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There is dignity in the tragic stories of Trebic, in the Czech Republic, and beauty in its history-steeped setting.
Story: Jeremy Bourke.
The castle in Telc.
Cemeteries are not happy places, and this wasn’t looking like an exception. Rain that had been taunting us like a dripping tap for days had come on full-bore. The cold was considerable. The centuries-old headstones were being swallowed by ground-creeper. The cemetery was for people who had been forced to live in impossible conditions in a ghetto in Trebic, a city in the south of the Czech Republic. And some headstones were for people who died not in Trebic but in places such as Auschwitz.
But while the Jewish Cemetery of Trebic could never be happy, it was anything but miserable. The setting was beautiful, among a grove of trees and surrounded by a low wall that gave the area definition not limitations. The headstones were simple but their Hebrew inscriptions were still decipherable. The creeper actually carpeted the scene and was trimmed clear of paths and not allowed to grow too high over the stones.
There was a dignity here that neither rain nor history could dampen. Was someone caring for this place, we asked our guide. Yes, an old man from the area. He was not Jewish, because apart from one family, there were no Jews left in the city.
'Only 20 Jewish people from Trebic were alive at war’s end.'
The Jewish history of Trebic has World Heritage status, but theirs is only half the story.
The conspicuous half is the Basilica of St Procopius, high above the town. If you’re used to the standard gold and frescoed European cathedral, this is the opposite. Its grandeur is its scale, as the walls, ceiling and windows are unadorned, the simplicity broken by only small details such as a pair of small coloured windows behind the altar so vivid they could be art deco. What does catch the eye is a statue of St Procopius, a devil chained at his feet. The legend is Procopius was so powerful, he tilled the fields using the devil as his plough.
St Procopius Basilica in Trebic.
St John of Nepomuk Church in Zdar.
The ornate altar of Trebic's basilica.
Next to the basilica, but not part of the World Heritage site, is the 900-year-old Trebic Castle, now a museum to the Waldstein-Wartenberg family who were turfed out by the Communists in 1945. They left behind dozens of rooms filled with the ephemera of nobility: 13th-century glassware, 15th-century Italian mirrors, a 900-piece collection of carved smoking pipes. But there were more mundane gems. A child’s rocking chair with in-built potty. A spotless 1920s-vintage bathroom. A mirror in a lady’s bedroom, a rare item because for many centuries it was thought that if a woman looked into a mirror she’d have a child within a year.
Contrast this with the other half of the World Heritage story, the Jewish quarter across the way. The UNESCO listing cites that the basilica and its neighbouring ghetto are “reminders of the co-existence of Jewish and Christian cultures from the Middle Ages to the 20th century”.
'The story of the Pilgrimage Church of St John of Nepomuk is, well, peculiar.'
Up to a point. In 1723 Trebic’s 1500 Jews were ordered to move into an area of at best 50 houses. Of course conditions were appalling. The only industry they could run to provide income was a tannery, one of the filthiest jobs of the time. They coped for 200 years until World War II saw those who remained taken away. Only 20 Jewish people from Trebic were alive at war’s end.
An Italian influenced facade on house in Telc.
Yet their ‘suburb’ somehow survived, mainly because its location, a triangle bordered by a river, a road and a hill, meant the town could ignore it and expand elsewhere. As such, this is the most intact Jewish quarter in Europe and the only official Jewish historical landmark outside Israel.
A museum is housed in several buildings. One is a synagogue deconsecrated in the 1920s but its 300-year-old sacred inscriptions remain, thanks to a protective coating of lime applied when the Communists used it as a potato store. There is an example of a typical house, where up to five families had to live. Each might own only one room, which explains why many single houses here display several street numbers. The devil’s in the detail, isn’t it.
The tour of the synagogue, museum, streets and cemetery is tremendous value at less than A$10. Or just wander the rambling streets, which are connected by stairways and dark passages. There are cafes, a bakery serving Jewish cakes, and the elegant EA Hotel Joseph 1699.
The Jewish cemetery in Trebic.
St John of Nepomuk Church in Zdar.
Inside Trebic's basilica.
Trebic is one of three places in the highlands region known as Vysocina, two hours’ south-east of Prague, with World Heritage listing. Another is 40 kilometres away in Telc, where an imposing castle (tours available) looks down on an old town square, and both are straight out of the Renaissance. Well-off Czechs had a thing for Italy in the 1500s and so Telc copped a makeover. The square is lined with houses of individual facades and, more strikingly, colours – gelati references are inevitable. It’s the best preserved town centre in middle Europe, and you also get a good view from the castle tower ($2).
Vysocina’s third heritage site is 50 kilometres north of Trebic, on a hill above the town of Zdar nad Sazavou, where the story of the Pilgrimage Church of St John of Nepomuk is, well, peculiar.
'The Vysocina region is full of old towns dotted between pasture and dark forests, and its beauty is easy to absorb.'
In 1393, Jan Velflin was confessor to the Czech Queen when the King demanded the vicar reveal her secrets, and when he would not he was thrown into the Vtlava River to drown. In 1719 Jan’s body was exhumed, and priests discovered what they deemed to be still-fresh tissue in the grave: his tongue. A miracle was declared and so for holding his tongue at the cost of his life, Jan Velflin became St John of Nepomuk, and a church for pilgrims to pay homage was commissioned.
The design by acclaimed Czech architect Santini is amazing: star-shaped but with triangular and oval elements, inspired by the five virtues of martyrdom – it has five gates, is five-sided, with five entrances, and five altars. The ceiling rises to a pentangular point, and in its centre is a flesh-coloured symbol. Hard to make out with the naked eye, it’s the tongue of St John.
The crypt in St Procopius Basilica in Trebic.
Historians have cast doubt on both the martyrdom of Jan and the miracle, cynically citing that his beatification came at a time when the country was running short of saints. Which makes his church almost unreal, too.
The Vysocina region is full of old towns dotted between pasture and dark forests, and its beauty is easy to absorb.
Not so the Czech language, which is an ordeal for non-native speakers, and in a week there I picked up just two Czech words: pivo (beer) and pivovar (brewery). Most towns have a pivovar. We visited several.
Such as the 400-year-old Pivovar Dalesice, 20 kilometres from Trebic. Unlike wine, beer is best when fresh, and it’s freshest from the barrel. And in the barrel room at Dalesice, the head brewer was generous with the freshness.
It was then into the restaurant for a Czech specialty of roast duck leg, red cabbage and potato dumplings, by this stage being washed down with ginger lemonade. At the next table, a group of locals celebrating a colleague’s retirement were singing traditional Czech drinking songs, standing for each one. Suddenly a tune, if not its words, was familiar: Glory, Glory Hallelujah. Our group joined in, we in English, them in Czech. Two peoples united, in song and pivo. If only they’d tried that in Trebic.
Facades in main square in Telc.
Heritage great and small
The pilgrimage church of st john of nepomuk is a very small world heritage site but not the tiniest, not even in the Czech Republic.
That’s the Holy Trinity Column in Olomouc, which along with the Thracian tomb of Kazanlak in Bulgaria, is just 200 square metres.
The largest is the 408,000-square-kilometre Phoenix Island in Kiribati. The Great Barrier Reef is third (340,000 square kilometres).