Remembering 1939

Remembering 1939

The last Rosh Hashanah in the ‘Small Temple’ in Brno, Czechoslovakia

The war-ravaged interior of the synagogue in Brno.
The war-ravaged interior of the synagogue in Brno.

It was late afternoon on Wednesday, September 13, 1939.

As I had done so often during the last three years, I took the number 5 streetcar in Brno, Czechoslovakia, from our house on Dolni Street number 5 to the Divadelni stop on Koliste Street; there, as usual, I jumped off the streetcar before it had come to a full stop. In those days, the Brno streetcars had open doors, and for a 12-year old like me, it was a matter of pride not to wait for something so mundane as the streetcar coming to a complete halt before exiting. Besides, I had to walk back about three houses anyway, so the earlier I jumped off, the less I had to walk.

I made my way back to the building behind which the “Small Temple” was located. I walked through the long central hallway of the building to a courtyard in the rear and arrived at the “New” synagogue and its several entrance doors leading to the sanctuary. The center doors were for men, and they led to the ground floor of the sanctuary. The side doors were for women, and they led to the balcony on the second floor that ringed the ground floor on three sides.

I did not enter any of these doors. Instead, I turned right and then left and went along the side of the building to a door at the rear. There I entered the choir entrance, joined my fellow choir members, and like them I put on a robe, a tallit, and a kippah in preparation for the evening services. For the last three years I had been a soprano in the choir, and by 1939 I had become the principle soprano, who sang all the solo parts.

This wasn’t the usual Friday night or Sabbath morning service, when the choir participated in the ceremonies. This evening we were getting ready to assist the congregation in welcoming the Jewish New Year — Rosh Hashanah — and the beginning of the Ten Days of Atonement that conclude with the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. These are the most sacred holidays in the Jewish calendar.

We knew that Cantor Ast and the rabbi already were in the small room on the opposite side of the building, and they also were getting ready for the services. Cantor Ast was a small, kind, and gentle man with a pleasant voice, who had rehearsed us during the week for this important evening.

Charles Ticho as a 12-year-old, almost ready to become bar mitzvah. That did not happen in Brno, he says; it was cancelled.

Soon people would start arriving and fill the pews of the synagogue, the men downstairs and the women in the balcony. In the past there would have been no question about the size of the congregation. All the pews would be filled and people would be standing in the rear.

This evening, however, we weren’t sure who would or who could attend.

This was by no means, just a usual Erev Rosh Hashanah. There were many things unique even about this already very special holy day. It had been six months since the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia and many changes already had taken place. For the moment, Jewish services in two of our three synagogues still were permitted. (The Germans had burned down our “Large Temple” some months earlier.) We did not know it at the time, but a few weeks later our “Small Temple” also would be closed, never ever again to hear the prayers of devoted Jews.

More things made this evening unique. For the first time in my 12 years, my parents were not with me on this holiday. My father had been arrested by the Nazis and now was being held in the Spielberg prison in Brno. My mother was in Zurich, Switzerland. My older brother, Harold, also was no longer with me. By then, he had left Switzerland, where he had been studying, and had gone to Chicago. My elderly uncles, Jacob and David, decided that they weren’t feeling well enough to come. They and their wives remained home.

Frankly speaking, I was so occupied with what was happening that evening that I did not see whether any members of our family were there. At one time, our family would fill a whole row of seats. But that day there may have been none — except for me.

There was so much tension all around. Things were so different from previous years, and throughout the services I was aware that this might be my last Rosh Hashanah service in Brno.

Regrettably, I was right.

Film and stage director Charles Ticho as he is now. He had to wait until he turned 83 to celebrate his bar mitzvah in Temple Emanuel in Woodcliff Lake.

There was another matter that made this Rosh Hashanah so special. The Jewish calendar had reached the year 5700. This truly was a special Rosh Hashanah, the start not just of a new year, but of a new century. We had reached a significant milestone in Jewish history. For me, the fact that I was alive at this point, when we were starting a new century in the Jewish calendar, made a great impression. We were at the eve of the most horrendous period in Jewish history — the Holocaust — yet to me, reaching the year 5700 was proof that we had been around for a long time, and perhaps it offered the hope that we would survive for many more centuries to come.

For a 12-year-old, it also was a great source of pride. Just look, I thought, the Christians are stuck only in the year 1939, but we have them beat by more than 3,700 years.

No matter what the world has thrown against us, despite the pogroms, the Crusades, the anti-Semitism, the envy and the jealousy of our neighbors, we have survived — we have persisted — we are here, and we are 5,700 years into our history.

Little did I realize what horror we were going to face just a few months later.

Yes, this was truly a unique Rosh Hashanah. It is a day that I still remember today, some 80 years later.

Charles Ticho of Hackensack, who escaped the Holocaust when he was 13, in 1940, is an engineer and award-winning film and stage director and a member of the Directors Guild of America. He was active in the fledgling Israeli film industry beginning in 1953.

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