A Jewish blessing

My father was 12 when he learned that he was Jewish and that life was no longer safe. Just after the Anschluss, his mother told him he was a member of the Jewish race, and there was nothing to be ashamed of.

Until then he had thought of Judaism as a religion like any other. In his memoirs, he remembered a childhood scene that didn’t make it into my book Uncle Otto’s Puppet Theatre. It concerned his uncle Johann Wittal, a brusque, uncouth but very pious man who had made a fortune in textiles and owned a children’s clothing store in Brno’s city centre. 

Wittal had married into the family. He and his wife Frederike lived with their daughter Vally in great comfort in a hillside Bauhaus villa with a beautiful view onto Brno. They had a chauffeur and a gardener, several cars, electric refrigerators and all the modern gadgets. 

My father Bob spent many a weekend in Brno where his paternal family lived. His father would drive up from Vienna in his Steyr 200 to see his mother, brothers and sister. When  my father, then six or seven, was in the store, Wittal beckoned him over from behind a counter. He held in his hand a leather-bound book, and growled “Can you read this?” 

Bob couldn’t make out the unfamiliar lettering. “Bist du kein Jud?” Wittal exclaimed. “Nein,” the wide-eyed child replied.

A day or two later, when Bob was eating dinner in the Wittal’s dining room, his Tante Frederike warned him not to leave the table after the meal. Wittal would be saying a few words.

And so Wittal did. After having eaten with his customary vigour, he declaimed at length in a foreign language. Bob sat there quietly and went to bed assuming this had been a Jewish prayer.

Back in Vienna, he performed the scene for his big brother with imitation Hebrew and pantomime, and they had a good laugh. Wittal’s faith was in fact so radical that he broke off relations with Vally, his only daughter, when she married a Gentile.

Seventy years later, my father wondered what had prompted Wittal to recite to him in Hebrew. He felt moved by the gesture; had Wittal wanted to bestow a blessing on him? Was he anxious about the survival of the Jewish race?

My father knew very little about Wittal, but thanks to the  resources of Geni and the Jewish Genealogy Portal I have found out more. He was born in 1874 in Podivín, a town at the southern tip of Moravia which once had a large Jewish community that dated back to the 11th century.

As a young man, Wittal had travelled through Europe and was quoted ironically by family as saying that “all hell broke loose” when he reached Paris (“In Paris bin ich angekommen und der Laerm war fertig”), referring to the start of the Dreyfus affair.

In Brno, he and his brother mass-produced children’s clothes, linen aprons and blouses. These were sold far and wide, and as the patented brand was called Kroko a small crocodile was woven into collars and pockets.

A recent Czech newspaper article about the Bauhaus villa reported that the family was transported to Theresienstadt in January 1942, and that Johann died in April in the ghetto’s damp hospital within the outer ramparts. His death certificate gives the cause of death as bronchopneumonia, and was signed by three doctors.

Wittal’s wife, Frederike, died in Treblinka in October. Vally survived Theresienstadt working in the kindergarten, and was the family’s only Czech relative to make it through the war. The Nazis took over the administration of Wittal’s company, which was later nationalised under communism.

The avant-garde villa designed by family friend Jindřich Blum, who also died in a concentration camp, was occupied by the Gestapo, then handed over to the city powers. It was later used as a showplace, and communist Czechoslovakia’s President Klement Gottwald would spend the night there on official visits. 

“Eye witnesses said he had to lean against the fence to reach the entrance because he was so drunk,” according a local historian. As the article in Blesk.cz notes, the landmark villa in Hroznová Street is now in terrible shape, chunks of stucco falling off its once impeccable white walls. Its fate is in the balance.