The Jews of Bohemia & Moravia: Facing the Holocaust

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The Jews of Bohemia & Moravia: Facing the Holocaust, by Livia Rothkirchen. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press and Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2005.447 pp. $39.95.

Livia Rothkirchen in the present publication takes up the task of describing the history of the Jewish presence in Bohemia and Moravia. It is, at this juncture, worth recalling the situation prevalent for many years regarding the mapping of Jewish history in the Czech lands. During the years of Communist domination (1948-1989), historians had only very limited possibilities in treating this theme. In the early 1950s, a climate of official antisemitism made it impossible for historians officially to perform research or to publish on Jewish themes. By the 1960s, conditions began to improve. Literary scholars, led by Eduard Goldstücker, began to write about the figure of Franz Kafka, or publish studies of Prague's German-language literature. Hana Volavkova's The Story of the Prague Jewish Museum (Ph'beh 2idovskeho muzea v Praze) finally saw publication, as well as the exceptional work of Karel Lagus and Josef Polik, The City Behind Bars (Mësto za mrizemi), a depiction of the Jewish ghetto of Theresienstadt (Terezin) during the Nazi occupation. After a long silence, writing about the sufferings of the Jewish population during World War Two was finally allowed. In short, it seemed that the time had come that would allow for more extensive research into the history of the Czechoslovak Jews. But after the invasion of Warsaw Pact troops in August 1968, the"Prague Spring" came to an end. In the ensuing period of cultural and political repression during the next two decades, the possibilities of conducting historical research in any official framework were again severely restricted. As far as topics in Jewish history were concerned, the maximum possible achievements were the publication of relatively brief studies of earlier Jewish history or significant Czech Jewish individuals in scholarly compendia or professional journals with a limited circulation. All of these limitations came to an end with the political changes of 1989. Czech historians began to publish a wide series of books and articles about the country's Jewish history, with the greatest emphasis devoted to the catastrophe of World War Two.

The situation outlined above led to the paradox that the study of Czech Jewish history developed far more extensively abroad, particularly amongjewish emigrants from Czechoslovakia. It was a sovereign interest of the Jewish émigré communities that this history not be forgotten, and it was they who started initiatives to support research in the field. The impressive result of these efforts was the three-volume publication The Jews of Czechoslovakia, a decades-long collaborative effort headed by Czech-born Israeli diplomat and writer Avigdor Dagan. Understandably, the work of the authors was hindered by the fact that they could not work with documents kept in Czechoslovak archives, yet despite this handicap they succeeded in creating a publication that can be regarded as essential for the study of the history of the Jews of Czechoslovakia. One of the members of the team of authors was Livia Rothkirchen, who has been conducting research in this field for many decades. She formerly worked for the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, and has published many studies with a predominant focus on the period of World War Two. In her publication The Jews of Bohemia 6- Moravia, she has taken up the daunting task of capturing the history of the Jewish presence in the broadest sense, drawing on her long years of research. Her introductory chapter outlines the history of the Jews in the Czech lands from the 10th century until the creation of independent Czechoslovakia in 1918. She then turns her attention to the position of Jews in Czechoslovak society between the two wars, noting the manifestations of antisemitism in Czechoslovakia at the end of 1938 and the beginning of 1939. …