Homolka Hesitates – Joseph Rotenberg

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Thomas Homolka was an artist of renown. His was not, however, the realm of oil and acrylics, watercolor and giclee. He couldn’t tell the difference between a symphony and a concerto; he knew nothing of architecture, sculpture or dancing. Homolka had a very special skill that few in his country could match. Thomas Homolka was simply the best cheesecake maker in Prague. His cakes were considered the finest ever confected in the Czech capital and were award-winners for multiple years in a row during the inter-war period. Homolka was particularly known for preparing the most intricate, multicolored cakes, which were served in the finest homes on Wenceslas Square. Royalty demanded his cheesecake at state occasions, wealthy burghers engorged themselves on his product; he even saw to it that every week, a “run” of inexpensive cheesecakes came out of his ovens on Anenska Street to help feed the less fortunate who craved his creations.

Homolka had no rivals who could match his skill and imagination. He mentored younger bakers whom he hoped could replace him one day; as he had never married, he had no blood relative to take his place. At times this bothered him, but often he took so much joy from his work that he scarcely had a moment to be concerned about not having a visible successor. Homolka was a “hands-on” baker; despite his fame, he worked long hours daily at his store, seeing to it that every cake was prepared to perfection. He kept such long hours tending to his shop that, once, when he was invited by the mayor to see the famed Sparta Praha soccer team play in Letna Stadium, he notably fell asleep in his seat in the stands.

As mentioned, Homolka’s customers were varied and came from all Czech classes. Of those, Homolka’s most reliable clients included some of Prague’s older residents, in particular two sisters, blond Katya and brunette Magda Greenstein. Each week the sisters chose Friday afternoon to visit his store and Homolka liked to serve them personally if he could.

“Mr. Homolka,” Katya would ask in her soft voice. “Have you any of your delicious cream cheese cake? My sister and I would just love some.”

Katya had been married for ten years when her young physician husband was killed by a British artillery shell while defending the Empire in 1915. Now widowed for more than twenty years, her regular visits to Homolka’s were part of the weekly shopping routines that helped her keep her sanity, that allowed her to temporarily forget the pain and deep-felt loss of her husband those many years before. Her sister Magda had never married; she had moved into Katya’s spacious apartment upon the death of her brother-in-law. She accompanied Katya on her weekly visit to the bakery.

“And also your best chocolate cheese cake, please,” Magda added.

Homolka was always glad to accommodate these refined ladies. Though they always respectfully referred to him as “Mr. Homolka,” he felt comfortable calling them by their first names and they never objected. There was a sweetness about them that was most endearing. Week after week he served them and over time their visits became part of Homolka’s routine. Once when he thought about it, he realized he knew little about the sister’s other than their cake preferences. One of the workers in his store knew them somewhat better.

“They live close to the Square, I believe, a couple of blocks to the south,” said Jan, the cashier. “They are Jewish, one is widowed, the other never married. They love our cheesecakes, I can tell you that! You can set your watch by their Friday visits,” he added.

Homolka nodded in agreement. “That you can!”

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Storm clouds began to form over Prague as the calendar turned to 1937. Czechoslovakia had existed as a liberal republic since the Versailles Treaty of 1919 and its people were adjusting to their newly acquired national identity. No longer were the Czech people legally subject to rule from Vienna and Budapest. That didn’t mean that forces were not at work to reverse Czech independence. Clearly, Germany, now under the harsh rule of the Nazi Party, had express designs on the Sudetenland in the west and on, some said, all of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia. Homolka of course read the daily papers like everyone else and listened to the ominous-sounding radio broadcasts when he could, but he didn’t have a political bone in his body and felt he could do little anyway to “affect outcomes” as he called it.

On September 30, 1938, after more than a year of threats and negotiations, England, France, Italy and Germany agreed in Munich on the cession of the Sudetenland section of Czechoslovakia to Germany. With this agreement 66% of Czechoslovakia’s coal, 70% of its iron and steel and 70% of its electrical power were given to the Nazi war machine, not to mention 3 million ethnic Germans. The Czech government and its people were helpless to resist this invasion. The Germans, events would show, were not interested in any compromises with the Czechs. Only total domination of the small nation. And so the next year, on March 15, 1939, under direct threat of a bombing raid against Prague, the Czech Pesident, Emil Hacha, granted free passage for German troops into and over the Czech borders. From that moment Czechoslovakia was declared to be a protectorate of Nazi Germany, whereas it really needed to be protected from that nation.

