The Story of the Torah Scrolls of Czechoslovakia
Sources: The Jews Of Czechoslovakia, partially written and compiled by Gertrude Hirschler, edited by Avigdor Dagan, and associate-edited by Lewis Weiner, published by The Jewish Publication Society Of America of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with help from The Society For The History Of Czechoslovak Jews of New York. The article used on The Czech Torah Network Web site was written by Joseph Pick. The Story Of The Jewish Torahs of Czechoslovakiaappeared in Volume III of the book The Jews Of Czechoslovakia Historical Studies and Surveys, authored by Joseph C. Pick.
Background: Jews lived in Bohemia and Moravia for more than a thousand years, having developed a rich Jewish culture centred on Prague and spread across a large number of communities in towns throughout the country. According to the 1930 census, there were 117,551 Jews in Bohemia and Moravia, and 356,830 in all of Czechoslovakia.
Before the Second World War, very few Torah scrolls appeared in museum collections in Bohemia and Moravia. A Torah scroll was certainly not an item that a congregation would voluntarily or gladly have given away to a museum collection. In the collections of pre-war Jewish museums, the Torah scroll appeared more frequently in the form of a miniature souvenir.
Nazi destruction: In November 1938 during a vicious pogrom, fifty synagogues were attacked and the majority of their contents were lost. Following the Nazi invasion in 1939, historical congregations were closed down as their synagogues were destroyed or deserted. By 1943 some 26,000 Jews had managed to emigrate; some 81,000 Jews were deported to Terezin and other camps, of whom about 10,500 survived. (Today, the population of the Czech Republic is ten million, including 4,000 Jews.) There were at least 350 synagogues in Bohemia and Moravia, but by the end of the War more than sixty had been destroyed. The remaining 300 were abandoned and left to decay (80 of them were demolished when the Communists came to power).
On 20 January 1942, the Wansee Conference, was called by director of the Reich Main Security Office, SS-ObergruppenführerReinhard Heydrich, to ensure the cooperation of administrative leaders of various government departments in the implementation of the final solution to the Jewish question, whereby Jews of German-occupied Europe would be deported to Poland and murdered.
The situation regarding the occurrence of Torah scrolls in the collections of the Jewish Museum in Prague drastically changed in May 1942. The Nazi authority dealing with the Jewish question in Prague – the Central Office for Jewish Emigration – ordered the Jewish communities in the Protectorate (i.e., the historical lands of Bohemia and Moravia, not including the Sudeten border areas) to send all their liturgical objects, books and archive records to the newly established Central Jewish Museum in Prague. The Prague Jewish community employees, seeking to protect the properties of those who had been deported to concentration camps, were the impetus for founding the museum. The theory that the Nazis had planned to create a ‘museum to an extinct race’ has little foundation in fact.
Almost 1,800 Torah scrolls became part of the collections of the Jewish Museum in Prague during the Second World War.
Nazi death camps were liberated 60 years ago, starting with Auschwitz on January 27. The final camp was Mauthausen, liberated May 5, 1945 by Americans under the command of Col. Richard Seibel of Defiance, Ohio. Fewer than 8,000 Jews from Czechoslovakia survived.
Another liberation happened 20 years later. It involved 1,564 Torah scrolls of Bohemia and Moravia that were collected and warehoused by the Nazis.
The Jewish Museum of Prague: Evelyn Friedlander, the curator of the present-day collection at Westminster, explains, “The city’s Jewish Museum had been established in 1906; and the curators were academics and professionals in their forties and fifties, in the prime of their careers.” The librarian, Tobias Jakobovits, was the uncle of Immanuel Jakobovits, the long-serving Chief Rabbi of Britain until 1991.
