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Reclaiming Jewish Life After the Nightmare of Communism

How Jews in Prague and Sofia overthrew their troubled communal leadership with the crumbling of the Soviet bloc

Edward Serotta
January 21, 2020
Edward Serotta
An employee in the Prague Jewish community center, December 1989, with a poster of dissident playwright, and soon to be president, Vaclav Havel. The poster reads 'HAVEL NA HRAD,' or Havel to the Castle (the president’s palace).Edward Serotta
Edward Serotta
An employee in the Prague Jewish community center, December 1989, with a poster of dissident playwright, and soon to be president, Vaclav Havel. The poster reads 'HAVEL NA HRAD,' or Havel to the Castle (the president’s palace).Edward Serotta

As the calendar year 1989 began, Jews in what were then the Soviet satellite states (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, East Germany, and Bulgaria) knew pretty much what they could look forward to: calls for world peace (the Soviet way), condemnations of imperialist America and its evil puppet Israel, along with slim pickings in the way of fresh fruit. By the time 1990 began, they were living in a very different world.

Ever since the one party state cemented control of these countries in 1948, rabbis had been run out of town, seminaries and Jewish schools had been closed, kosher food became all but impossible to obtain, and if you showed up for synagogue services (even without a fully ordained rabbi officiating), your future job prospects would dry up.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the official Jewish communities in every one of these countries seemed to exist solely to serve up a steady stream of anti-Israel propaganda, as prepared and precooked for them by the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

Little surprise that most Jews wanted little or nothing to do with the official Jewish organizations, although the communities usually allowed for Hanukkah and Purim parties, which were the two times in a year Jews felt safe getting together without fear of reprisal.

Then something happened. The political changes that began in June 1989, started as a brush fire, gathered strength, grew into an inferno that swept the region, and sent every central committee fleeing for the exit. By the time Hanukkah ended on Dec. 29, the Communists were looking at nothing but scorched earth, while everyone else wanted to start planting seedlings.

That meant Jews in these countries were ready to deal with the official community organs that had been spewing anti-Israel propaganda and preventing their children from studying Hebrew—or learning even the first thing about Judaism. It didn’t happen everywhere, all at once, but change was in the air.

Although no one loved the community leadership in Hungary, it did operate both a small Jewish school and a rabbinical seminary in Budapest that functioned during the Communist decades, and by 1989, the Lauder Foundation was about to open a new school while the Joint Distribution Committee opened its first office in Budapest since 1948. Further, by September 1989 Zionist youth clubs were given the green light to set up shop once again, Hebrew classes were being held in several locations every week, a half dozen synagogues drew congregants regularly and a Jewish summer camp functioned on Lake Balaton (the much larger camp at Szarvas would open in July 1990).

Romania had always been the odd man out. The dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was the only Warsaw Pact leader not to sever diplomatic ties with Israel in 1967, and the Jewish community operated choirs and a summer camp and Talmud Torah classes ran weekly in four cities. If any family asked for a bar mitzvah, Chief Rabbi David Moses Rosen made sure the child was prepared properly.

Poland was also an outlier. First, there were few Jews who were even registered in the 1980s, and to the community’s credit, at least it ran soup kitchens for elderly Holocaust survivors in Wroclaw and Warsaw along with a Yiddish theater in Warsaw. There was, however, little to nothing on offer for younger Jews. Much would happen in the coming years, as Jewish families came out of the woodwork and hundreds (some claim thousands) of younger Poles discovered genuine, or at least tenuous, Jewish roots.

But it was in Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, two of the most hard-line states, where Jews launched their revolt during Hanukkah of 1989 and in January of 1990.

Dezider Galsky (born Goldfinger) had been a diplomat in the Czechoslovak foreign service, and a historian who had published several books on the Middle East. In 1980, he agreed to serve as president of Czechoslovakia’s Jewish Federation.

It was under his aegis that the Prague Jewish Museum’s blockbuster exhibition, The Precious Legacy, began its world tour. Galsky often went with it to speak—always diplomatically—but it did him little good. The Communist Party had no idea that an exhibition of Czech Judaica—nearly all of it gathered from Bohemian Jewish communities wiped out during the Holocaust—would garner such praise wherever it went, and that infuriated them. Galsky was accused of corruption, removed in 1985 and in his place came Frantisek Kraus, a man of such a complex background it beggars belief.

Born in the Czech Republic, Kraus and his family had been sent to Theresienstadt; I had once photographed him in front of the barracks where he was interned. He and his family were sent to Auschwitz where they perished and he survived. At war’s end, Kraus left for Palestine, fought with the Haganah in Israel’s War of Independence, but decided to return home in the 1950s.

He was immediately imprisoned and, I was told, tortured by the authorities for being a Zionist spy and had even been threatened with a firing squad, but a general amnesty at the last minute freed him. Years later, Galsky gave him a job running the kosher kitchen in the Jewish community center, but when Galsky fell out of favor with the authorities, Kraus offered to take his place.

