Ancestral Pilgrimage, Boundaries of the Soul, Stopping the Trauma Train

Scaling Stone Walls: Angels & Devils


This morning my head is swimming at the remarkable events that unfolded yesterday in Uhersky-Brod—a verdant, sweet-smelling town in the Carpathian Mountains of the Czech Republic. This is where our great-great grandparents Moses and Tzilka lived and bore their children, so we rented a car to come see what we could find.

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My sister and I were happily taking photos of ourselves in front of town hall (notice the splendid countryside in the background) when a man named Michael approached us. A native of the place, Michael not only knew English but was familiar with the history of his town. On our map Michael showed us where the old Jewish neighborhood and cemetery once stood. “Of course there is not one Jew left,” he said, “but across from the big Janacek brewery is where they once lived.”


Sure enough, in the woody hills across from an enormous beer factory we found a country synagogue, with a big padlock on the door. Through the window we could see an empty floor, on the wall a photographic exhibit behind glass.

And just behind that lovely building, a large gate, another padlock, and a stone wall that I discovered could be scaled–carefully! Once we hopped down into a splendid dappled graveyard (see above left), it was a matter of minutes until my sister found the resting place of three of our relatives: Moses, Tzilka, and their famous son, Alois.

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There were many children in their family: One was Yitzchok, our great grandfather, who became the Rosh Yeshiva of Topolcany, that is, the head of a Talumudic academy in a town two hours away. Another was Alois, a man who left the family’s orthodox lifestyle and set sail for parts unknown to become an extraordinarily successful international entrepreneur…and philanthropist.


We learned that Alois—whose grave on the right is a bit taller,  shows his death in 1928. Alois had bequeathed his fortune to every citizen of Uhersky-Brod, Jew and non-Jew alike. Clearly he loved his home town! Alas, before his wealth was ever distributed, the Nazis confiscated it and used it for the transport of the Jews to the death camps.

We traveled on to Topolcany. As we crossed the border into Slovakia, we notice that the roads deteriorate. But the countryside was still splendid: rolling hills and red-roofed towns, tall woods and golden fields. Topolcany, where Yitzchok taught and raised  8 children (and my grandmother Judit) with his wife Kata, is in the middle of nowhere!

It is dusk by now. We ask around where we might find the Jewish cemetery. One kind young Slovak coaches us: Ask for the Jeedovksy Cintorin, Jewish cemetery. But don’t let anyone know that you yourselves are Jewish. It may be risky.

We had heard such warnings, but here too, we found only angels. At 9:00 in the evening, we called the number on
the locked gate. In minutes, a man named Robert zooms up in a tiny blue Fiat with keys to the place. He is a Christian who cares for the Topolcany Jewish cemetery as a religious act, without pay, he tells us. (Here he is below.)



As night falls, Robert walks us into a field of graves. At the very far corner lay our grandfather Yitzchok, the rabbi of the town. (Kata is not to be found.) Not far off,  a large cordoned area with a plaque honoring the sixty-two others who had been gunned down by the demonic Nazis in this town. Most Jews were deported.

This morning as I walk in the tall woods of this European heartland, take in the fresh air and listen to the birds singing their purest of songs, I attempt to hold together the bucolic beauty of this natural paradise with the viciousness of mankind who could order families into a town square and machine gun them down, steal the wealth of a town to hire murder. These peaceful hills and woods witnessed all of this …and surely far more.

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  • Reply carola de vries robles June 25, 2016 at 8:37 am

    Seems like the angels are alife and appearing, and the devils “contained” for the moment. Wish you many more angels on your journey, facing the past and hidden devils right in the face of the void, in the presence of the absent.May their memory be a blessing.

  • Reply carola de vries robles June 25, 2016 at 8:44 am

    oefff, meant: may the memory of your ancestors be a blessing. But, may be, “this sort of miss-take” has deeper meaning: maybe we need to bless devils too? To lift them up in the One Light? Beyond the adversities, apartheid and extreme polarities? May at least human dignity and honoring each human being be felt and remembered.

    • Reply Tirzah Firestone June 25, 2016 at 10:40 am

      thank you as always carola, you are certainly with us on this journey!

      —— “The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” ― C.G.

  • Reply Ori Har June 25, 2016 at 1:19 pm

    I’m following your roots journey, fascinated by the stories, and remembering my journey from Prague to Poland in 2003. Same beginning in the Prague beautiful Jewish quarter and then a train to Krakow. I’ll never forget that hot and crowded train ride that brought up for me other train rides racing in the same direction.
    We visited cemeteries and mass graves in Prague, Krakow, Auschwitz, Lodj,(where I found my grandfather’s grave and a few of my uncles), Warsaw…At the end of the trip all I could feel was that Europe is a one big Jewish Cemetery.
    I am glad that

  • Reply _admin_ June 25, 2016 at 5:06 pm

    Good to hear from you Ori!

  • Reply Keren Michal June 25, 2016 at 6:20 pm

    One wonders how much ancestral trauma a heart can bear. You are both in my prayers and thoughts daily on this journey. May the whisperings of time and messages held in the breezes of the graveyards, as well as in the remnants of the markets and households, all be gently infused into your Neshamas and heal the wounds you carry on behalf of generations. Thank you again for sharing with us.

