Chapter 5

Part II – The First Reading – Amschelberg

ornamented Tanta Manya and Uncle Max had a country cottage in Amschelberg, the town that Shmuel and his father and Pinchas were headed toward to deliver the Torah. It was a beautiful, quiet little village only 60 kilometers south of Prague. It had been an important center of Jewish life in the region and had an old Jewish tradition since the 16th Century. There were beautiful lakes and tall trees. They loved to go there on the weekends or whenever they could take a vacation. It was a nice change from the hustle and bustle of the city life of Prague. The air was clean and fresh and because it was in the mountains, it was much cooler in the summer time. There were quite a lot of Jewish families in Amschelberg. Some of them lived there all year round, but many of them only came for the summer or for holiday. There were two synagogues in the town and whenever Tanta Manya and Uncle Max stayed in Amschelberg, they used to go to the one in which the new Torah scroll would be. They always took two weeks off from work after the summer and stayed in their cottage in Amschelberg for the High Holidays and for Sukkos and Simchas Torah.

It was Thursday. Since Tanta Manya and Uncle Max would not be going to Amschelberg that weekend, they said that the three men should stay at their cottage. They would need to leave right after morning services in order to get to Amschelberg in time by nightfall. Sundown would come at about 7:30 PM and they wanted to be settled in before that. Rabbi Shmuel decided to go to the bakery to get a cup of tea before leaving Prague with his father and brother-in-law. Reb Shlomo decided to spend an hour with his older sister, Golda. She was already 80 years old and she was having trouble with her vision, but her mind was as sharp as a tack and she could remember everything and told lots of stories about when they were children. Pinchas had no time to visit. He needed to take care of Nellie, make sure she had oats and water and so he went to the livery stable to start hitching Nellie up to the wagon.

When Shmuel got to the bakery, there were about half a dozen people talking in loud voices as they sat drinking tea. Shlomo soon realized that they were arguing about politics, something that Shmuel knew not too much about. Government and the economy were things that people in his small village only rarely concerned themselves with. In his little village they rarely had time to just think about how they could get by and eke out a living. Would they have enough money to buy a chicken or a small piece of fish for the Shabbat meal? Would they be able to afford enough wood or coal for the cold winter? They had no time to concern themselves with politics. But in Prague things were different. In Prague, people talked about the economy and the government, about the danger of war, the high taxes and unemployment and about who would rule the country — the Czechs or the Germans.

Bohemia and Moravia were ruled by King Leopold II of Germany. The Germans wanted everyone to speak German, but the Czechs wanted to speak their own language and to have their own country. The people in the bakery were talking about America and they said that things in America were different. The best thing about America they said was that there was no fear of pogroms against the Jews. Could this be true? They said that in America after the revolution in 1776, the people had formed a democracy where free men could vote and decide who they wanted to lead the country. They said that in America there was a Constitution that guaranteed freedom of speech and freedom of religion to everyone. And although the rich landowners in South owned slaves who came from Africa, the Jews were much safer in America than in Europe.

Since the American Revolution in 1776, what were once British colonies and subjects of the King of England had formed their own federation of United States and now had their own government. Prague and the surrounding countryside were part of the Hapsburg Empire and there was antagonism between the different national groups. Germany had wanted the Czechs from Bohemia to join the German National Assembly in Frankfurt, but the Czechs refused to become part of this German Assembly. They wanted their own country and their own government. Many people in Prague now were talking about a revolution.

Rabbi Shmuel listened carefully to all this political talk. His Uncle Max was very informed about history, national politics and current events. Over the years Shmuel had learned a great deal about what had happened to the Jews as they had to move from place to place and country to country. What concerned him the most about what he was hearing in the bakery as people talked about current politics was trying to decide whether or not the current surge of Czech nationalism would help or harm the Jews. For hundreds of years, no, thousands of years the Jews were a people who were separate from the other nations, the gentiles, set apart by language and customs and belief and in the ghettoes of Europe, by walls. Ever since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem eighteen hundred years earlier, the Jews had been a people without a country of their own.

Old Jewish Cemetery in Winter, J. Stretti-Zaponi, 1910The Jews now were dispersed all over the world. Many once lived in Spain and Portugal, and also in North Africa, and later in Europe and America. They lived in these countries, but stayed among themselves, in their own walled cities and they more or less had their own separate society. They mainly lived in peace, in their own ghettos, trading and coexisting with the local peasants and townsfolk. Sometimes there was relative peace for hundreds of years, but things could turn on them as they had in Spain in 1492 when Queen Isabella instituted her reign of terror — the Inquisition, or as they did right here in Prague in 1389 when there was an economic crisis and the Jews were forced out of Prague during a series of bloody pogroms.