As the war progressed rural Jews began gravitating towards the bigger cities in Czechoslovakia. In 1942, a group of members of Prague’s Jewish community devised a way to bring the religious treasures from the deserted communities and destroyed synagogues to the comparative safety of Prague, persuading the Nazis to accept their plan. A letter went out from the Jewish community of Prague asking the far-flung congregations to send their Torah scrolls and other synagogue Judaica to the capital, and the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia responded quickly. “Everything,” says Evelyn Friedlander, “was catalogued meticulously. We know where every scroll came from: they were labelled in Czech and German, giving the name of the community or congregation.” Czech, of course: but German, too, because this extraordinary task was carried out under Nazi supervision. “The curators thought they were saving Judaism by saving the scrolls.” says Friedlander.
More than 10,000 artefacts were brought to the Museum. Among them were about 1,800 Torah scrolls. Each was meticulously recorded, labelled, and entered on a card index by the Museum’s staff with a description of the Scroll and its geographic home. The group laboured under appalling conditions to preserve what little remained of Jewish communities, previously at the mercy of vandals and plunderers. This Jewish initiative was directly responsible for the subsequent conservation of the Scrolls.
The Jewish community hoped that these treasures would be protected and might one day return to their original homes. But all the workers at the Museum were eventually transported to Terezin and Auschwitz. Only two survived, Dr. Karol Stein and Hana Volavková. Their legacy was the catalogue of the vast collection in the Museum.
Post World War II: Some fifty congregations re-established themselves in Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia of the Czech Republic and were provided with the necessary liturgical items, including Torah scrolls, by the Jewish Museum in Prague, although not necessarily ones from their own communities. When the Communists took over the government of the country in 1948, Jewish communal life was again stifled, and most synagogues were closed. Many of the liturgical items that had been loaned were subsequently returned to Jewish Museum of Prague.
A major impact on the Jewish Museum’s existence occurred in 1950, when it was put under state control. It was moved out of its headquarters and allotted several other buildings, most of which required renovation and repairs. A synagogue in the Prague district of Michle, which the State Jewish Museum acquired in the autumn of 1955, was chosen as a site for the storage of its collection of scrolls. The then museum director, Hana Volavková, decided to set up a museum of scrolls, which were gradually deposited there in 1956-59. This antique-style library-cum-repository was to have been definitively completed at the beginning of the 1960s.
The scrolls seemed condemned to slow decay because in order to keep parchment scrolls from perishing, they must be rolled from time to time. This was patently impossible to do with over 1,500 scrolls housed in desperately cramped quarters. Nothing Artia (the official agents of the Czechoslovak government in charge of “cultural properties”) or the staff of the museum could do would preserve the Torah scrolls.
Abroad, there was considerable interest in the Jewish Museum in Prague and its collections. Soon after the Second World War, the museum was contacted by people wishing to buy items from its collection. Hana Volavková successfully resisted such offers, pointing to the immense value of the relics of the Bohemian and Moravian victims of the Shoah. But the Communist government was desperate for hard currency and looking for goods to sell.
The scrolls were not the Czech state’s to sell, though this appears hardly to have mattered. The postwar Jewish Museum fought tooth and nail against the sale, but lost. At least 50 scrolls from the Prague collection were sent to the young state of Israel in 1964, although present-day religious authorities in Israel deny all knowledge of them.
At any rate, the Czech communists still wanted to sell the rest: and they did not want to sell them off piecemeal, but only as a complete collection. At the beginning of the 1960s, the Czechoslovak Communist regime undertook several initial attempts to sell liturgical items from Jewish Museum to interested parties abroad. Encouraged, it then began a systematic search, via the state-owned Artia for a market for multiple copies of items in the museum’s collections.
Torah scrolls became vulnerable items. Most of them had no unique marks or features, and the Jewish Museum had a large number that could not be exhibited.
Scrolls rescued again: But when a suitable buyer was found, the museum staff was compelled to provide about 1,500 Torah scrolls from the museum’s collections for sale, and the entire set was sold for a pre-arranged price. In January 1964, after the agreed-upon amount had been paid, the Torah scrolls in Prague were wrapped and shipped to London. As part of the agreement of sale, the Torah scrolls were not allowed to become commercial items.
