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Jewish Families from Humpolec, Czech Republic

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This projects seeks to collect representative profiles of all of the Jewish families form the town of Humpolec (Gumpolds, Humpoltz) in the Czech Republic.

JewishGen's Humpolec page

HISTORY: The first mention of a small Jewish community in Humpolec dates back to 1385. The respective record was kept in the archives of the nearby Želiv (Seelau) Monastery. In the second half of the 14th century, several Jewish families resided in Humpolec but were subsequently forced to leave the town. The exact time of their expulsion is unknown. Presumably, in 1618, there were again several Jewish families living in Humpolec. According to the official census of the Jewish population conducted in 1719, there were about ten resident Jewish families in Humpolec at that time - in all, fifty-two people - who lived in Zichpili (as the Jewish quarter was called). They were immediate subjects of the Heralec domain and had the obligation to pay their overlord for protection (the so-called “Schutzgeld”).

The 1719 census list also contains evidence that the Jewish inhabitants of Humpolec already had their own cemetery and maintained a prayer hall in a private home. The official Jewish community was established presumably during the first quarter of the 18th century. In 1787, Humpolec counted twenty-four Jewish families. In 1850, there were already sixty-one Jewish families (280 persons) - six percent of the total population. In 1890, there were 324 people of Jewish faith living in Humpolec; by 1930, the number of Jewish residents in town dropped to only eighty-nine due to the ongoing Jewish migration to bigger cities and towns. The community was not reestablished after the Holocaust.

NOTABLE RESIDENTS AND DESCENDANTS: Several well-known personalities were born in Humpolec - among others, the prominent American conductor Josef Stransky (1872 - 1936 New York), and the painter and writer Ernst Mandler (1886 - 1964 France).

SYNAGOGUES: In 1760, the owner of the Heralec and Humpolec domains, Baron Jakub Nefzern, gave his Jewish subjects his permission to build a synagogue. Construction was funded by the local Jewish congregation and their co-religionists from out of town. Elements of the Baroque style prevailed in the original structure. In 1860, the house of prayer was rebuilt and significantly enlarged in the style of Gothic Revival. A Jewish school was added onto its western front. In 1862, the school authority officially licensed the Jewish school. Until then, Jewish and Christian school children were taught alternately at the local Catholic school. The newly built annex to the synagogue also contained the Rabbi's apartment and the women's gallery. Around 1870, an apse was built onto the eastern front of the synagogue to accommodate the choral society, “Shir Zion.”

The synagogue's Holy Ark (“Aron hak-Kodesh” - the repository of the Torah scrolls covered with a curtain called “parocheth”) faced the east. The interior of the synagogue was entered by several descending steps to fulfill the words of the psalm 'Out of the depths I have cried to You, O LORD'. Its front facade was adorned by a stone image of the Ten Commandments. Only men were allowed to pray in the main synagogue hall (where each of them had his own prepaid seat). Before the building's conversion, the almemar (“bimah” – a platform from which the Torah is read) was in the middle of the prayer hall and the seats were arranged around it. Later, the Torah was read before the Holy Ark where the pulpit (“amud” - cantor's desk) was located, and the faithful sat in pews facing the Ark. The Torah was kept inside the Holy Ark. The Ark curtains used in the Humpolec synagogue were embroidered with silver. The Humpolec community owned three Torah scrolls and many ritual objects made of silver. During the Nazi occupation, these objects were taken to Prague. Today, they belong to the world famous collections of the Jewish Museum. During the latest conversion of the synagogue (which became a prayer hall of the Czechoslovak Hussite Church), remnants of wall paintings depicting plants and fruits mentioned in the Bible were uncovered. The restoration also revealed fragments of biblical inscriptions.

The synagogue is situated at the center of the former Jewish quarter which is still called The Jewish Town. The ghetto itself is located at the southern edge of the town core. The originally compact Jewish settlement comprised about thirty houses forming a small square and several narrow streets. The northwest part of the ghetto was later razed; most of the original houses survived, and they have been rebuilt and preserved.

