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Milos Dobry : Rebuilding a religion

Milos Dobry : Rebuilding a religion

Posted: June 18, 1997

By Alan Levy

Ä?Growing up in Prague in the 1920s and '30s, Milos Gut never felt Jewish. His parents were assimilated Jews who spoke Czech, not German, and while they celebrated Hanukkah at home, they also had a Christmas tree. Milos seldom went to synagogue and wasn't bar mitzvahed at age 13. So when the Germans arrived in 1939 - shortly after his 16th birthday - he didn't feel obliged to wear a yellow star. Instead, he and his younger brother, Josef, lived dangerously by going outside without it. They weren't caught.Ä?Nevertheless, at 18, Milos was among the first to be netted by the Nazis to build a new "ghetto" - in reality, a concentration camp - in the old Habsburg fortress town of Theresienstadt that Czechs call Terezin. He and 341 other youths left Prague on Monday, Nov. 24, 1941, in the first transport: AK1. Milos was number 208.Ä?During that first winter of rebuilding Terezin, Milos Gut was put to work fueling coal stoves, but also had to go outside several times a day to meet arriving transports and show them to their barracks. The changes of temperature - from 40Ä?C indoors to -25Ä?C outside (104Ä?F to -13Ä?F) - gave Gut pleurisy and pneumonia; without treatment or medication, only his sporting past (soccer, handball, volleyball, tennis, rowing, swimming) gave him strength to survive.Ä?While he was recuperating in his bunk, the camp butcher came to his bedside and asked, "How tall are you?"Ä?When Milos answered 180 centimeters (almost 6 feet), the man said, "Perfect!" He already had a 180-centimeter man carrying carcasses to the camp's six kitchens (by then, Terezin's population was swelling toward 60,000 inmates), and he needed another husky of equal height to share the heavier burdens. Gut recovered quickly - for his new workplace virtually guaranteed that he would never lack for meat to eat.Ä?After his parents and brother arrived in Terezin in July 1942, he was able to supplement their meager rations, too.Ä?Ä?Around that time, Milos Gut was visiting his family one night and had to step over seven new arrivals - all young girls - sleeping on the floor while awaiting mattresses and bunk assignments. One of them was so beautiful that he fell in love with her at first sight - even before she awoke. So he fetched mattresses and introduced himself to raven-haired, coal-eyed Zuzana Beckmannova, 17, who had just arrived from Olomouc with her mother, Trude.Ä?Romance flowered in that inhospitable ghetto, but inevitably the lovers were parted. Shipped to Auschwitz in late 1943, Zuzana and her mother had to run naked for a "selection" by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele. The girl's beauty caught the genocidist's eye. He informed her: "You are a Gypsy [Romany], so you and your mother will go the Gypsy camp" where inmates would live in relatively good conditions for a while - until Mengele finished his pseudoscientific experiments on them.Ä?"No, I am a Jewess," Zuzana answered back proudly, "and my mother must go wherever I go." She was risking the gas chamber for both of them - particularly since her mother was less fit to work.Ä?Mengele (who looked more like a Romany himself than the blond Aryan Supermensch that legend depicts) laughed and said, "Get out of here!" Mother and daughter were shipped to Germany for slave labor.Ä?Milos, who arrived in Auschwitz on the same transport, was now a skilled butcher who made his way swiftly into a camp kitchen and was again able to look after his family when they arrived in May 1944. But on July 24, 1944, there was another "selection." Milos and Josef Gut's father was exterminated in the Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chamber; their mother was shipped to the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland, where she died that December.Ä?Both boys were sent to slave labor in a German factory that made artificial fuel from brown coal. Again, Milos found work in the kitchen and was able to feed his brother, too. Conditions were so bad there that - between their arrival in July and departure in the spring of 1945 - only 280 of the 1,000-youth transport survived as the Allies approached.Ä?Now the Germans sent them on a 250-kilometer (155-mile) death march without food; stragglers and the weak were shot en route. The survivors reached Terezin on May 7, 1945, hours before the German jailers fled. Processed by the Red Cross and cleared as fit to travel, the brothers Gut were back home in Prague on May 10. One of their first acts was to change their last name - which is the German word for good - to its Czech equivalent, Dobry. "After what they'd done to our parents and what we experienced," says Milos, "we didn't want to have to do with anything German."Ä?Ä?One day in July 1945, Milos Dobry received word in Vinohrady that two women were looking for him at Prague's Smichov railroad station. Zuzana and her mother together had survived slave labor in Hamburg and internment in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where Anne Frank and many others had died of typhus.