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The History of the Jewish Community of Olomouc

Today the pulsating heart of the Haná region, the city of Olomouc can pride itself on a wealth of monuments to its illustrious past, not least of all as the former capital of all Moravia from the 14th to the 17th century. Reminders of its once substantial Jewish community, which contributed so much to its momentous history, are not so immediately apparent. Even so, as a major centre of trade and commerce since the early Middle Ages, Olomouc was indisputably one of the earliest and most important places of Jewish settlement in the Czech lands.

There is a dearth of historical records 1) which might have presented us a complete picture. But it is beyond doubt that a Jewish community existed among the first centers of population around the original castle, even before Olomouc became a proper town. So, in addition to the parishes of St Michael, St Blaise and St Maurice, there was also a Jewish settlement which various written accounts and archaeological discoveries allow us to pinpoint to the northern side of Michael’s (otherwise known as Julius’s) Hill (Michalský, Juliův vrch). It later became the Street of the Jews (Platea Judeorum).

The presence of Jewish merchants and traders may be assumed at least from the 11th century. There is certainly a reference to a Jewish Quarter in Olomouc from around 1140 in the writings of the Hebrew traveler Isaac ben Dorbolo, in which he refers to the place as Almiz or Olmiz. During the period 1239-46, the older settlements of Olomouc were brought together to establish a royal city. A charter issued by emperor Rudolf Habsburg dated 20 September 1278 made it clear that the municipal expenses, especially the cost of fortifications, were to be borne by its citizens, including the Jews residing in the city. In 1311 the Jews of Olomouc proclaimed a ceremonial greeting to King John of Luxembourg as he passed through. The so-called Jewish Register, or record of Jewish loans, written in Latin, 2) is preserved from the period 1413-20. We know that in 1445 there was a Jewish Vogt, or prefect, by the name of Nicholas the Apothecary, and there is a record from 1434 that Augustinians fleeing from Prostějov bought a house in the Street of the Jews opposite the Jewish Schul (read synagogue), from the Jewess Gail Aronova.

The good years, however, were soon to end. Fired by the teachings of the Franciscan monk John Capistran, King Ladislav the Posthumous issued a decree on 22 July 1454 3) expelling the Jews from Olomouc, Uničov and most other Moravian royal towns, and donating their houses, synagogue and cemetery to the municipality. The Jews had to get out of town by 11 November, leaving their property behind, in return for which the citizens undertook to pay the king an annual Jewish Tax of 40 sixty-groschen, due always on the feast of St George and of St Gall. The expelled Jews found refuge in the surrounding feudal towns of Prostějov, Tovačov, Přerov, Lipník nad Bečvou and Úsov, from which time date the Jewish communities of those places. For four long centuries thereafter, Jews were not permitted 4) to stay in any royal town, or later in any fortified borough; in 1745, for example, Empress Maria Theresa re-affirmed that Jews were forbidden to reside at Olomouc. Substantial personal fees, the Leibmaut, were levied on Jews each time they wished to gain entry to the city to attend markets. They were allowed in on certain days to conduct their business, but only to the outskirts – primarily the suburb of Bělidla, where there are references to a Jewish public eating-house (rented by the chef, Lazar Flamm) between 1792 and 1861, and where there was a private prayer room from the beginning of the 19th century. The strict ban was occasionally lifted after that time, but only through the issue of special, highly priced, permits.

Such medieval anachronisms were not abolished until the revolutionary year of 1848, when the Jewish population was conferred with full civil rights, including the freedom of movement. This triggered an influx of Jews from the surrounding small towns and villages into the bigger towns and cities, from which they had previously been barred, in search of better economic conditions.

In 1865 a Jewish Religious Association was founded in Olomouc, and in 1892 this acquired the status of an independent religious community (religious societies with their own prayer rooms also existed at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries in the suburb of Pavlovičky and in the nearby towns of Šternberk, Uničov and Litovel). In 1897, Olomouc was the venue of the first Zionist congress to be held within the Austrian Empire, greeted by Theodor Herzl. The extent of Jewish involvement in the city’s social, cultural and political life was underlined by the existence of numerous Jewish societies (the Chevra Kadisha burial society, a Women’s Charity Association set up in 1893, a Jewish PE Association established in 1901 and renamed the TJ Makkabi sports club in 1927) and charitable humanitarian foundations (by 1906, for example, there were 42 such organizations, with funds amounting to 62,000 K). And during the First World War the city became a haven for hundreds of Jewish refugees from Galicia.

The flourishing Jewish community was brought to a cruel end by the tragic years of nazi occupation. Those citizens of Jewish origin who were affected by the racist, so-called Nuremberg Laws were gradually deprived of all their rights and assets. In the course of five deportations (26 July 1942, code-named AAf; 30 June 1942 AAg; 4 July 1942 AAm; 8 July 1942 AAo, and 7 March 1945 AE7) a total of 3,498 people from the city and its surroundings were transported to Terezín and thence to extermination camps in the East. Their memory is honored each spring on Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, with a memorial service in the ceremonial chamber of the new Jewish cemetery at Neředín. They are also remembered by a plaque (the work of the stone sculptor Miloš Brückner), unveiled on 3 May 1996 by the Ambassador of the State of Israel in the Czech Republic, His Excellency Rafael Gvir, on the wall of the elementary school in Hálek Street (Hálkova), where Jews from Olomouc were rounded up before being deported in 1942.

The Jewish citizens who survived the horrors of the war were quick to restore a religious community in 1945. Few in number, however, they continued to dwindle through old age and emigration, until in 1962, as part of a new regional arrangement, the Olomouc congregation was meant to become a mere synagogal choir attached to the Jewish Religious Community of Ostrava. A revival of religious practice and ceremony in Olomouc was brought about by the democratic transformations that followed 1989, and by 1 April 1991 a separate religious community was re-established, covering the districts of Olomouc, Šumperk, Jeseník, Bruntál and Přerov.

1) One contentious account, given by G. Wolný (and repeated by H. Gold), is that Jews were already living at Olomouc around 1060, scattered among the Christian population, but that Prince Vratislav II ordered them thenceforth to live in their own community at Bělidla (literally, the bleaching fields) on the periphery, where the Jewish or Bernardine Gate once stood.
2) Olomouc District State Archive, Olomouc City Archive, book and manuscript collection, inventory no. 1822, sign. 36. We find the lists of creditors include e.g. the following Jewish names: Isra, Lazar, Abraham, Jordan, Salomon, Beneš, Munka, Merkel, Šefrelin, Gail, Liczko, Mušlin, Jekl, Smoyel, Tyczko.
3 ) Olomouc District State Archive, Olomouc City Archive, document collection, sign. 206.
4 ) With certain exceptions, e.g. in 1622 the Jewish company Witte purchased a lease from Emperor Ferdinand to mint coins at the Olomouc mint.

© Jaroslav Klenovský