: Public Domain
Ostrava was particularly “tolerant” due to its geography and history, Mr Lawson believes, noting it was on the frontier of Moravia and Silesia, and of Slav and Germanic culture. “Ostrava is and certainly was a frontier town and also a melting pot in all sorts of senses…. And the result was a society which was tolerant – and of course destroyed on the 14th of March, 1939. … Judging by what people have said about life in Ostrava before the war, it was – I won’t say an ‘ideal’ civic society but a pretty good place to live. And people who I’ve spoken to, Jewish people, who were there at the time, when I ask about anti-Semitism, look at me as if I’ve taken leave of my senses and say, ‘There wasn’t any anti-Semitism’ – certainly not until the late 1930s when it spilled over from the Sudetenland. But in Ostrava itself, there was none. It was a very tolerant place.”

Ostrava and its Jews: ‘Now no-one sings you lullabies’, published by Valentine Mitchell in the UK and US, will be distributed in the Czech Republic through Ostrava University Press bookshops.