Eric Estorick (z”l, 1913-93): Born in Brooklyn, he was a writer and sociology professor at New York University in the early 1940s. He also purchased art by great masters. It took a few years, but eventually he became a gallery owner in London. His new career and the contacts he developed there were the keys that led him to the Torah scrolls of Europe’s destroyed Jewish communities.
In 1963. Estorick was on a routine art-buying trip to Eastern Europe. In Prague, he met with officials from Artia, the state corporation responsible for art and cultural properties. The officials surprised Estorick with news about an old synagogue just outside Prague. Inside, he was told, were Torah scrolls that Nazis had confiscated from two provinces of Bohemia and Moravia. The synagogue had become their warehouse. The officials took Estorick to see the scrolls. When they opened the door at Michele synagogue, he was stunned. Torahs were stacked, floor to ceiling. It was obvious, even from the doorway, that the scrolls were damaged.
The Czechs told Estoreck that they would like to sell the scrolls. They emphasized that the buyer must be willing to purchase the entire collection. Was there, in the West, any individual or organization interested in acquiring a very large number of Torah scrolls from Czech Jewish communities that had perished in the war? Estorick responded that an expert would have to make an on-the-spot inspection of the scrolls to determine their condition, and more specifically, to see which of them were still ritually fit for use in synagogue services. He knew of such an expert in London, Chimen Abramsky, an historian and acknowledged authority on Hebraica and Judaica.
Chimen Abramsky (z”l, 1917-2000): Arrangements were made for Abramsky to go to Prague. Dr. Abramsky decided to examine a sample of 250 of the scrolls to determine their condition and how they would have to be handled, packaged and shipped. Many were without protective covering. Others were swathed in tattered prayer shawls. He found two scrolls wrapped in a woman’s garment. Another was tied with a small belt from a child’s coat. In the course of his examinations, a note suddenly fell out of one of the scrolls. It had been hidden by a Torah scribe in 1940. The prayerful message asked: What would happen to the Jews trying to survive those troubling times? “It was quite incredible to see this,” Abramsky said in London. “I burst into tears.”
Ralph C. Yablon (z”l, 1906-84): While Abramsky was still in Prague, Estorick discussed the problem of the Czech scrolls with one of his clients, Ralph C. Yablon, a well-to-do, public-spirited member of London’s Westminister Synagogue. Yablon in turn contacted his rabbi, Harold F. Reinhart (z”l, 1891-1969), who had been contemplating the idea of setting up a Holocaust memorial museum in his synagogue. Perhaps, the rabbi said, some of the Czech Torah scrolls could be brought to London as a nucleus for such an exhibit. Yablon’s answer was to acquire all the 1,564 scrolls from Czechoslovakia for the equivalent of 30,000 English pounds, and in December 1963 the Westminister Synagogue became the official trustee for the entire collection until such time as it could be distributed elsewhere. In addition to purchasing the scrolls for the Westminister Synagogue, Yablon supplied the funds for their packing and their transportation from Prague to London.
Several weeks later, in 1964, the scrolls were sealed into five railroad cars and shipped to London. All the binders were flung in with the Torah scrolls and unloaded from the first of the London lorries. On the second lorry, says Mrs. Friedlander, “there is a story that there were messages in among the scrolls, scraps of paper saying ‘please help us.’ But no one knows what became of them.”
Many of the scrolls that arrived in London were tied with a separate cloth binder, some dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 100 volumes of catalogue still in the Prague Jewish Museum, there are details of where the binders originated, some exquisitely embroidered, some examples of local folk art, some honouring members of the congregation or marking special events such as births, bar mitzvahs or weddings.
A team of nine scribes — experts in the actual inscription of the scroll and the parchment on which a Torah scroll is written — was assembled at Westminster Synagogue, to examine every single scroll and recatalogue them.
Westminster Synagogue and the Trust: Westminster Synagogue organized a Memorial Scrolls Committee, of which Frank R. Waley (z”l, 1893-1987) became Chairman and Mrs. G.R. (Ruth) Shaffer (z”l, 1910-born in Warsaw, 1910-2006; daughter of the author Sholom Asch), Honorary Secretary. When the scrolls, covered with transparent polyethylene plastic, began to arrive at the synagogue on February 5, 1964, their quarters were ready to receive them.
