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.

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.

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.

Tirzah Firestone