A 500 year-old trail leads from a church in the small Moravian town of Kojetin to today’s Jewish communities in Maidenhead Berkshire, England, and Fort Lauderdale, Wheeling, Chicago and Philadelphia, in the U.S.A. The link consists of Torah scrolls from Kojetin’s former kehillah that have found a home abroad. The Maidenhead congregation cherishes its Torah scroll as an inspiration, while the Protestant congregation in Kojetin appreciates having its church in the former synagogue building. Maidenhead’s Rabbi Jonathan Romain and Kojetin’s Pastor Dobromil Maly have led their communities in the effort to keep alive the memory of the Jews of Kojetin.
Expelled from neighbouring Olomouc in 1454, Jews sought refuge in Kojetin. However, the earliest chronicle referring to Jews in Kojetin dates from 1566. It lists 56 Jewish families living in the Judengasse. The Jews built their synagogue of brick and stone at the entrance to the Judengasse, leaving no record of construction date; there is, however mention of a renovation and expansion in 1614. Unlike ghetto streets in other towns, this Judengasse was a clean and cheerful place with abundant meadows and gardens behind the houses. Most of the Jews were peddlers until they gained permission to engage in business, but some cultivated grasslands and raised cattle.
Their peace was broken at mid-seventeenth century, when many Polish and Ukrainian Jews were welcomed into the community after fleeing from the bloodthirsty hordes of Cossaks under the leadership of Bogdan Chemielnicki during the years 1648-1649. Absorbed into the community, the new arrivals introduced Polish prayer rituals and rich Talmudic lore.
During this period, the synagogue lost its roof in a fire and waited so for five decades for lack of funds. Although the Jewish Court Banker, Samuel Wertheimer of Eisenstadt volunteered to pay for restoring the synagogue, town authorities refused his offer, intending to prevent further Jewish use of the building on its attractive open square. On this and other matters, the community petitioned the Chancellery of Prague. In 1718 a favorable ruling was returned, granting permission to repair the synagogue. Diminished and impoverished after the fire, the community reorganized. The ghetto was established and renamed Zidovska Ulice in 1727. Five hundred Jews inhabited 40 houses. Despite its small size, the kehillah became a center of famous rabbis. One of the youngest was Rabbi Eleazer Flekeles, a student of the famed Rabbi Ezekiel Landau-the”Nodah B’Yehuda”.
Documents in the local archives illustrate the social and political changes that Europe was undergoing. The Rescript of the 1727 had prohibited Jews from renting houses that were Christian property. In 1827, the Imperial and Royal District Office addressed a query to the municipality regarding the observance of the still-in-force Rescript. The Provisions Office of Kojetin replied, in part:
“In view of the progress of the nations in the past hundred years….it is not surprising that a political law dating from the age of intolerance is no longer in accord with the present age. The Supreme Rescript can be viewed as no longer meritorious of existence ….the same should expressly be rescinded…and tolerated Jews should be permitted to rent Christian homes.”
The number of Jews—443 by 1830—and their high birth rate clashed with the legally established limit of 76 families. Ordered in 1830 to investigate reports of possible secret marriages among Jews, the Provisions Office displayed a pragmatic tolerance of infractions.
“Here, single woman have given birth to children – and since they have no complaints as to cost of maintenance, they seem to have a secret bond with the father. There are no definite criteria for proving the existence of a secret and unlawful marriage. This mischief cannot be countered by legislative measures. Perhaps the time has come to ease restrictions on Jewish marriages, since grounds therefore no longer exist.”
Social and cultural conditions improved in the second half of the nineteenth century, a veritable golden age for the Jews of Kojetin. With success in trade, some moved out of the Jewish quarter. But Zidovska Ulice remained the busy center of social and cultural life, especially on holidays when it teemed with guests. Dwindling gradually, the kehillah retained a Jewish mayor until 1924. By 1930 only 32 Jewish families remained.
During the roundups of 1942, the Nazis captured 83 of the 90 registered Jews and deported them to Terezienstadt. Few returned. The Nazis had planned to destroy the synagogue, but local residents demanded permission to use it as a warehouse. The Protestant Hussite Congregation known as the Czech Brethren bought the building in 1953 for use as a church. In 1992 the synagogues in the U.S.A. and England who were recipients of the Torah scrolls, sent representatives to Kojetin to visit the former synagogue and the cemetery in a memorial ceremony 50 years after the deportation of Kojetin’s Jews.
Condensed by Moshe Levinson from Synagogues Without Jews.