The “swift, bloodless conquest of Czechoslovakia” on that March day in 1939 in many ways reflected the Czechs’ general attitude and culture of peaceful relations with their neighbors. Given the Czechs’ desire to live in peace, the German takeover occurred without violence, guerilla warfare or any popular uprising. The native population had to get used to Germans taking up residence in Prague, where they began appropriating whatever they wanted. The Germans viewed Prague and the Czech nation as a whole as an efficient workhouse and profit center for the German Reich. In this regard the German army, the S.S., the Gestapo and Nazi Party officials all sought to enrich themselves at the Czechs’ expense.

Homolka hardly saw a fall off in business from these sad political developments. In times of stress, people actually bought more of his pastries and cakes. Any reduction in local business was more than offset by orders from the new occupiers. Almost immediately, though, Homolka noticed that the Greenstein sisters, among others, stopped coming in to shop on their regular day. He had heard that the Germans had issued harsh decrees against Czech citizens of the Jewish faith, but as he had little contact with any Jews, he paid little attention to these rumors. Weeks passed and the sisters did not reappear. Finally, during the early summer, some four months after the occupation began, on a cloudy day just before closing, Katya Greenstein appeared in the store on Wenceslas Square. She approached the side of the display case and weakly signaled to Homolka to come over to where she was standing. Homolka advanced towards her but suddenly stopped when he realized who she was. Her features were so haggard and strained, sharp lines crossing her brow and face. Where previously she had looked attractive, even young for her age, now she was almost unrecognizable and appeared to have aged by years since he had last seen her. “How could this have happened?” Homolka thought to himself.

“Mrs. Greenstein, Katya, what is the matter? We haven’t seen you for weeks. Are you all right? Have you been sick?

“Can I talk to you in your office, where we can be alone? Katya weakly asked.

“Sure,” he responded. “Jan, take over for me for a minute. I have something I must discuss.”

Homolka led Katya to his well-furnished office, moving around some boxes to clear space for them to sit down.

“Would you like some tea, something to eat, perhaps?

“No, thank you,” was her response.

“How can I help, Katya?” he asked, in a voice as friendly as he could muster.

“Things have been so difficult for us since the Germans came,” she began haltingly. “As soon as they arrived, my sister and I attempted to apply for permission to leave our beloved Prague. The Germans don’t want us here even though we’ve lived here peacefully for years as loyal Czech citizens.” Tears filled her eyes as she spoke. Homolka had trouble avoiding crying himself.

“What happened when you applied?”

“The Gestapo told us we couldn’t file our application until we made ‘satisfactory arrangements’ with the Deutsche Bank and gave them full power of attorney over our property. My sister and I have a little bit of money saved in the bank and we own our apartment, but we’re not what you’d call wealthy. We have cousins in England who we might be able to live with, but Magda is not well, and”—here she broke down—“I don’t know what to do or who to turn to for help.”

Homolka placed his hand on Katya’s arm in a gesture of support. What could he do to help this poor lady? There didn’t appear to be any easy solution to the Greenstein’s problems.

“Mr. Homolka,” Katya resumed after drying her tears with her handkerchief, “if only we had someplace to hide; I mean outside of the big city. We hear the Germans are concentrating on Prague in their efforts against us Jews. Do you know of such a place where we might escape to, or hide, or of someone else who might assist us in getting away?

Homolka in fact had a country home in the mountains about sixty miles from Prague toward the Hungarian border. But he hesitated to tell Katya about it. There was danger in helping Jews under the current conditions.

“Unfortunately, there is little I can do to help you at this time and I know of no one else who can do so. I hope things will get better for you and your sister. Meanwhile you should make sure you make no trouble for yourself and follow all that the Germans request. I wouldn’t ‘rock the boat’ if I were you. In time things will improve.”

Homolka felt sorry for Katya and her predicament, but he offered little in the way of concrete assistance. He felt somewhat ashamed that he couldn’t offer her more hope, something to lift her spirits, but after all what could he, one person, do?

“Jan,” Homolka called out as he led Katya to the front, “see to it that Mrs. Greenstein gets whatever she wants from the store at half price. This time. For old times sake,” he added, as Katya left the store, looking numb.

