Jewish connections to Moldau River

A recent news article contained surprising information: Drought had lowered the level of Warsaw’s Vistula River enough to uncover long-buried remains, including pieces of tombstones. Not so surprising: Those stones had once marked Jewish graves.
Another European river has long stood witness to the Holocaust: Budapest’s Danube, where Nazis once lined up scores of Hungarian Jews and shot them into the water. But not, of course, before they first had to remove their shoes. Recreated in sculpture, shoes now line this sad place as a permanent reminder and memorial.
So I began to wonder: Does the Moldau — the river portrayed so lovingly by Czech composer Bedrich Smetana — also have a Jewish connection?
If you know even a minimum about classical music, you’re probably aware that The Moldau is one section — the best-known and best-loved — of his six-part tone poem cycle entitled Ma Vlast: My Country. And even if you know nothing of this small musical gem, haven’t heard it or heard of it before, you’d recognize it immediately after just its first few bars, because it sounds suspiciously like Hatikvah!
I can hear it in my head as I think of the lowland rivers of Lithuania, none of which are large and important enough to have names known outside of their own neighborhoods. Nobody has memorialized any of them with sculpture or music.
Yet I know this: Black oaks grow well there, and it was an old custom for families to cut down a tree upon the birth of a son, drop it into the local river, and dig it up only when that baby boy had grown into a groom-to-be, when it would be cut up and used, somehow, at his wedding.
I learned this many years ago at the University of Pittsburgh, which has a large number of “Nationality Classrooms,” each one representing a different immigrant group that participated in the city’s building and growth. Natives of those countries designed their own rooms, incorporating history, tradition, and what they wanted others to learn about their homelands.
As an undergraduate, I was one of the Nationality Room guides. Each of us learned about every room, but chose one as our specialty; I picked Lithuania, because it had been the home of my paternal grandparents. When I heard about that black oak custom, I wondered if Jews followed it as well as Christians, using cuts of those aged-by-water trees for chuppah poles. I never could confirm this for sure, but I incorporated it anyway into the mythology I used as I took visitors into my special room. No one ever objected.
Those rooms were built in the ’30s and early ’40s. Big omissions were finally corrected several decades later. Although there had long been Scottish and Irish rooms, nothing represented Mother England until she was belatedly honored with a large lecture hall. And the city’s varied Jewish population came into its own with the construction of the Israel Heritage Classroom.
All of which returns me to Smetana, who is thought to have been Catholic. Certainly possible, because while its words are relatively new, the musical theme of Hatikvah has been found in the old folk tunes of many European countries — even Italy! But then: How did The Moldau’s composer come to have as his name the common Yiddish word for sour cream?
Well, that can be traced back to both Czechoslovakia and Ukraine as a surname for people engaged in the dairy industry. And as such, when last names first became necessary, then customary, Smetana was bestowed upon Jewish dairymen as well as Gentiles.
This is an easier matter to validate than whether black oak was ever used ritually in Lithuanian Jewish weddings (although I still like to think it was).
Or to decide what should now be done with the Vistula River’s precious fragments to properly honor those long-ago Jews who once rested under them in Warsaw’s Brodno Cemetery.

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