The recent visit in Israel of the President of the Czech Republic, Milos Zeman, was an historic event as he was the first Czech leader to address the Knesset. While not politically able, under Czech law, to officially declare the establishment of the Czech Embassy to Jerusalem from its present location in Tel-Aviv, he firmly stated the Czech Republic’s solidarity with the State of Israel.
We Jews have a long historic and friendly relationship with Czechoslovakia and its successor, the Czech Republic.
The first President of independent Czechoslovakia following its break from the Austro-Hungarian Empire during World War I in 1918 was the greatly beloved, admired and respected Tomas Garrigue Masaryk. He had been a supporter of Zionism and a strong advocate for Jewish statehood since the earliest days of the 20th century and in 1927 he paid a visit to Tel-Aviv.
Many streets in cities across our country are named for Masaryk, including an established kibbutz, Kfar Masaryk, founded by Czechoslovakian Jews in northern Galilee in 1940.
Of the several countries which formed the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the districts of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia were almost completely free of anti-Semitism and Jews flourished under the new democratic nation of Czechoslovakia, a country comprised of both Czech and Slovak populations.
Tomas Masaryk had lived in the United States and was married in Brooklyn, New York to an American woman of French background. He was a fervent admirer of the American Constitution and copied many of its written principles which he included in the official documents of the very first democracy in eastern Europe to which he was elected its first President in 1918.
After his death, he was succeeded by Edvard Benes, a staunch leader of democracy and a very devoted friend of Czechoslovakia’s Jews. There were no acts of anti-Semitism between the years of World War I and World War II prior to Nazi Germany’s conquest of the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia with a mainly German-speaking population.
Like his predecessor, Tomas Masaryk, Edvard Benes was a strong supporter of the Balfour Declaration which gave the Jews the right to their ancient homeland in Palestine, and a devoted friend of the Zionist movement in his country.
There are conflicting stories regarding his death following the Soviet communist take-over of Czechoslovakia in 1945. Some say that he committed suicide by jumping from a window in the Hrad, the presidential palace. Others say that he was pushed to his death by the communists. Following his death he was succeeded by the communist Klement Gottwald as the next Czech leader, while the Czech Jew Rudolf Slansky became the head of the ruling Czech communist party.
When Israel declared its independence in 1948, communist Czechoslovakia was the only country in the world which provided military equipment and ammunition to the new Jewish state. America’s hand of “friendship” remained empty under the administration of Harry Truman whose wife, Bess, was openly anti-Semitic. Her remarks to her husband on his meetings with Jews seeking support for Israel are legendary. “No Jew ever stepped foot into my mother’s home and no Jew will ever step foot into my home”.
In spite of everything, Truman was the first world leader, followed by the Soviet Union, to declare recognition of the State of Israel.
The Czechs have been historically cordial to Israel. President Milos Zeman and our Israeli President Reuven Rivlin are devoted friends.
The decision to re-locate the Czech embassy is not one which President Zeman has the power to decide. But it appears to be a decision which will be made in the near future…. a positive decision for Israel.
And when visiting in the magnificent capital city, Prague, from whose river Moldau the melody for our national anthem Hatikvah was taken, don’t forget to buy some world-renowned Czech crystal and a few pairs of comfortable Bata shoes.
And a visit to the oldest synagogue in all of Europe, Prague’s Alt-New Schul and its adjacent ancient Jewish cemetery, is a must !
In the culinary department, the Czechs are well-known for their knaidlaich, the fluffy potato dumplings which my mother used to make adding them to her famous chicken soup.
We have much to be grateful for our long relations.
Be sure to check out the Czechs on your next vacation ! .