My mother’s passing was the prompt I needed to reckon with the traumas of the pastby Suzanne Franks / July 8, 2020 / Leave a comment
In the Czech Republic they are known as “Stones of the Disappeared” (Kameny zmizelých). When my mother Hedy died in Finchley in 2018, I wanted to connect her back to her Czech origins. She was born in Brno into a comfortable middle-class life. Her father Albert and grandfather Jakob were dentists. In the Spring of 1942, along with most of her family she was forcibly transported to the Terezin ghetto. Three years later when the ghetto was liberated by the Russians on 8th May (VE day), out of the wider family who had been deported, most had been killed. From the individual transport to the ghetto, 56 of the 1,001 deportees survived to witness the liberation. The remaining 945 were murdered, together with over 77,000 Czech Jews who did not survive the Holocaust.
Brno was known as the “Manchester of the Czech Republic” with its thriving textile industry. The capital of Moravia, it was a prosperous industrial town and until 1939 home to a substantial Jewish community. Today about 300 Jews remain and the legacy of the former Jewish life is hard to uncover. The city itself, like much of Czechoslovakia, survived the war virtually intact, as there was minimal fighting and little bombing. There are still the typical central European gabled houses, wide cobbled boulevards, charming squares and Baroque facades from past centuries.
On a hillside overlooking Brno sits the Villa Tugendhat—an outstanding example of modernist design created by Mies van der Rohe and commissioned by a well-heeled Jewish family in the 1920s, for their newly-married daughter Greta, wife of Fritz Tugendhat. Today, after much post-Communist renovation, the house is a widely-visited world heritage site. Simon Mawer made the villa the protagonist of his award-winning novel The Glass Room. Many, but not all, of the Tugendhats fled from Brno before the war. Their descendants became prominent names in British politics and law.
The Jewish origins of Villa Tugendhat are almost invisible in the publicity material. And similarly the fate of Brno’s Jews. The only city memorial to them lies in a shabby park, away from the centre. It features a large black slab with water running down into a surrounding small pool. There are no signs or markings on the slab. The only clue is faded Hebrew lettering, disfigured by algae, under the water…