Ä?Milos and Zuzana were married in 1949 in Olomouc. They had a son in 1951 and a daughter in 1955. They lived in Prague while Milos studied chemistry and played fullback on the Czechoslovak national rugby team. But Zuzana, and her mother - who lived with the newlyweds - (for both women were inseparable until Trude's death at 93 two years ago) didn't like living in Prague, so in 1949 he and they moved to Olomouc.Ä?For 30 years - first as a chemical engineer; then as a mechanical engineer - Milos Dobry worked for PREFA, the state-owned prefabricators who dotted the Czechoslovak landscape with high-rise and low-slung panelaks. (He retired in 1987.) He also served as international secretary of the Czechoslovak Rugby Union, representing a sport that the communists branded as elitist, but nonetheless they let him visit England, Germany, France and Italy from time to time. (He was the union's president in 1990-92.)Ä?Ä?A slow transformation that had begun after the war took root in Olomouc. Whenever he went abroad, Milos Dobry felt Czech, but back home he started "to feel Jewish - from what we had suffered and out of respect for my killed parents and millions of killed people. If I was allowed to survive, then it became my duty to do something for the Jewish people."Ä?He joined Olomouc's Jewish community, to which his wife and mother-in-law already belonged, but the north Moravian city wasn't fertile ground for activism. Of some 4,000 Jews living there between two world wars, 3,500 had been sent to Nazi concentration camps (the others escaped early) and only 280 came back. Half the survivors emigrated after the war, mostly to Israel and America.Ä?Most of those who resettled in Olomouc went about dismantling their Jewish identity so as not to inflict some future Holocaust upon their children. They married gentiles and assimilated. The Dobrys' son and daughter both married non-Jews, but they and their five children did join the Jewish community.Ä?The 1989 revolution hardly changed the picture. By 1991, only 43 members were registered in Olomouc's Jewish community, which was - and still is - without a synagogue. The grand Byzantine-style house of worship built by Viennese architect Jakob Gartner in 1897 in the center of the city was burnt to the ground by local Nazis on March 15, 1939: the day the Germans occupied Olomouc. Throughout the communist years, a sculpted statue of Stalin, Lenin and a Czech worker stood in the synagogue square. Only in 1990 was the offending triptych removed and a plaque placed there to commemorate the synagogue.Ä?But now the time had come for Milos Dobry to "do for the Jews." Elected secretary of Olomouc's decimated Jewish community in 1991, this gray-haired senior set about rebuilding it with a ferocity reminiscent of the late Yitzhak Rabin's. And the zeal of a missionary as he flushed out assimilated Jews and their descendants, some of whom didn't even know about their heritage. He preached, he pleaded, he proselytized.Ä?Instead of the Prague Orthodox Jewish community's membership requirement that one's mother had to be Jewish or else the applicant must undergo a ritual conversion, Dobry invoked the more liberal "right of return" used by the state of Israel in granting citizenship: One of the four grandparents had to have been Jewish. By this means and by expanding Olomouc's community to take in Jews from the nearby industrial city of Prerov as well as the north Moravian towns of Sumperk and Bruntal in a radius of 120 kilometers, Dobry quadrupled membership to 180 - a third of them under 18. After Prague's and Brno's, Olomouc's is now the nation's third-largest Jewish community.Ä?Nothing daunts Dobry - not even the quadruple bypass heart surgery he underwent last winter, just before his 74th birthday. He plays tennis every weekend - and wins. Ä?Reaching out beyond Czech borders, Dobry tracked down 55 Olomouc-area natives and their families living abroad and invited them back for a reunion that 30 attended. Nina Hofman - who came back from Salisbury, England, and was born Frohlich in northern Moravia - is the great-great-granddaughter of the founder of a small synagogue in the town of Usov, 30 kilometers west of Olomouc. When Dobry told her the building was still standing, but was in the hands of the Moravian Brethren church, she put $5,000 (165,000 Kc) on the table and told him, "Buy it." He did.Ä?Though the Usov synagogue is being remodeled to fulfill its old purpose on High Holy Days, it is too far away for regular worship. Olomouc's community is based downtown with a prayer room for 40 worshipers. For Purim, Passover and Hanukkah celebrations, which attract as many as 70, the congregation rents a restaurant.Ä?In 1995, the site of the old Olomouc synagogue was restituted to the Jewish community. Immediately, there was an impasse. The empty plaza - a choice chunk of downtown real estate - had been designated as a green oasis suitable for planting only trees and grass. Beneath it, the city is intent on building an underground garage, which Dobry won't allow unless his people can build above. Town Hall is trying to buy him off with a 1 million Kc annual rental of the land by Vietnamese merchants, Dobry holds fast. He wants a foreign bank to build its headquarters on the site, with a small, self-contained synagogue in the inner court.Ä?"Plus," he adds wryly, "an underground garage, of course."Ä?

By Alan Levy

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