Three rooms had been set aside for the scrolls on the second floor of Kent House, the synagogue annex. Special racks had been constructed, and each scroll, or scroll fragment, was numbered and placed into a compartment marked with the corresponding number. This process of sorting and registration alone consumed several months. The day-to-day care of the scrolls became a community-wide project, involving Rabbi Reinhart, his wife, and Ruth Shaffer, and representatives of other segments of London Jewry, including Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie (later Sir Israel Brodie); Dr. Solomon Gaon, the haham (Chief Rabbi) of the Sephardic community; Rabbi Pinhas Toledano, minister of the Wembley Sephardic congregation; and Richard D. Barnett, a prominent member of London’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue and “Keeper” in the Department of Western Asiatic Antiquities in the British Museum.
The scrolls were stored while it was being decided how best to make use of them. Two possible options were considered: the scrolls that were in good condition or were repairable could be loaned for liturgical uses while those that were not repairable could be provided for commemorative purposes. In 1965, and for the next almost 40 years, the core of all activities relating to the care, and later distribution, of the Torah scrolls was overseen by Ruth Shaffer.
Rehabilitation of the Scrolls: For nine months, three Orthodox scribes and three of their student scribes worked in Westminster Synagogue. They examined and classified every scroll. There were 5 categories, depending on damage. Many scrolls had drops of blood on them. (The Czech scroll in one Kansas City synagogue has bayonet holes and human blood.) It was decided that human blood would be left on scrolls, so that they could be witnesses to the horrors of the Holocaust.
Several notes were found inside scrolls. Nearly all were rescue pleas. Some were prayerful pleas. Others pleaded with any human who might happen to read the note. Several members of Westminster Synagogue say that the shortest message was just two words: “Save Us!”
By the summer of 1964, the Memorial Scrolls Committee could begin the second step in the rehabilitation of the scrolls. Scribes were engaged to subject each scroll to careful scrutiny from beginning to end and to record their findings for each scroll – its history, place and ate of origin, distinguishing features and, most important, the condition of the rollers, the parchment, and the writing. On the basis of their condition, the scrolls were classified into five categories. In the top category were the Torahs in the “Best” condition, or those that were fit for use at synagogue services without needing, or virtually without needing, refurbishment. The bottom category was “Unusable” (including scrolls that had been torn through more than three lines of writing or where the Name of God had been erased or torn); all scrolls beyond salvage were earmarked for display as Holocaust memorials in England and elsewhere. All the other Torah scrolls fit in between.
The Sofer: In 1965, the first scrolls – the least damaged ones – were released to congregations. But scrolls graded in between “Best” to “Unusable” required various minor and major repairs before they could be used for reading at synagogue services. It was time for more labour intensive restorations. It soon became clear that temporary, part-time scribes would not be sufficient for this work. A full-time scribe would be required.
But there was one problem. Westminster Synagogue lacked a scribe. At this point, laughs Friedlander, “a sort of miracle happened.” A man knocked on the door of the synagogue. Mrs. Ruth Shaffer, who took charge of the day-to-day running of the Scrolls Trust, opened the door. A Hasidic Jew introduced himself as an Israeli scribe visiting London. David Brand, newly arrived from Jerusalem, told Mrs. Shaffer that he had been traveling to many parts of the world repairing scrolls in synagogues and wondered whether the Westminster Synagogue happened to have any scrolls in need of repair. By any chance, he asked, could it use the services of a Torah scribe?
Mrs. Shaffer asked him to please come in and sit down. Then she broke the news to him about the 1,564 scrolls. “I shall never forget the look of astonishment and awe on his face when he saw those three rooms stacked to the ceiling with sifre Torah (Torah scrolls),” Mrs. Shaffer recalled.
