By Michael Heppner
They came from five congregations on three continents, united by their common bond of each having been entrusted with a Torah scroll dedicated to the lost Jews of Kolín (in the Czech Republic). From England, America and Israel, they were drawn to Kolín to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the return of the town’s Jewish survivors in 1945. Some came as tourists, but their purpose was to boost awareness in the town of the loss of around 500 members its population when the Nazis deported its Jews in June 1942.
Events covering three days demonstrated that although the town had lost its Jews, there were Jews from around the world who felt a bond with Kolín and that, once again, the Jews had come back and the historic synagogue would be alive with the sounds of Jewish life.
Three schools in Kolín had been set a challenge in 2013; to undertake projects that would commemorate the lives of some of the Jewish children of Kolín who had died at the hands of the Nazis. Their incentive was that, in 2015, Jews from three continents would come to Kolín to see the results of these moving and amazing projects.
There were other events: There was the dedication of the trail of brass Stolpersteine pavement memorials that wound its way round the centre of the town and the former ghetto, passing the houses where Jews had lived and ending up in front of the 17th century synagogue that had been restored by the town.
There were two packed Shabbat services in the restored shul, focusing on the stories of the Jewish survivors who had returned from the camps after the Nazis’ defeat. There was the launch of the English translation of the book by Rabbi Dr Richard Feder, the last rabbi of Kolín, who survived and wrote his account of what happened to his congregation. A final act of remembrance took place at the New Cemetery, where Rabbi Feder had erected a memorial, on which are the names of the town’s 480 Jews. At the ceremony, each person present represented one of the lost families of Kolín. As the Kaddish ended, each instinctively went up to the memorial to find their family, a symbolic act that demonstrated how important it is that they are not forgotten.
Michael Heppner is a member of Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue and the former research director of the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust