Stories that connect us- from Bohemia and Moravia to Newcastle, New York, and London
MST Newsletter Winter 2018
Friends, welcome to the eighth edition of the Memorial Scrolls Trust Newsletter.
It is with horror and sadness that I read about the Pittsburgh massacre. This was not just an attack on one community, but on Jews around the world, who mourn together with the families of those who were murdered. People of all beliefs stand together to denounce this tragedy.
Our Czech Torah Webpage Project goal is to link over 1000 scroll-holders around the world. If your community has a Czech Scroll, we ask that you add a Czech Torah page onto your community website telling the story of how your Czech scroll miraculously survived the Shoah, were brought to London in 1964 and since then have been loaned to communities around the world.
The first 332 Czech Torah webpages can be found on our website at:
Kind regards, Jeffrey Ohrenstein
December 3 - NYC - The Second Life of Czech Torah Scrolls
Society for the History of Czechoslovak Jews cordially invites you to attend THE SECOND LIFE OF CZECH TORAH SCROLLS - Opening of the traveling exhibition from the Jewish Museum in Prague - MONDAY, DECEMBER 3, 2018, 7-9 pm Bohemian National Hall 321 East 73rd Street, New York
Against the Tide: The Museum as Modern Ark -Presentation by Misha Sidenberg, visual arts curator, Jewish Museum in Prague
Thus We Remember: The Continuing Story of the Torah from Dvur Kralove - Talk by Rabbi Norman Patz
Hanukkah songs by Katarina Vizina & Refreshments by Zlata Praha
5th February & Spring 2019 - NYC - The Guiding Hand
On the evening of Tuesday, February 5, 2019 the Herbert & Eileen Bernard Museum at Temple Emanu-El in New York will open its Spring 2019 exhibition The Guiding Hand, Torah Pointers Past and Present.
To mark the opening of this exhibition, Temple Emanu-El’s Bernard Museum, in partnership with the Memorial Scrolls Trust (MST) of London, will be hosting a gathering of Czech scrolls which survived the Holocaust. This will be the first gathering of this type in New York City. We hope that you will bring your MST scroll and a group of interested congregants to participate in a procession of the scrolls, a discussion of the exhibition and a visit to the museum.
It will be a truly powerful and memorable experience to be surrounded by dozens of Czech survivor scrolls held by their proud custodians.
Warren Klein, Curator, Herbert & Eileen Bernard Museum of Judaica Jeffrey Ohrenstein, Chairman, Memorial Scrolls Trust Lois Roman, NY Representative, Memorial Scrolls Trust
Scrolls to Newcastle
There's a phrase about doing something superfluous or unnecessary - 'carrying coals to Newcastle'. However this diary is concerned with something that was totally necessary - repairing a Czech scroll that is on loan to a synagogue in Newcastle. Well, it is necessary if the Torah is to be read in the synagogue service as it has to be kasher(valid).
The story behind the Czech scrolls is very special indeed and I've had a long relationship with the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust. I'm one of the few scribes authorised to work on these very special scrolls and indeed helped them compile the rules for scribes who do work on them. One rule (number 3) in particular is very important in respect of this diary and I quote it below, as a scribe must:
Recognise the integrity of the scroll is paramount, will neither add, change or remove signs, embellishments or any visual style (based on midrash or not), to or from the scroll. Every effort will be used to maintain the integrity of the scroll, keeping the same writing style, ink colour and thickness, stitching etc. Also they accept the purity of the ancient script which at times may seem to conflict with the current halachic standard of scribing, as many of these scrolls were written prior to the strictness of halachah today.
As someone who has encountered many scrolls with special letters and decorative embellishments (such as found in Sefer Tagin), some of which are generally accepted but many not. I refer to these oddities as visual midrash as they tell a story with a meaning beyond the plain text - if you know what to looks for. I'm very keen to ensure that these variant traditions are preserved. However many very 'strict' scribes will sadly 'correct' them.