Initially, David worked for the Westminster Synagogue on a temporary basis only, but after his wife and family came over from Israel to join him in London, he agreed to give all his time to the Torah scrolls from Czechoslovakia. He spent 27 years working at Westminster Synagogue and retired to Israel. (Sofer David Brand died in Israel at the beginning of February, 2015. Baruch Dayan ha-emet. May his memory be for a blessing.)
The other artefacts: The accessories of the scrolls also received careful attention. Cabinetmakers were found who could repair wooden rollers so skilfully that the new parts seemed virtually indistinguishable from the originals. Some of the wimpels (strips of linen or other materials used to hold the scrolls together) were of historic interest because they bore, in embroidery, the name of the donor who had commissioned the writing of the scroll, and the date and occasion on which the scroll had been presented to its original synagogue. Wherever necessary, these wimpels were carefully washed, cleaned, and pressed by Mrs. Reinhart.
Reactions: From the time of their arrival in London, the scrolls, and their eventual availability to synagogues and other Jewish institutions in the Western world, received widespread publicity in the Jewish and non-Jewish press. Hundreds of visitors flocked to Kent House to view them. To one awe-stricken Czech Christian, they looked at first glance like “hundreds of corpses in transparent shrouds.” Later, becoming calmer, he described them as “a mountain of dead books, spiritual bodies, so to speak, and yet a mountain glowing with the life of revelation, law, promise.” Some Holocaust survivors and former refugees from Central Europe broke down and wept at their sight.
New life: Before long, the Memorial Scrolls Committee was deluged with requests from synagogues, Jewish organizations, and private individuals all over the Western world for a Torah scroll from Czechoslovakia. The committee established a procedure for dealing with these requests that is followed to this day:
Procedure: “Each application must be submitted in writing to the committee for consideration. Priority is given to small congregations, homes for the aged, hospitals, and children’s camps. Scrolls are never offered for sale; they are only given on “permanent loan.” If the congregation or institution ceases to exist, its scroll must be returned to the Westminster Synagogue. In order to help cover expenses, the recipients are asked to make a contribution. In some instances, the amount is to be paid in instalments. For deserving cases, it may be waived altogether, but such losses are more than offset by congregations sending contributions far in excess of the amount set by the committee.”
Each scroll sent away bears a small brass plaque attached to its rollers with the inscription “Westminster Synagogue,” the date 5725, i.e., 1964, “Czech Memorial Scroll,” and the scroll’s number. The scroll is accompanied by a certificate stating that it is one of the 1,564 scrolls from the Jewish ceremonial treasures confiscated by the Nazis, and giving in Hebrew and English the name of the town from which it came. Frequently, the Memorial Scrolls Committee receives letters from rabbis or Hebrew school students, requesting a history of the Czech community from which “their” scroll came. In the United States, representatives of the Society for the History of Czechoslovak Jews have participated in dedication exercises for the scrolls at various synagogues and supplied historical information on the Jewish communities where the scrolls had originated. For this purpose the society formed a special committee under the chairmanship of Gertrude Hirschler, author of the book The Jews of Czechoslovakia, from which this text was excerpted.
New homes: Scrolls are now found across the British Isles, throughout Europe, Israel, South Africa, Latin America, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the U.S., and used in many cases weekly in almost 1,400 synagogues with a combined membership of over a quarter of a million. The Czech Scrolls have been used in an estimated 100,000 b’nei mitzvah, confirming a new generation in their Judaism, the ultimate symbol that Nazi extermination failed. Hundreds of synagogues regularly use their scrolls as part of a Holocaust memorial service or in Holocaust education programmes helping people to understand both the roots of prejudice.
One unusable scroll was lent to Westminister Abbey in 1966 as part of a special Judaic exhibit arranged by the Council of Christians and Jews to honour the Abbey’s nine hundredth anniversary. Afterwards, this particular scroll was installed permanently in the library of the Council of Christians and Jews in London.
Today, about 150 of the most damaged scrolls remain in the Scrolls Trust room of Westminster Synagogue. Many are only scroll fragments. They are part of a collection in a small museum at Kent House that commemorates the fate of the scrolls and the history of the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia.