CEMETERIES: The Jewish cemetery of Humpolec is located in a forested park at the foot of the Orlik castle. The cemetery was founded in the early 18th century and later expanded to a benched slope. The oldest gravestones are found in the upper part of the cemetery. The burial ground is entered through a ceremonial hall; an annex to the hall built at a later point contained the so called “beyt taharah” - a shed in which the dead bodies were cleansed before burial – but only a fragment of its perimeter walls can still be seen. A washstand for ritual hand ablutions (kiyyor) once was located to the left of the cemetery entrance. In the northwest corner of the cemetery is a well. A pathway beginning at the entrance crosses the old part of the cemetery. From the path branch off two staircases leading to the lower, newer part of the burial ground. Approximately one thousand tombstones are found in the cemetery. Some of them are very precious Baroque or Classicist artifacts. The cemetery once served a wider area: the communities of Lipnice (Lipnitz), Kaliště (Kalisch), Senožaty, Želiv (Seelau), Věž and Havlíčkův Brod (until 1945 it was called Německý Brod - Deutsch Brod). Buried here are several relatives of the composer Gustav Mahler, including his grandparents. Here lie also the grandfather and several uncles of the writer Franz Kafka, and his first student love from Želiv. The voluntary burial society Hebrah Kaddisha looked after the sick and dying, organized funerals, and took care of the cemetery. The hearse was kept at a house near the cemetery.

The historic Jewish tombstones are remarkable for their symbols and ornaments (simplified floral motives, reduced scale architectural ornaments and other decorative elements) developed gradually from the Middle Ages, merging with elements from the successive artistic styles; their occurrence and character largely depends on the local customs. The sepulchral symbolism is represented above all by small reliefs sculptured in the upper portions of the tombstones. Most often these reliefs are the Star of David, a crown or symbols of the descendants of certain Jewish tribes (hands in blessing are found on the tombs of the Cohanites, a can and a basin on the gravestones of the Levites). Animal effigies symbolize the names of the deceased (lion, deer, fish, bear, wolf, fox). Frequent are vegetable motifs (grapes, palm trees, pine cones) or objects indicating the profession of the deceased (circumcision knife, physician's tweezers, book).

The last significant overhaul of the Jewish cemetery and heightening of its walls occurred in 1922; the last burial at this cemetery took place in 1942, three months before the deportation of the local Jews to Terezin (Theresienstadt). The deceased community member was accompanied on his last journey by his co-religionists who by then already had to wear the yellow Star of David on their clothes. After World War II, some tombstones were engraved with the names of Holocaust victims. Urns containing the ashes of those who had died abroad were installed in their resting places at the ancestral cemetery. The Jewish cemetery suffered its heaviest damage during World War II when the nearby school in Podhrad housed the Training Institute for Female German Teachers evacuated from the bombed German city of Hannover. The cemetery became the target of vandalistic attacks of the evacuees and trainees of a German air pilot school in Německý Brod. After the war, many modern monuments made from valuable stone were stolen.

On the occasion of the international anthropology congresses named after Dr. A. Hrdlicka, the Jewish cemetery and the funeral hall were restored at the expense of the Municipality of Humpolec. Local school children cleared the area of the underbrush developing from airborne seeds of various woody plants. The Jewish cemetery is owned by the Jewish Community in Prague. It is maintained on its behalf by the join-stock company Matanah. A paid custodian takes good care of the cemetery.


Tombstones of important personalities


Simon and Marie MAHLER, grandparents of Gustav Mahler. Josef MAHLER, uncle of G. Mahler. Bernard and Anna MAHLER, Humpolec relatives of G. Mahler. Leopold LOWY, uncle of Franz Kafka's mother Julie Kafka. Tomb of the BAUER family - relatives of the politician Otto Bauer of the Austrian Social Democratic party. Members of the Bauer family used to represent the Jewish community in the Municipal Council of Humpolec. Grave site of the MANDLER family (among others the parents of Arnost Mandler, painter and translator of French literature). Grave of the FREUND family from Želiv (Emil Freund, Mahler's school friend who later became his lawyer and Marie Freund, Mahler's first love). Graves of the KUMERMANN family (relatives of the Czech Ambassador to Israel, Mr. Daniel Kumermann).