Remembering Mikulov's Jewish past with unique cultural festival


A unique festival of Jewish culture was held last weekend in the South Moravian town of Mikulov, part of the Year of Jewish Culture in the Czech Republic. Mikulov was once a major centre of Jewish religious and cultural life - but today all that's left is a handful of historic monuments.

Cellist Marketa Vrbkova performing in Mikulov Synagogue
A haunting melody by the Jewish composer Ernest Bloch plays in Mikulov's beautifully restored synagogue, to launch the festival of Jewish culture. Mikulov lives and breathes its Jewish heritage; you can feel it all around you as you walk through its winding medieval streets. The people of Mikulov too are intensely proud of that heritage. The cello parts of this Ernest Bloch piece were played by local musician Marketa Vrbkova:

"People, they live in history. It's important for them, and everything continues from history. I think in Mikulov it's most important."

Those pieces of music you played by Ernest Bloch were very Jewish - minor tones, sadness - what goes through your mind when you play music like that?

"The three pieces were called Prayer, Supplication and A Jewish Song. So I think about prayer, about God, and maybe I want to ask God for something. Sometimes I want to say, Oh God, you don't do what I wanted. And sometimes I thank God. That feeling is very strong in Jewish music, the feeling that I can communicate with God with my heart very strongly."

The festival included exhibitions of photographs and unique Jewish artefacts and even the country's first kosher wine-tasting. It's the labour of love of local historian Jan Richter, head of the Jewish department at Mikulov's regional museum:

"I'm not from here. I was born in a small village outside Brno, which is a major city about 50 km from here. I got here about five years ago to work in the museum. And I like the place very much."

In what way is this exhibition unique?

Jan Richter
"In two major ways I would say. One of the exhibitions now on display in the synagogue is dedicated to the former Central Jewish Museum for Moravia and Silesia [which opened in Mikulov in 1936]. In the course of the war, all of the collections ended up in the Jewish Museum in Prague. They were very kind and have lent us some of the items and they are really unique. They're on display for the first time since the museum was closed in 1938. And the other exhibition - you know, Jewish culture in Mikulov is dead. But Jewish life elsewhere is going on. So we're very happy that Brian Hendler could come from Israel, and the exhibition of his photographs is really amazing and very powerful."

You say Jewish culture in Mikulov is dead. Why go to such lengths to bring the history of the Jews in Mikulov to a town where there are no Jews left?

"Well it's an important part of the people alive today. Everybody should realise that where they live now was a different place 60 or 80 years ago. It's a synagogue, and we're happy that we have some Jewish monuments. Rather than just exhibiting silver plates, we thought it might be interesting for people to see what life is like for Jewish people today."

Tell me more about Mikulov's significance to the Jewish community before the war, before the Holocaust.

"Right before the war, this was already a small-town community. You see, the whole Jewish history of Mikulov was so colourful and so rich because of the position of the town. In times when Jews couldn't settle in certain towns or cities like Vienna and Brno, this was the ideal location because they could go to Vienna in one day and come back, so trade was very good. So the Jewish community prospered and thrived, and then after they were allowed to move freely and decide where they wanted to live, most of them went to Vienna or larger cities like Brno."

So there was a gradual exodus to Brno and Vienna even before the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933.

Interior of Mikulov Synagogue
"Definitely. The Jewish population dropped from about 4,000 in the 1830s to about 600 in the 1930s."

And today?

"Today - there are some Jewish people here. There are actually two descendants of pre-war families, and some new Jewish people. But it would take a much longer time and also probably much more effort to build a community again."

Why do you do this? Why do you spend so much time and effort on it?

"I think it would be a shame just not to do it. There's so much to show people, and so much to share with other people. When I see something interesting or funny, I have this urge to share it with other people."

William Teltscher
Among those present at the festival's launch was a special guest who'd come all the way from London to attend the festivities:

"My name is William Teltscher. I am here because it was my father who produced the initiative and was the chairman of the Central Jewish Museum for Moravia and Silesia."

Were you born in Mikulov?

"Well I was born in the nearest maternity home, which was Vienna, but I lived in Mikulov til the age of 15."

So it must be an extraordinary feeling for you to come back here so many years later.

Plaque on the wall of Mikulov Synagogue
"It's a mixture of nostalgia and recherche du temps perdu, and at the same time a memorial to my father and his collaborators who so tragically perished."

The unique artefacts in William Teltscher's father's museum were packed up in 1938 and sent to Prague, where they languished for decades. Now, for the first time since before the war, they're once again on display. As for the people who made up the Jewish community, few of them are left alive. Those who are feel a deep personal obligation to pay tribute to Mikulov's Jewish past.

"The recognition of the tremendous part played by the community is something that must be appreciated greatly. It is something that is owed to posterity. And if I can - nilly willy - become a symbol of continuity, it's a good thing."