New hope: From having arrived at the Westminster Synagogue in London on February 7, 1964, the scrolls have been shipped around the world. They have been sent out to Jewish communities to be cherished as memorials to a tragic past but at the same time to be read and studied by a new generation of Jews, the guarantors of Jewish survival and rebirth. The vast majority of the 1,564 Torahs have come back to a life of Jewish worship.
Even some of the fragments have come back to a life of Jewish worship. A synagogue in Ft. Wayne, Indiana hired a famous scribe, Dr. Eric Ray, to write 80 percent of a new scroll, and insert the fragment they had for the remainder of their scroll. (Dr. Ray risked his own life several times during World War II to rescue other Torahs in other parts of Nazi controlled Europe – even riding the underside of trains, holding on to rescued Torahs, to bring them back to the Jewish world.)
As of 1981, a total of 1,297 scrolls had been catalogued. Of these, a total of 692 had been sent to various synagogues and other Jewish institutions in England and other countries as follows:
Congregations often develop projects that promote knowledge of the life of the Jewish community in Bohemia and Moravia and may contact the Jewish Museum in Prague. They are interested in the fate of specific individuals who lived in the Jewish community from which their scroll came, and in the history of these communities and in other related liturgical items and archive materials in the museum’s collections. Such interest has led to the publication of books on the fate of Czech Jewish communities, educational programs, and exhibitions. These congregations are building a bridge between the past, present and future as they help preserve the memory of events that must never be forgotten.
Special Programs: Leo Baeck Temple, Bel Air, California, held a commemoration of Kristallnacht, the event that is often considered the beginning of the Holocaust. The central symbolism was provided by guest of honor Olga Grilli, who fled Nazi-occupied Europe as an 11-year-old. At the service she saw once more and touched the Torah scroll from the shul of her Czechoslovakian hometown. Twenty-two California synagogues took part in the event; each now cares for a rescued East European Torah scroll. Participants saw the scrolls up close and also learned the story of the Czechoslovakian Jewish children rescued by Kindertransports, the trains that carried 664 children, without their parents, to England. “I left on the last children’s transport,” Grilli said.
(The links between Kristallnacht, the Kindertransports and the Torah scrolls are not tenuous. Historians frequently mark the start of the Holocaust as Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”), when rampaging Nazis destroyed 101 synagogues and 7,500 Jewish businesses on two November days in 1938, 10 months before World War II. With 91 Jews killed and another 26,000 arrested, Kristallnacht spread a panic among Europe’s Jews and began a race against time for the Britons and Americans organizing Kindertransports. Sir Nicholas Winton’s Kindertransport saved nearly 700 Jewish children by taking them from Czechoslovakia to England.)
Some Czech Torahs and their new homes:
Temple Shalom, Winnipeg, has Torah #661 from Moravska, Ostrava (Marisch-ostrau), written in 1923.
Rego Park Jewish Center of Queens New York, has a scroll that originally had belonged to the synagogue of the town of Hostomice, Bohemia, written in the year 1700.
Temple B’nai Or’s (Morristown, New Jersey) scroll came from the Malvazinka Synagogue in Prague and is approximately 200 years old.
The Marathon Jewish Community Center in Little Neck, Long Island was given a scroll from the historic Altneuschul Synagogue in Prague, which was built in 1260 and still serves today as an active synagogue for the Jews of Prague.
The Philip M. Klutznick National Jewish Museum at B’nai B’rith headquarters in Washington, D.C., houses a Torah scroll from the synagogue of Slavkov u Brna, better known as Austerlitz. Written at the end of the eighteenth century, it survived the famous battle establishing Napoleon’s power, The Battle of Austerlitz on December 2, 1805.
The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands’ scroll dates from the late eighteenth century and served at the synagogue of Budyne nad Ohre, Bohemia, having been installed there about 1780.
