Jewish Religious Communities in the Bohemian Lands After 1945

Jan Láníček, University of New South Wales, Sydney

In September 1945, Kurt Wehle, Secretary of the Council of Jewish Religious Communities in Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia1 (hereafter the Council), closed his opening remarks on the role of Jewish Religious Communities (hereafter JRC) after the war with the following words: “Always and in every era, the JRC in Prague was present and performed the tasks assigned to it in an exemplary manner. We have no doubt that even now, after liberation, on the ruins of Prague and the Czech Jewry, the JRC in Prague will diligently fulfil its tasks for the benefit of the Jews and of the state.”2 He thus articulated the central position of the Jewish community leadership in the renewal of Jewish life after 1945, in the personal and material restitution of the survivors, and in the relationship between the Jewish communities and the Czechoslovak state. 

Representatives of the Jewish communities believed that it was their task to support the survivors in their efforts to begin a new life after the war, a truly Herculean effort. The Jewish community in Czechoslovakia immediately after the war was less than 15 percent of what it had been before 1939. Fewer than 25,000 Jews now lived in the Bohemian Lands, and in Slovakia about 30,000.3 Most suffered from significant health and psychological problems, lacked adequate housing and social security, and encountered major problems in their efforts to rejoin the postwar society (see the introduction by Magdalena Sedlická), all while the specter of antisemitism and Czech ethnic nationalism frequently lurked in the background. 

Before the German occupation, the JRC had focused purely on religious, educational, and charitable activities.4 In 1945, it became evident that these institutions would have to extend their range of activities far beyond their pre-war scope, because they effectively remained the only functioning Jewish organizational structures in the Bohemian Lands. Apart from religious services, therefore, they had to focus on the physical, social, and economic recuperation of the survivors and repatriates, negotiate with Czechoslovak authorities about the restitution of community property and property owned by individual Jews, provide the survivors with legal advice and answer enquiries from all over the world about the fate of thousands of individuals. Because of the lack of direct political Jewish representation in the government and state institutions, the new JRC also became the main political body that claimed to represent Jews in the Bohemian Lands. They made numerous interventions and entered into lengthy negotiations with the government to secure the position of the Jews in the country. Alongside all these activities, they also supported efforts to document the persecution of the Jews during the war, collect evidence for trials, and commemorate those who perished in the ghettos and concentration camps (see the introduction by Magda Veselská).5

The postwar Jewish communities in the Bohemian Lands initially lacked experienced leaders as well as the trust of the survivors. The wartime Czech Jewish and Czech Zionist leadership had been almost completely wiped out. Jakob Edelstein, a Zionist and the first elder of the Terezín Ghetto, had been deported to Auschwitz in December 1943 and executed together with his family in June 1944. The Nazis also murdered the remaining Jewish leaders, including František Weidmann, Otto Zucker, Hannah Steiner, František Kahn, and Salomon Krämer, upon their arrival in Auschwitz-Birkenau in the autumn of 1944.6 Other prewar Czechoslovak Jewish leaders had permanently settled abroad—in Palestine, Great Britain, and the United States. Furthermore, the ties between the Jewish community and their representatives had been severely harmed during the occupation. For many Jews, the Jewish Councils had been the puppets of the Nazi administration and this resentment persisted even after liberation. On several occasions, members of the leadership defended themselves in public and tried to persuade the anxious community that they were doing their utmost to secure equal rights and support the survivors.7 At the same time, survivors soon realized that they needed the support of the JRC when trying to reestablish their lives.8 It was an uneasy relationship, which, however, worked for the benefit of the community. 

The renewal of the Jewish community structures in the Bohemian Lands was in large part the work of Arnošt Frischer, who had returned to Czechoslovakia from Britain, where between 1941 and 1945 he had served as a member of the Czechoslovak State Council—a quasi parliament created by President Edvard Beneš in exile.9 This appointment had equipped Frischer with the necessary confidence and contacts that aided him in leading the Jewish community. Immediately upon his return to Czechoslovakia, Frischer recognized the need to create a Jewish community structure in Bohemia and Moravia that would promptly coordinate the distribution of social assistance to the repatriates.10 Eventually, approximately 53 local JRCs in Bohemia and Moravia were created.11 Many had very low membership numbers, and some never functioned properly or even ceased to exist soon after they were officially renewed.12 The JRCs in the borderlands (in the former Sudetenland) could often be reestablished only thanks to the arrival of Jewish repatriates from Subcarpathian Ruthenia—a territory ceded to the Soviet Union in June 1945.13