The Newcastle Czech scroll doesn't follow Sefer Tagin, except for three separate occasions, one in the Shema and two right at the end. However it does have a few sections where is has some odd embellishments on the letters.
I was aware of these before I got to work on restoring the scroll, as my teacher's teacher Dr. Eric Ray z"l had encountered and written about this scroll previously, which he had shared with me. So when I finally checked through the scroll to prepare a restoration report, I got to see them in real life. It is always very special when I get to work on a scroll that Eric or my teacher Vivian Solomon z"l had examined or worked on previously as it provides a great sense of continuity.
The scroll itself is recorded to be from Pardubice (Pardubitz) and was apparently written in 1900, though given the loop stitching would more likely be 1800s, when that started to fall out of fashion. There are also some photos of the main synagogue that this Torah may have rested in and also the area on the website page of judaica.cz.
It is indeed very special in that it is 60 lines long and is notvavey ha-amudim as Eric describes and the columns are very very wide - such that there is some 2.5 - 3 regular amudim (columns) worth of text from today's standard tikkun(copyists guide) in a single column. This means that it takes a lot longer to fix a column, but you do get further along in the 'story' when you do!
The scroll itself required extensive repair as the thin strokes on the letters had faded a great deal and some had vanished completely. This was particularly noticeable on the tails of the letters yud and also the think stroke of the mem. Having spent some considerable time repairing the scroll, I re-encountered the sections involving the special decoration as I was wondering whether they would need reinforcement or whether I should just leave them be - as technically they aren't part of the letters forms.
As it happens it turns out that the extra decorations do not appear to be written in d'yo (ink) at all, but seem to be pencil. The normal tagin had faded to a 'browney-grey' colour but these were grey and a very different texture as you can see from the images. Now, it is important to note that it would therefore be very easy to remove these extra marks as there is no specific tradition that the scribe (or perhaps another later scribe) who added them was relying on. This is unique and has no support in any sources. But - and this is why Rule 3 is there and so important - such an act would destroy the history of this particular scroll. It is hard enough to ensure that the integrity of the scroll is preserved when one is repairing the actual letters (similar to when I was repairing the Tyburn Megillah owned by the nuns of the Tyburn convent from the 1700s and the Alexander Torah, a scroll rescued from Nazi Germany that was written in 1790).
This is because, conservation, restoration and making something kasher are very different things and each involves more intervention with the manuscript. As I explain in my book 'Restoring the Tyburn Megillah', 'there is a very real tension between conservation, restoration and halachah. These are things that do not always align'. This is because 'conservation is very much about preserving what is already there and preventing further decay. Conservators would not add ink to a manuscript and everything would be geared to doing the absolute minimum to ensure the life of the artifact was preserved and extended'. On the other hand 'restoration ... is like retouching a painting or re-gilding some architecture. In that case one is trying to get back (as far as possible) to the original work ideally using the same materials [and techniques] that would have been used at the time the manuscript was written'.
Making something kasher can fall into both camps, but could go beyond that if something that was kasher back then is not considered such nowadays in which case should that level of interference be allowed to an historical document? Is it tantamount to re-writing the past - literally. Worst still I have seen some scribes throw restoration and conservation to the wind and correct a Sefardi manuscript with Ashkenazi k'tav (script). It is technically kasher, but the integrity of the document is damaged.
In my view, all scribes should be very careful to respect the tradition of past scribes, even if things have moved on in the halachah. It is true (and possibly sad) that scribal practice has become much more strict and leniencies and traditions of the past have fallen by the wayside, but in their time and place they were perfectly fine and kasher. Indeed these particular embellishments, being thin, have no impact on the letters forms and do not interfere with the validity of the scroll.
Perhaps the scribe who made the decorations intended to ink them in but in the event because of the disaster that befell his community, never completed that task.