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Several more months passed and the Gestapo began to increase their anti-Jewish activity. Random arrests of Jews became a more frequent occurrence in Prague. The S.S. promulgated regulations prohibiting Czech citizens from assisting their Jewish neighbors in any manner, penalizing violators with imprisonment or worse. Homolka watched all these further events without being moved to act. “What could one man do to make a difference,” he asked himself. “Gestures. Empty gestures. Staying alive till things get better is the way to go,” he concluded. But then the day came that Homolka’s indifference predicted. On a late winter morning mid-week, sirens blared in Wenceslas Square as a joint Gestapo/S.S. action was taking place several blocks away to the south of his store. Jews of all ages and genders were being rounded up from their homes and apartments, driven through the Square like cattle, and herded to the main train station where they were being placed in cars for transport out of Prague to the east. Homolka normally didn’t go outside during these actions, preferring to stay in the kitchen and supervise the baking. On this particular morning, however, he exited the store and stood watching the sad trail of people who walked past toward the railway station. After a minute or so, he noticed Katya and her sister walking haltingly along the square, dressed much more shabbily than he had ever seen them before, gray hair where blond and brunette had previous been. Homolka wanted to turn away, but he couldn’t. A guard brutally shoved Katya with his rifle butt, shouting at her to move more quickly. She stumbled to the cobblestones and only with great difficulty got back on her feet and continued past the bakery without even a backward glance in Homolka’s direction. Tears now filled Homolka’s eyes and anger, his heart, as the two now-frail sisters shuffled to their fate without anyone raising a hand in their defense. Homolka suddenly felt sick as he at last realized the depth of his cowardice in the face of the inhumanity he was permitting to take place in his beloved city. He reentered the bakery and with a new resolve placed the “Closed” sign in the window.

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Spring 1940 brought an early thaw to Prague as the ice melted on the Vltava River by the end of March. For weeks Prague had been filled with news of a big celebration for the Fuehrer Adolf Hitler’s fifty-first birthday. The Nazi governors had requested the finest chefs in Prague to create their specialties to be presented at a spectacular dinner to be held at the Grand Hotel in mid-April. Top German officials were to attend and the hope was that it would be a most memorable event. Of course on such an occasion desserts must be served and they must be varied and of the finest quality. In Prague this meant only one thing: At the top of the dessert menu must sit an Homolka cheesecake. The officials in charge of the festivities called on Homolka personally to sample several of his more impressive offerings. They chose his cream cheesecake and his chocolate cheesecake as their favorites. As his piece de resistance Homolka, however, suggested that his Royal Cherry cheesecake be presented to the table where the highest Nazi dignitaries were to be seated.

“Most appropriate,’ the German dinner committee agreed.

“Perfect,” concurred Homolka. “I’ll see you in three weeks.”

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April 20th soon arrived. The birthday celebration went forward without a hitch. Four delicious courses, fine Bohemian wines, and of course the best schnapps were consumed by close to 400 happy guests. Following the briefest of speeches by a high-ranking S.S. official, it was finally time for dessert. Homolka, who had himself attended the dinner until the soup course, was in the kitchen supervising the dessert service. At the appointed moment, the wait staff emerged onto the ballroom floor wheeling cheesecake in every direction. Of special importance was the Royal Cherry cheesecake, which Homolka had personally prepared and baked. It was large enough to feed twenty and arrived at the head table where it was actually greeted with applause. By now, however, Homolka was nowhere to be found. He was on his way back to Wenceslas Square where he locked himself into his office, sat down at his desk, opened the locked drawer and withdrew the WWI revolver his father had left him as an heirloom.

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The headline the next morning in the Prague Post shouted at the reader: “TEN DIE AT STATE DINNER: POLICE SUSPECT POISONING AS DOZENS TAKEN ILL: SEVEN CRITICAL”

As a result of losing several top S.S. and Gestapo officers, the German Occupation government has threatened severe reprisals unless the perpetrators are brought to justice.

The exact substance used has not yet been determined, but early speculation points to either arsenic or strychnine as the poison utilized and cheesecake as the method of delivery.

 

**A version of this story was previously serialized in the Jewish Link of New Jersey May-June, 2015 available with photographs: here

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