The new postwar reality also demanded a more centralized structure that would facilitate the renewal of Jewish life. In early September 1945, representatives of the Jewish communities elected the Council, an umbrella organization representing the Jews in the Bohemian Lands. Frischer was elected its chairman. He could rely on the cooperation and support of activists who had survived the war in occupied Europe. From the Zionist camp, Kurt Wehle, a young lawyer from Jablonec nad Nisou, became the secretary. He proved to be a tireless fighter for the rights of Jewish survivors, using his legal skills in negotiations with the Czechoslovak authorities.14 The Assimilationist camp was represented by Julius Lederer, a nearly 75-year-old veteran of Jewish politics in Bohemia and Moravia, and František Fuchs, an active member of the Social Democratic Party and Holocaust survivor, who had also worked for the Prague JRC early in the war.15 After Frischer’s election to the Council, the chairmanship of the Prague JRC was assumed by the lawyer Karel Stein, another member of the Zionist camp. During the occupation, before he was deported to Terezín and then to Auschwitz, Stein had led the provincial department (venkovské oddělení) of the Prague JRC.16 

The establishment of a united Jewish Community organization and the equal representation of Zionists and Assimilationists signified a fundamental shift in the Jewish politics of the Bohemian Lands, and contrasted with its previous long history of infighting.17 In the borderlands, some of the leading positions were taken up by representatives of Jewish orthodoxy who came from Subcarpathian Ruthenia and until 1945 didn’t represent any significant group in the Bohemian Lands. Furthermore, the Council and other Jewish bodies decided to look after the interests of all Jews who had been affected by persecution (based on the Nuremberg Laws), not only those who would have been members of prewar Jewish religious communities.18 They realized that because of the wartime terror, every individual who had been affected by the Nazi policies, many of them without surviving relatives and family networks, had special needs and required long-term support, which the Czechoslovak state could not provide. 

The agenda of the JRC was constantly expanding and the Council soon had to create an extensive administrative apparatus. In the first days after liberation alone, hundreds of letters arrived from overseas, enquiring about the fate of family members and friends and bombarding the newly opened offices, taking up the majority of the administration’s time. In two years, between November 1945 and October 1947, the Council received 125,000 letters and telegrams, and dispatched 75,000 letters and 4,000 telegrams.19 Another problem that troubled the Council from the very beginning was a lack of financial resources. Initially, survivors received extra food from the local population and in hospitals, and were allocated new apartments (mostly vacated by expelled Germans, though often large groups of survivors had to share one apartment).20 However, such help was short-lived and the Jewish community soon had to search for other sources. In 1946, the Council was successful in obtaining 60 million Czech crowns from the Czechoslovak government, part of the so-called ‘Terezín Estate’ (Terezínská podstata—the clothes or money left behind by Jews who had been deported from the Protectorate Bohemia and Moravia during the war), but even these funds were insufficient and unsustainable.21 Because they lacked available assets and survivors couldn’t contribute to the social funds, the Council’s efforts were largely dependent on western humanitarian organizations, in particular the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (hereafter the Joint). Between 1945 and 1948 the Joint remained the primary sponsor of the Council’s activities, including its social services.22

Social services for survivors soon took up most of the Council’s agenda. The social department of the Council saw to the health of the survivors (many of whom were infected with tuberculosis), and established nursing homes, orphanages, and recreation centers for young people. They distributed clothes and other appliances from confiscated Jewish property left behind by the Germans. They also supported survivors with immediate financial help and provided monthly subsidies to those unable to sustain themselves.23 Within a year, most of the Jews in the Bohemian Lands no longer needed any support from the community.24 Last but not least, the Council looked after the religious needs of the community, though they had to cope with a lack of experienced rabbis, a problem that was resolved only in 1947, when Rabbi Gustav Sicher returned from Palestine to take up the office of Chief Rabbi of Bohemia. 

In an analysis of the situation in postwar Czechoslovakia written almost forty years after the events, Wehle concluded that, despite the difficulties that the Council had to cope with at that time, including the passivity or obstructionism of the new political establishment, by early 1948 the Jewish community in the country was on its way to a full recovery.25 Frischer was also optimistic about the future. As he remarked in an October 1947 speech: “We, too, believe in a good future for the Jews in Czechoslovakia, if the world is at peace. We base our optimism on the nature of the Czech people, their intelligence, traditional humanism,26 education, and adaptability. As a part of them, we want, despite all the hardship, to cross over into a better future.”27 All this was possible only thanks to the strenuous efforts of the activists and community leaders who managed to revive the community structures from the ashes of the Holocaust. However, the situation soon changed. The first postwar Council continued its work until the Communist takeover in February 1948. Shortly afterwards, the newly-formed Action Committee cleansed Frischer and his colleagues from their ranks and elected a new community leadership, which abandoned the independent and self-confident Jewish politics of the Bohemian Lands. Most of those involved in rebuilding the community, including Frischer, Wehle, and Stein, soon emigrated to the West or to the State of Israel. In the end, also most of the survivors decided to leave Czechoslovakia forever.


1In Czech: Rada židovských náboženských obcí v zemích České a Moravskoslezské.

2Věstník ŽNOP, 1. 9. 1945, p. 4.