 'This is an allusion to the description of the hooks (vav means hook) of the hangings that were all around the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the desert. It reads, 'and its columns were twenty [in number] and its bases twenty, the hooks of the columns were brass and its connectors were silver' (Sh’mot 27:10). Thus all but five amudim in a Torah begin with a vav. Scribes are warned against this as they might lengthen or shorten letters and Maimonides refers to scribes who do this as ignoramuses. However nowadays this is exactly what is done and the Bar’chi Yosef and Zohar say that there is a great secret in this. This is another example of how the rules can change from one extreme to the other over time as accepted practice shapes the laws and not the other way round. D’varim Shebichtav (p.137) explains that this is now acceptable because it has been worked out how to do it without over-extending
or shortening letters and there are good tikkunim to follow.' (Excerpt from Megillat B'ney Chasmonay (The Scroll of the Hasmonean Sons), M. Michaels, Kulmus Publishing, 2013, p.52).
 You can read all about the Torah in my book, The Torah in the Wardrobe, M. Michaels, Kulmus Publishing, 2017. Escaping the flames of Kristalnacht, this special Torah, full of rare scribal practices, has been rescued one more. The book chronicles both its travels from Thälmassing to Belsize Square and its careful restoration. Jam-packed with photos of its history, restoration and its rare special decorated letters in the tradition of Sefer Tagin. It is available in paperback (http://bit.ly/2DAhDQd) and PDF (http://bit.ly/2qFUyZZ) . There are also videos available at http://www.sofer.co.uk/repairs
Restoring the Tyburn Megillah, M. Michaels, Kulmus Publishing, 2013, p.20. A truly interfaith endeavour chronicling the restoration of a several hundred year old manuscript of the book of Esther belonging to the nuns of the Tyburn Convent near Hyde Park. Available in paperback (http://bit.ly/2D3txSJ) or PDF (http://bit.ly/2qEeMmM). You can also read more about it on my site at http://www.sofer.co.uk/diary-45
135-Year-Old Czech Scroll Presented with New Mantle Cover
On Tuesday, May 22nd, Calvary Hospital, NY, hosted a joyous celebration to dedicate a new mantle cover for a sacred Torah scroll. This 135-year old Torah scroll -- dating from 1880 -- is originally from the town of Taus-Domazlice, in what is now known as The Czech Republic. Since 1988, it has been on permanent loan to Calvary from the Memorial Scrolls Trust in London. Of the more than 1,400 MST scrolls currently on permanent loan around the world, Calvary's scroll, No. 515, is one of only 20 in the greater New York area today and one of just a handful that have gone to non-Jewish recipients.
At the event, Rabbi Jeffrey J. Sirkman, Senior Rabbi of Larchmont Temple in Larchmont, NY, shared his own CalvaryCareSM experience with his beloved wife, Susan, in 2015. Calvary cared for her in their home and at the Hospital’s 200-bed Bronx campus. Before he blessed the new mantle cover, Rabbi Sirkman spoke about how Torah is important every day and how this particular scroll represents “undying hope.”
Humpolec Hebrew Cemetery: ‘Mitzvah Project’ of a Righteous Gentile
By Hollace Ava Weiner, Coordinator
Fort Worth Jewish Archives
While traveling in Bohemia this past summer, our local guide, Marie Sramkova, a Jewish woman who teaches English at the University in Prague, suggested detouring to a high-walled Hebrew cemetery hidden in the forests of Humpolec, 100 kilometers southeast of Prague.
The cemetery is ordinarily locked tight.
Marie, however, has befriended the graveyard’s volunteer caretaker, historian Vladimir “Vlad” Stanek, 45, a non-Jew who has turned the 400-year-old cemetery into his long-term “mitzvah project.”
By appointment, Vlad is delighted to welcome visitors from around the world to this gem, a veritable secret garden filled with treasures of Czech-Jewish history. With its neat rows, ornately carved tombstones, and towering trees, the cemetery has around 750 markers and burial sites. The stones date from 1719 until the early months of 1942, when the Nazis deported the last of the region’s Jews.