    • Reply Tirzah Firestone June 26, 2016 at 3:47 pm

      Thank you Keren!
      Your words are much appreciated! We are also having a lovely time in Budapest’s thermal waters and eating ice cream!

      —— “The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” ― C.G.

  • Reply Kevin Clements June 25, 2016 at 8:16 pm

    Dear Tirzah, Thanks so much for this reflection on the last resting place of your ancestors and all the trauma and pain of those who came a short time afterwards. My challenge right now in the light of the Brexit vote is to ensure that the dark forces which afflicted European Jewry do not resurrect themselves to inflict pain and suffering on Moslems, and people of colour who are living in Europe at the moment. We are living in dangerous and worrying times where we have to incorporate the wisdom and painful experiences of your ancestors and mine into generating resistance to evil in the 21st century. Thanks for sharing. Love, peace, shalom, salaam, fred. Kevin

    • Reply Tirzah Firestone June 26, 2016 at 1:49 am

      Agreed, Kevin. We are in a very precarious moment now.
      Will we learn from history?Budapest is strangely empty of any Muslim presence I see, same with the Czech and Slovakian region. How can we who see the pattern repeating itself collaborate to tip the scales? So many of us are willing. Bless you for all your efforts dear friend!

      —— “The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” ― C.G.

  • Reply Sharonah Laemmle June 26, 2016 at 7:50 pm

    Tirzahle: it is such a privilege to share your journey through your writings & photos. Wonderful too that you & your sister can do this together. The continuity of the generations – l’dor v’dor – so present in your journey. I imagine you there before the graves of ancestors, saying kaddish, feeling the blessing of those who survived so you could be there now. Sending you my wishes for continuing safety and depth of explorations. Love, Sharonah

    • Reply Tirzah Firestone June 26, 2016 at 11:01 pm

      thank you sharonah!

      —— “The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” ― C.G.

  • Reply Eve Ilsen June 27, 2016 at 11:12 am

    Oh, Tirzah—
    The sight of those tilting gravestones in the shade of that grove bespeaks a wished-for peace that might not have been the reality then, and certainly isn’t now—except, perhaps, in some special, blessed moments. I join your prayers that our species catch ourselves in time to redirect our actions and re-actions with wisdom and deep heart.

    • Reply Tirzah Firestone June 27, 2016 at 3:48 pm

      amen, Eve.
      it’s true I have rarely been in such a peaceful place, cemetery or otherwise!

      —— “The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” ― C.G.

  • Reply Lester Kurtz June 28, 2016 at 10:28 pm

    An exquisite narration of a moving pilgrimage – I felt I was there with you! Thank you so much for sharing!
    By the way, I once had a rabbi in Austin, Texas, provide me with a long discourse on how my Amish clergy immigrant ancestors (Abraham and Sarah Kurtz) may have been descendants of Jewish refugees fleeing the Spanish Inquisition! That story, I fear, is lost in the mists of centuries-old conflicts that linger.

    • Reply Tirzah Firestone June 29, 2016 at 10:29 pm

      What a fascinating possibility, one worth meditating on!
      Thanks for writing, Les.

      —— “The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” ― C.G.

  • Reply Linda Zweig June 29, 2016 at 1:28 pm

    Dear Tirzah
    It’s been many years since we’ve been together yet a part of me, and my ancestry, is travelling along with you and your sister on this journey. It feels good to be close again, even digitally. While gathering wild flowers you gather blessed memories while remembering we need to remember.

    Travel safely

    • Reply Susan Berman June 29, 2016 at 8:32 pm

      Linda, Looking for you. In reading Tirzah’s Blog, here you are!!
      Susan Berman..

    • Reply Tirzah Firestone June 29, 2016 at 9:18 pm

      Wonderful to hear “your voice” Linda!
      love always, T

      —— “The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” ― C.G.

  • Reply Susan Berman June 29, 2016 at 9:49 pm

    Dear Tirzah,
    Reading this entry, the chill of what’s missing is deeply palpable. And at the same time, another narrative of justice and truth came thru today.
    In an email today a story of Hiram Bingham, a State Dept employee who helped countless Jews escape the Nazis. He was forced out of the State Dept by antisemite State Dept employers for his work on behalf of Jews. He died in 1980 penniless. Now he’s being remembered and acknowledged for his heroism, a postage stamp in his honor..
    The story has been circulating as a mitzvah to his memory. Sent out to Tiferet, Mary confirmed that Reb Zalman, of blessed memory was one of the many refugees that Bingham saved by getting them visas.
    The stories of the heroes as well as the perpetrators need our attention, least we not forget those who depend on efforts greater than them to survive. The lack of Refugee visibility, the BRexit- slam of immigrant doors,what a time to be there. Keep on!! thank you!

    • Reply Tirzah Firestone June 30, 2016 at 10:06 am

      Thank you for the shout out about *Hiram Bingham*, Susan! We all need to know about him and others like him.

      —— “The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” ― C.G.

  • Reply Rev. Rob White August 18, 2016 at 4:26 pm

    Tremendous sharing!

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