The Jews of Bohemia and Moravia: Facing the Holocaust

By Livia Rothkirchen | Go to book overview

Conclusions

The centuries-old Jewish presence in the Czech historic lands, richly expressed in architecture, crafts, sculpture, and literature, is a unique segment of European history. The thrust of my work deals with the years 1939— 45, the last tragic chapter of persecution and suffering that brought about the demise of the once-blooming Jewish communities and their renowned institutions. To understand the focal issues fully it seemed to me imperative to survey the radical transformation of the Jewish community in the nineteenth century, following the Enlightenment, the Emancipation, the process of modernization, the Czech national awakening, and mainly the impact of the Czech-German national conflict. One of its marked aspects was the assimilation of the Jews and their gradual adoption of the official and compulsory German language. This process of Germanization ultimately evolved into a firm attachment to German education and culture, generating sharp antagonism during the bitter nationality struggles between Czechs and Germans.

In the course of time the firmly rooted, devout Jewry split into a number of factions: German Jews, Czech Jews, national or Zionist-oriented Jews, agnostics, and even a category who defined themselves as “Jews by origin.”

It is certainly remarkable that despite their extremely low percentage in the total population (estimated at 1.01 percent at the beginning of the twentieth century), Jews were the moving force behind the Bohemian “economic wonder”—the development of trade, industry, and crafts. At the same time, assimilation and progress penetrated all strata of life. The situation was somewhat different in Moravia, where the “autonomous” Jewish community, thanks to the constant influx of fugitives from the east, retained a greater hold upon its traditionally religious members.

The Prague Jewish community, which constituted half of Bohemian Jewry, had become especially affuent and acculturated. Much has been written about the unprecedented generation of creative talents at the fin de siècle, the famous Prague Circle (Kafka, Werfel, Brod, Rilke, Kisch, etc.), enriching Central Euro

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