Since 2003, Vlad has cleared the underbrush, repaired tombstones, learned to decipher Hebrew inscriptions, and compiled a cemetery census. He constructed an illustrated signpost outside the cemetery so that hikers can learn the significance of the walled enclosure. In his spare time, Vlad diagrams family trees of those buried in the cemetery and helps descendants post information on GENI, an Israeli-owned genealogy and social networking website.
Among those laid to rest on this sacred acre of land are grandparents of the composer-conductor Gustav Mahler; a great-uncle of existential writer Franz Kafka; a grandmother of Hana Brady, subject of the Holocaust biography Hana’s Suitcase; and relatives of dissident journalist Daniel Kumermann, former Czech ambassador to Israel.
Vlad is in contact with many descendants of those buried here. He keeps an album filled with correspondence postmarked from cities and countries far beyond his native Humpolec and Jihlava County, where his fulltime job is regional monuments preservation officer.
Marie Sramkova had known for many years about the walled cemetery. She grew up hearing stories that she was on the family tree of Mahler the musician. Therefore, every time she was in the vicinity of Humpolec, she walked by the cemetery. One day, the gate was ajar because Vlad was at work. A friendship developed. With Vlad’s assistance, Marie verified that she is, indeed, related to many people buried within the cemetery’s walls. Vlad helped her track the genealogy.
Vlad, a graduate of the Prague Charles University, receives no salary as caretaker. But he has received grants for cemetery restoration from the city of Humpolec, the Israeli government, and the Czech Republic’s Federation of Jewish Communities.
He not only has the key to the Hebrew cemetery, but also keys to Humpolec’s former synagogue, which today is a Czech Hussite church. He flips through a notebook to show pictures of Baroque murals on the synagogue walls and ongoing work to restore them.
What can the Memorial Scrolls Trust do for a selfless volunteer like Vladimir Stanek? Vlad needs help getting in touch with synagogues that house Torah scrolls originally used in Humpolec. Among those synagogues are Beth Shalom in Auckland, NZ; Am Yisrael in Northfield, Illinois; Beth El in Winchester, Virginia; and Communidad Bet El in Mexico City. The Auckland and Illinois congregations have web pages about their Czech Torah scrolls.
Communication with these synagogues would add another dimension to Vlad’s boundless mitzvah project.
Talk on Renée Morton at Finchley Reform Synagogue on 8th September 2018
Shabbat Shalom. Dobre Den (that’s Czech for Good Morning).
My mother, Renée Morton, was born in Plsen in the Sudetenland in the west of the Czech Republic, or what was then Czechoslovakia, in 1919. She lived in Finchley from 1954 until her death in 2006 at the age of 87. You may have seen her in Victoria Park with her green anorak and her backpack on her way to a lecture, a concert or an art exhibition or in her later years just sitting and enjoying the park. She generally looked happy and would readily engage in conversation and you would have been hard pressed to guess her story and the life journey that she had travelled.
A few years before her death she downsized to a flat in Etchingham Court and, while assisting her move, I came across an old shoe box, stuffed full of letters (mostly handwritten and in German). My eye was caught by a telegram which read:
MARTA CHARLES ILSA PETER 15.10.1944 DEPORTED FROM TEREZIN TO OSWIECIM SINCE TO NOW MISSED STOP
When I enquired about the letters, she refused to talk about them, but removed the box (although I made sure to see where it was placed). After her death I retrieved the letters and over a couple of years (once I had ceased full-time work) had the letters translated into English as most of these were in handwritten German and half of the rest in Czech. Altogether, there were about 500 letters from a range of family members and friends, mostly written between September 1938 and October 1945.