Every time there was a war and a change in rulers, there was a danger that the new king or the emperor would not be sympathetic to the Jews. They might be heavily taxed, or forbidden to own land or even forbidden to marry. In 1727, under the reign of the King Charles VI, during the time that the Hapsburgs ruled the country, the Familiants Law was passed that limited the number of Jewish families that were allowed to live in Bohemia to 8,541. In order to restrict the number of Jews, the law also stipulated that only one son in any Jewish household could legally marry and start a family. When Empress Maria Theresa came into power in 1740 she imposed a steep “toleration tax” on Jews for the privilege of being allowed to live in Bohemia. As a result, many of the Jews moved away from Prague to other parts of Eastern Europe, to Poland and Hungary, and also into small towns and villages in the surrounding countryside of Bohemia and Moravia. There they would keep to themselves as much as possible, live quiet lives, so as not to be too conspicuous. Sometimes they married in secret. These marriages were called “attic weddings” because in order to keep them secret, people would get married quietly in the attics of the houses of their friends and relatives.

From time to time, things got better for the Jews. After the Hapsburg King Josef II assumed the throne in 1780, he issued Edicts of Tolerance that removed most restrictions on Jewish economic activity. The Jews were encouraged to assimilate and the Jewish autonomous judicial system was abolished. In 1787 an order was issued for all Jews to adopt German names.

The Jews for the most part lived quiet lives and tried not to be noticed. In most of the smaller communities and villages in which they lived they were able to develop good relationships with the local tradesmen and aristocrats. They contributed to the prosperity and welfare of the towns and did everything they could to live in peace. In these small towns the Jews spoke Czech like the local people and showed their friendship and loyalty to the Czech people. Rabbi Shmuel had learned a lot about the ups and downs of the Jews of Bohemia from his Uncle Max who was very well informed about history as well as current events and was always talking about politics.

But all of this political talk in the bakery was giving Rabbi Shmuel a headache. All he hoped was that his Sefer Torah would have a good home in the village of Amschelberg and he hoped a long life in the community’s little shul.

Synagogue clock, Pisek, Bohemia c. 1870Rabbi Shmuel looked at the big clock with Hebrew letters that was in the middle of town square of Josefov, the Jewish section of Prague. The hands on the clock were made to go “counter clockwise” just as the Hebrew language is read “backwards” from right to left. He saw that it was already past ten in the morning and he knew that they had to get a move on or else they wouldn’t get to their destination by nightfall. He scurried down the cobble-stoned streets until he found the livery stable. Nellie was already hitched to the wagon, the Torah Scroll was safely inside and they were waiting to go. “Where were you? Schmulke?”, said his father, scolding and joking at the same time, “We were thinking that maybe you missed your beautiful Rifka so much that you started back home last night.” Rabbi Shmuel laughed at how his father teased him, and he joked and said, “Yes, an angel came and I flew on his wings to Rifka’s side and only now came back to Prague.” The three men were in good humor. They were rested and had a good night sleeping in the homes of their relatives in Prague and they had lots of news to share.

And so they were on their way, Rabbi Shmuel, Reb Shlomo, and Pinchas, Shmuel’s brother-in-law in the driver’s seat. Just as they were leaving, Tanta Manya came running down the street after them saying, “Wait a minute, wait for me, I have something for you“. “Here“, she said, out of breath from running, “Here, I baked you some of my mandelbrot to take with you, in case you get hungry on the way.” She handed them a huge tin with a least six dozen of her delicious, buttery, nut cookies.

The three men, their horse and wagon with the Sefer Torah safely inside arrived just as the first stars appeared in the sky of the town of Amschelberg — or, as the town was called by the Czech people, Kosova Hora. The moon was nearly full and they could easily find their way. They found Tanta Manya’s house, unhitched the wagon, hosed down Nellie and put her in the small pasture with some oats and hay. They carried the Sefer Torah into the house and put it carefully down in an empty wooden cabinet in the main room of the house. The men themselves were very tired and couldn’t eat anything because they had been munching on mandelbrot all day long. They collapsed into the beds that were all made up and slept till 8:00 o’clock the next morning.

Copyright © 1998 Suzanne Sadowsky


Chapter 6