Robert Sochor of Verona knew that his grandfather, Asriel Günzig, was a rabbi. He also knew that his grandfather was a bit of a rebel who left his fervently Orthodox family for the allures of “haskalah,” or secular learning.
Sochor even knew that for about 20 years, his grandfather and grandmother, Amalia, lived in Lostice, a small town in what was then Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic.
What he didn’t know until last fall was that Rabbi Günzig was the last pulpit rabbi at the synagogue in Lostice, serving from 1899 until he left for Antwerp in 1920.
On Aug. 28, Sochor, 72, an attorney, and his wife, Mimi, together with four of Sochor’s cousins, sat among several hundred Czechs at what was billed as “the festive Openning [sic] of the Restored Synagogue in Lostice.” The ceremony culminated a process begun when the mayor apparently convinced the town to restore what had become a dilapidated eyesore. With help from many outside organizations, the town began the restoration in 2006 in cooperation with the Respect and Tolerance Foundation, a Czech nonprofit.
A stained-glass window was among the pieces restored in the renovation. It now bears a dedication to “Rb. Israel Günzig.” (The family spells the name “Asriel,” but it appears alternately as “Israel.”)
The Sochors met with a visitor in their home just a few weeks after their return. Mimi called the dedication “a three-handkerchief event”; her husband said the experience was “emotional, moving, and spiritual.”
The dedication opened with a shofar blast and a non-Jewish choir singing Hebrew songs.
“When they started singing ‘Shalom Aleichem’ a cappella in the synagogue, where the words of Jews were sung for so many years, I was thinking of my grandfather having been there — but also of my parents and all the other Jews who perished during the Holocaust,” said Robert.
A cousin, Edgard Günzig, a retired professor living in Belgium, addressed the crowd in Czech on behalf of the family.
‘Manna from heaven’
The current synagogue — the third incarnation of Lostice’s shul, first built in the 1600s — was rebuilt in the classical style in 1805-06. It included classrooms and living quarters. The Jewish community was beginning to diminish in Lostice when Günzig left for Antwerp, and it did not hire another rabbi. Shortly after the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939, the building was closed. Its religious objects were confiscated and removed. Some are now in the collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague. Some of the Torah scrolls have been recovered and are in synagogues around the United States. The interior retains some of its original features, including a high vaulted ceiling and a women’s gallery.
The building came close to being destroyed — twice. First, as the townspeople tell it, the Nazis wanted to destroy the building but the town convinced them they needed it for storage. Half a century after the Holocaust, the building had fallen into disrepair.
Edgard Günzig wasn’t aware of the renovation efforts when he went last fall to visit the town where his grandfather once lived, in an effort to learn a little more about him. Edgard was disappointed to learn that the records about the town’s Jewish residents had been destroyed by the Nazis. But when he was asked the family name and replied “Günzig,” he learned that Asriel Günzig had been the synagogue’s last rabbi.
“The e-mails started flying around among the cousins. It was really exciting,” said Robert. He called the timing “manna from heaven,” that they learned about the history in time to contribute to the renovation and attend the dedication together.
It was the first-ever reunion for cousins who live in the United States, Israel, and Belgium and had only seen each other separately.
According to Mimi Sochor, the wife of Danchu Arnon, a cousin who lives in Israel, was disappointed that no one said Kaddish at the dedication. Still, when the choir started to sing “Hatikva,” all the family members stood up, and all the people at the dedication followed their lead.
The family members recited the Kaddish later that day when they visited the cemetery and found the graves of some relatives.
The looked for the Günzig home, but it had been destroyed.
Robert equated the renovation of the synagogue in Lostice with the renovation and transformation of the old Prince Street, Newark, home of his own synagogue, Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange, into an environmental education center.
The Lostice building will be a cultural arts center, as well as home to a 1,000-volume museum library with interactive exhibits documenting Jewish history, culture, the Holocaust, and anti-Semitism. The museum is named for a Jewish boy from a neighboring town who hid from the Nazis and kept a diary. A copy of that diary is in the collection of the museum, a gift from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
Robert thinks the renovation and ceremony had a different meaning for him than it did for the townspeople. Most of the Jews who were deported from the town were murdered.
The Lostice residents “look at everything as honoring the memory of my grandfather,” he said. “But I looked at it as also honoring the memory of the Six Million.”