3Petr Sedlák, ‘Židé v českých zemích v letech 1945–1949’, Terezínské studie a dokumenty, 2008: 13–45; Ivica Bumová, ‘The Jewish Community After 1945: Struggle for Civic and Social Rehabilitation,’ Holocaust as a Historical and Moral Problem of the Past and the Present: Collection of Studies from the Conference (Bratislava: Dokumentačné stredisko holokaustu, 2008), 253–278. Büchler estimated the number of Jews in postwar Slovakia at 32,000; see Yehoshua Büchler, ‘Reconstruction Efforts in Hostile Surroundings – Slovaks and the Jews after World War II, David Bankier (ed.), The Jews are Coming Back: The Return of the Jews to their Countries of Origin after WWII (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2005), 257. For the Bohemian Lands, the estimate from mid-1947 sets the number at 24,658 Jews, which included all those persecuted during the war, including those who didn’t belong to a religious community.

4Věstník ŽNOP, 1. 9. 1945, p. 2.

5Magda Veselská, ‘Early Documentation of the Shoah in the Czech Lands: The Documentation Project and the Prague Jewish Museum (1945–1947),’ Judaica Bohemiae 52, no. 1 (2017): 47–85; Sarah A. Cramsey, ’Saying Kaddish in Czechoslovakia: Memorialization, the Jewish Tragedy and the “Tryzna”, Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 7, no. 1 (2008): 35–50.

6On the wartime Jewish leadership, see: Livia Rothkirchen, ‘Czech and Slovak Wartime Jewish Leadership: Variants in Strategy and Tactics,’ Michael Berembaum, Abraham J. Peck (ed.), The Holocaust and History: The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed, and the Re-examined (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 629–46; Livia Rothkirchen, The Jews of Bohemia and Moravia (Lincoln and Jerusalem: University of Nebraska Press and Yad Vashem, 2005), 116–137.

7Věstník ŽNOP, 28. 2. 1946, p. 10f.

8Blanka Soukupová, Židé v českých zemích po šoa. Identita poraněné paměti (Bratislava: Marenčin PT, 2016), 48.

9Jan Láníček, Arnošt Frischer and the Jewish Politics of Early 20th-Century Europe (London: Bloomsbury, 2017).

10 Security Services Archive (ABS), Jewish Organizations fond (425), Call No. 425-231-1. Frischer to SVŽČ, 3 June 1945.

11Petr Sedlák, ‘Obnovování a organizace židovských náboženských obcí v Českých zemích po skončení druhé světové války,’  Židé a Morava 12 (2006): 191–213. The number of JRCs isn’t exactly clear and it also fluctuated over time. In November 1945, Frischer claimed that there were in fact 59 Jewish Communities in the Bohemian Lands and 105 in Slovakia. Věstník ŽNOP, 15. 12. 1945, p. 26.

12 P. Sedlák, ‘Obnovování a organizace židovských náboženských obcí’: 192f.

13 ‒ Kateřina Čapková, ‘Dilemmas of Minority Politics: Jewish Migrants in Postwar Czechoslovakia and Poland,’ Francoise S. Ouzan and Manfred Gerstenfeld (ed.), Postwar Jewish Displacement and Rebirth, 19451967, (Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2014), 64.

14 ‒ Kurt Wehle, ‘The Jews of Bohemia and Moravia: 1945–1948,’ Avigdon Dagan (ed.), The Jews of Czechoslovakia: Historical Studies and Surveys, vol. III (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1984), 499–530.

15Věstník ŽNOP, 1. 8. 1946, p. 71; Věstník ŽNOP, 1. 8. 1956, p. 4.

16Věstník ŽNOP, 28. 10. 1945, p. 23.

17Věstník ŽNOP, 1. 10. 1945, p. 11f.

18 ‒ K. Čapková, ‘Dilemmas of Minority Politics’: 69.

19Věstník ŽNOP, 14. 11. 1947, p. 326.

20 ‒  ABS, 425-231-1, Frischer to the SVŽČ, 3 June 1945; Yad Vashem Archives, O.59/91, Frischer to Zajitschkova, 15 July 1945; Peter Heumos, ‘Rückkehr ins Nichts: Leo Herrmanns Tagebuchaufzeichnungen über seine Reise nach Prag und die Lage der Juden in der Tschechoslowakei im Herbst 1945,’ Bohemia Vol. 27, No. 2 (1986): 296.

21ABS, 425-231-2, Minutes of a meeting between Frischer and Trobe (Joint), 18 January 1946. ABS, 425-231-2, ‘Otázky, které je nutno projednat s ministrem Šoltészem;’ The Jewish Council in Prague to the Ministry of Job Security and Social Welfare, 3 October 1945.

22Věstník ŽNOP, 1. 8. 1946, p. 66.

23 ‒ United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, RG-67.014M, reel 107, H101/9, Stephen Barber’s report on Czechoslovakia, September 1945.

24Věstník, 15. 12. 1946, p. 139.

25 ‒ K. Wehle, ‘The Jews of Bohemia and Moravia: 1945–1948’: 525. Archives of the Jewish Museum Prague, Oral History Collection, Interview no. 151, (K. W., man).

26This is a reference to the first Czechoslovak president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk.

27Věstník ŽNOP, 6. 11. 1947, p. 314f.