One Czech scroll is now in the White House. Of great antiquity, it comes from Uherské Hradiste, one of the six royal cities of medieval Moravia, where Jews appear to have lived as far back as 1342. It was presented to President Jimmy Carter by Nahum Goldmann on November 2, 1977, after Carter had addressed a meeting called by the World Jewish Congress in Washington, D.C. Goldmann expressed the hope that President Carter would install the scroll in the Executive Mansion “as a constant reminder of our prayers for justice and peace.” President Carter replied, “I accept it for all those who share a common religious heritage and a common commitment to the future…I will observe it daily in the White House as I go about my duties and it will be a constant reminder to me of the spirit of human rights, decency, and love that is exemplified by those of you represented here tonight.”
A scroll sent to Atlanta, Georgia, turned out to be from Mladá Boleslav, the hometown of Gertrude Hirschler, author of The Jews of Czechoslovakia, from which this information is taken. Its wimple is embroidered with the name of the woman who commissioned the writing of this particular Torah in the year 1881, Rivka Eisencshimmel.
Rabbi Dr. Hugo Stransky had served his people for nearly half a century, first in Czechoslovakia, then in London, New Zealand, Australia, and finally at Congregation Beth Hillel of Washington Heights in New York City. One of the last official functions he attended was the rededication of Torah Scroll No. 66, over two hundred years old, at Temple Israel of Staten Island, New York. Sharing the pulpit with the Temple’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Milton Rosenfeld, Dr. Stransky looked more closely at the scroll. Tears came to his eyes: it was the Torah he had used in his first congregation in Czechoslovakia, the synagogue of Nachod, from 1930 to 1936. “In what condition is it?,” he whispered to his colleague, his voice choked with emotion as he peered intently at the scroll before him. “Ah!” he observed, “a bit faded, but it can be read.” And so, Rabbi Stransky’s long career of service to his fellow Jews on three continents came to a close in America within sight of the Torah scroll he had held in his arms on his first Sabbath as a “rabbi, teacher, and preacher in Israel” in a Bohemian Jewish community that is no more.
And then: In 1969, Westminister Synagogue’s Rabbi Reinhart died. The new rabbi selected in 1970 was Dr. Albert Friedlander, who died in 2005. It is his widow who became the curator of the Westminster collection after Ruth Shaffer.
February 9, 2014: On February 9, in Westminster Synagogue, a special service was held to mark the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Czech Torah scrolls in London. Many of the congregations that have borrowed a Czech scroll attended — and brought their scroll with them, to walk in procession around the synagogue. Trust chair Evelyn Friedlander said the commemoration was “not a memorial service. These scrolls are living things, bringing new Jewish life wherever they have gone around the globe.”
Californian rabbi Moshe Druin – one of the scribes who helped to restore the Torahs – urged congregations to teach their children about the origins of their scroll. “You are the voice of the Torah,” he said. Guests included the world’s only husband and wife scribes, Avielah Barclay and Marc Michaels from London, who have also worked on them.
A quote from Rabbi Friedlander (z”l) explains why these scrolls matter so much to the Jewish people: “We carry the Torah, and the Torah carries us.”
One of the many storehouses of Nazi-confiscated items, this one containing Czechoslovakian books.
The sacred Torah binder, or wimple
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6_nFuJAF5F0 (Sir Nicholas Winton, 1988 BBC program)
The Power of Good, Emmy Award winning HBO documentary about Sir Nicholas Winton, 2002
“Odyssey of the Torah Scrolls,” film of NBC and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1984
http://www.memorialscrollstrust.org/ ; http://www.memorialscrollstrust.org/news-events/a-short-film-about-the-mst/ ; https://vimeo.com/87117269 (film of the 50th anniversary service)
The Jewish Museum in Prague During the Second World War, Leo Pavlat, in ‘European Judaism’, Vol 41, No. 1, Spring 2008, pp. 124-130, Berghahn Jounals
A Story of the Jewish Museum in Prague, Hana Volavkova, Prague: Artia, 1968
The Precious Legacy: Judaoc Treasures from the Czechoslovak State Collections, David Altshuler, editor, New York: Summit, 1983
David Brand, Sofer Sta”m