The history of the Jewish Community of Brno
The first record of the presence of the Jews in the region of Brno dates back to the mid-13th century. Thanks to the Royal Prerogative granted by King Ottokar II of Bohemia the Jewish self-government was constituted in 1333. The Jewish settlement was situated in the south part of the city, around the lower part of the present-day Masaryk Street. The Jewish gate (Fig.1) used to stand where now the Masaryk Street opens towards the central railway station.
The Jewish Community was autonomous. It ran its council hall and a school. The cemetery was situated outside the city fortifications. A disastrous change came in 1454, when King Ladislaus V (Ladislaus the Posthumous) ordered the Jews to be banished from the royal cities. The period of almost 400 years when the Jews were not allowed to settle within the territory of the city of Brno began.
Smaller concessions were made during the 17 th century, such as allowing the Jews to enter the city on payment in order to sell their goods on the markets. However when two-day fairs were held, the Jews were not allowed to enter the city before eleven o’clock the first day and had to leave before two o’clock on the other day. They were allowed to enter the city through the Jewish Gate (Fig.2) only and they were not permitted to sleep over within the city walls, only in a herberk (a coaching inn) in the suburb (where the present-day Křenová Street is).
The 19th century brought a rapid growth in the textile industry. The factory-owners Jakub Häller, Löw-Beer, Samson Franckel and Israel Popper were among the leading textilists. Another impulse was the construction of the North Railroad from Vienna to Brno and further to Bochnia in the then-Galicia (in Central-Eastern Europe).
But it is no sooner than in the revolutionary year of 1848 when the essential changes occur. The Jews are allowed to settle wherever they want; they can marry without any limitations (1849), carry on any trade or profession and enjoy the freedom of belief.
One of the first steps the newly established community took was acquiring a strip of land for a new Jewish cemetery. The cemetery was opened in Brno-Židenice in 1852. The first modern synagogue – the Synagogue Maior – built in Romanesque Revival style was finished as soon as 1855 (Fig.3) It was the first building in Brno equipped with electric lighting. German Nazis burnt down the Synagogue Maior on the 16th of March 1939. The Religious Society, the predecessor of the Jewish Religious Community, was established in 1858 and Philipp Gomperz was elected its first chairman. The Jewish Religious Community of Brno was established in 1859.
Baruch Jacob Placzek was appointed its rabbi and remained at the post until his death in 1922. Not only was he one of the notable personalities of the Jewish world, but he was also a renowned naturalist. Gradually, a mikvah and a matzah bakery were built in Brno and a temple for orthodox Jews of the Eastern type opened in Křenová Street, called the Polish Temple. The population of the Jewish community had reached as many as 7,087 by the end of the 19th century.
The New Synagogue was built in Ponávka Street (Fig.4) in 1904. Several thousand of refugees from Galicia came to Brno during WWI. At the time the new Czech Republic was established, the Jewish institutions were all in a compact area in present-day streets tř. Kpt. Jaroše (formerly Legionářská) and Koliště. The Nazis later displaced the administrative to the house at 31 Legionářská Street, while the social and charity institutions resided in the Wiesner Foundation house at 3 Legionářská Street. The house at 54 Štefánikova Street was used as an old people’s home, an orphanage was situated at 46 Křenová Street until 1927 and in the recent-day Hybešova Street a Jewish grammar school opened. The Agudas achim synagogue was built in Skořepka Street in 1936. The Makkabi sports ground was situated at Brno Riviéra.
The Jewish population in Brno reached 11,102 in September 1941. Over 10,000 Jews were deported to Terezín in 13 transports. The very first transport, referred to as “F”, departed to Minsk in November 1941; the last one, “Dg”, headed for Terezín in June 1943. The point of departure was the elementary school in Merhautova Street. On the house a memorial plaque can be seen (Fig.5). Mere 700 survived of all those who were deported.