During his tenure at the Jewish Federation, Kraus forbade any programs that had to do with Israel, and when a group of younger community members asked him to at least consider allowing a Hebrew language course, he informed the secret police, who went and grilled everyone who had even asked him.

“The one Jewish organization we did have,” said Andrej Ernyei, a piano tuner and jazz musician, “was our Jewish choir. Almost all of us were adults, and most of us had kids. Singing Hebrew songs together was the one thing we could do together as Jews, and Kraus didn’t think we could do harm to anyone. But he was wrong. We’re the one who pushed him out.”

When Hanukkah came that December, and choir members were thrilled as the Communists were being hounded out of office, they demanded a communitywide meeting with Kraus. And with no one answering at party headquarters to help him out, Kraus gritted his teeth and prepared for the reckoning.

Hundreds of Jews crowded into the venerable hall on Meiselova Street and demanded he resign, and Dezider Galsky was asked to resume his old post. Kraus agreed, and not long after, Galsky asked Tomas Kraus (no relation), an executive at one of the country’s larger artists’ agencies, to become the general secretary.

Galsky knew he’d need someone to help run things, as he was suddenly the name in everyone’s Rolodex. “I just took Francois Mitterrand around the Jewish quarter,” he told me in January 1990, “Margaret Thatcher is coming and I cannot count the number of foreign ministers who have showed up, often with no warning at all.”

Frantisek Kraus refused to apologize for anything he had done, but later came to Tomas Kraus and “he practically begged me to allow him to be buried in the Jewish cemetery. He really did fear this would be the worst possible punishment. Of course I said yes, and he left the community. I never saw him again, although I was told he spent his last years as a security guard in a department store.”

If Czechoslovakia was a hard-line Communist state, the country’s leadership was positively enlightened compared to Bulgaria’s aging Central Committee, headed by Tudor Zhivkov, who, by 1989, had ruled his country since 1954 and was now 78 years old.

With its economy in free fall in 1989, it wasn’t hard for more moderate members of the Communist Party to force Zhivkov from power only one day after the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9. A few days after that, Bulgarian Jews gathered in the Jewish community center on Stambolijski Boulevard and had come with a suggestion for the Jewish community leadership headed by Iosif Astrukov. Namely: resign. Now.

Robert Djerassi described the scene. “We didn’t know how many would come but at least 150 people showed up, and although there was some tension and a lot of excitement, I remember saying that we needed to thank those who had run the community until now, but it was time for a new administration. Astrukov agreed to step down, and Eddy Schwartz, a publisher, theater director and novelist, was asked to take over.”

By the time 1990 had begun, a new Jewish cultural organization had been launched: Shalom: the Organization of Jews in Bulgaria. And everyone would be welcomed.

Djerassi said that “we inherited a five story building with almost nothing in it, other than a typewriter dating from 1880 and a secretary who managed the office.” There was also a museum with a giant photograph of Czar Boris III shaking the hand of Adolf Hitler, which led into a museum of how Communists saved the Jews of Bulgaria.

Becca Lazarova, who would be the first director of the Lauder Jewish school in Sofia, said, “We, the parents, knew almost nothing about being Jewish, and so at night we would teach ourselves, and then work alongside our children the next day in class.”

Although Jewish organizations like JDC and ORT rushed in to help as Bulgaria’s economic collapse deepened, Schwartz never lost his sense of optimism. In September of 1990, when I asked him how Shalom was going to overcome its difficulties, he said, “We have around 4,000 Jews in this country. Out of that we have 10 composers, 10 poets, 150 journalists, 12 theater directors, 200 full professors, six members of parliament with, of course, three on each side, 70 lawyers and nearly 100 doctors. So when it comes to tackling our problems, I’d say we have the right people to do it.”

The Jewish communities in Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria were the first to make serious changes during and after the fall of Communism in 1989, but they would not be the last. In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed and communities in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia started rebuilding Jewish life with an enthusiasm that belied their meager numbers. Then came Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova.

Well over a million Jews would leave the Soviet Union as soon as they could, but that is a topic of another discussion, as is the story of how 150,000 opted to move to Germany, where they have given that community something it did have in the 1980s: a future.

The Central European Jewish communities, the ones wedged between Germany and what had been the Soviet Union, were all about to face a difficult road, a road they are still traveling three decades later. Except for the city of Budapest, where well more than 50,000 Jews live, no Jewish community in this region has a long-term future. The numbers, the critical mass, just isn’t there.

But that is not the point. Starting 30 years ago, when 1990 began, the Jewish communities of Central and Eastern Europe started grabbing back a future that had been denied them for far too long. And they were throwing off the mantle of “remnant” like a garment that no longer fit. It is, after all, not a story about numbers. It’s about the dignity of the effort.


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Edward Serotta is a journalist, photographer and filmmaker specializing in Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe. He is the head of the Vienna-based institute Centropa.

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