I’d like now to provide some family background. I grew up in North London in the 1950’s with only a nuclear family. My father, mother and brother were the only family I had, unlike most (but not all) of the people I knew. As a result, I felt that history began when I was born, with almost no-one to talk about earlier times, what things were like when they were young, and so on. Most of my friends had grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and other family and I remember asking my mother why we had no relatives at all. Her response then was just to say that they died in the War. Later the explanation was “they were killed by the Germans”. As an adult, when I asked my mother why she never talked about the Holocaust, she would say “I was focused on moving on, not looking back”. I imagine that she also felt some guilt that she had survived when almost all of the rest of her family had perished. In fact, I also recall that wider interest in the Shoah really only seemed to have grown in the 1970’s or 80’s, before which it was treated more as a private matter for individual survivors to deal with.
Anyway, these letters opened up a completely new picture of my mother’s family, rather than the silence and absence of family previously, although I was of course now unable to ask for further details from her.
Renée (she always insisted on the French pronunciation) grew up in a German-speaking middle-class Jewish family in Prague, living with her parents (Karl/Charles & Marta), her older sister, Ilse, and her widowed grandmother, Klara. They weren’t religious, although Klara lit candles every Friday night and, as far as I can tell, most of their friends were Jewish. Their interests were cultural, appreciating music, art, books, while they spoke a variety of languages (German, Czech, English and French, all fluently).
Renée survived because her father, Karl, found her a position as a domestic with a family living in Cambridge. The timing was fortuitous. She left Prague, aged 18, a fortnight before the signing of the Munich agreement. Two days after the Munich signing, she received a letter from her mother which said:
“History has never seen such treason and cowardly retreat from brutal violence before”.
while Ilse asked:
“What do the English say about Chamberlain? In Paris he is called ‘J’aime Berlin’”
From the time of her arrival in England, the letters from Prague were a mixture of advice to a young woman who’d never left home and who was now living in a ‘faraway country of which we know nothing’ (as Neville Chamberlain might have said) and concern about the deteriorating situation in Prague. Renée’s work as a domestic was a new experience for her as she’d been brought up in an environment with a cook and a live-in maid and I doubt that she was really competent to provide what was needed. Clearly there were tensions and differences of opinion about what was a reasonable workload as her mother writes:
“It amazes me that they (the Wishart family in Cambridge where Renée was staying) demand so much work from you. I could not do it, to abuse somebody so much, but the English are renowned for that.”
At the same time in Czechoslovakia people who had been displaced from the west of the country by the occupation of the Sudetenland were flocking to Prague and struggling to live there:
“So much misery for those people who have had to leave their homes and work and don't know which way to turn now. The government wants to send them back, but people are refusing to go. Many would face concentration camps there and misery here.”
In the letters there were repeated references to friends and acquaintances fleeing to Uruguay, Ecuador, Brazil and elsewhere. But for those unable to escape, there was mounting despair. In June 1939 Marta wrote:
“Do you remember little overweight Hanns, who followed Bessie and Edna? Imagine, his mother tried to kill herself and the boy with gas, in a moment of desperation.The child is dead but she now has to face the burden of living on, thanks to the wonders of medicine. Isn’t that terrible?”
Meanwhile her 82 year-old grandmother, Klara, simply expressed her deep affection for her:
“Many kisses, don't worry too much about us. Remember that everything is in God's hands , my dear, good child
and no-one could fail to empathise with her mother, Marta, when she wrote:
“It is 3 o’clock in the morning, dawn is near and I can’t sleep. It’s only me, thinking of you with all my heart, my sweetheart. I would give anything to see you for a couple of hours, to embrace you and listen to your dear voice.”
Once Germany was at war with Britain, communication became harder, although her uncle Robert’s girlfriend in Switzerland was able (given Switzerland’s neutrality) to forward letters in both directions.
The family was evicted from their Prague flat in 1940 to make way for German officers and had to find a smaller place. Then on 25th July 1942 a final letter was sent to Renée from her parents and aunt Erna the day before they were transported to Terezin (Theresienstadt). Marta wrote only the following:
“I want to send you our fondest wishes before we depart. We are leaving to meet your grandmother and Ilse in the countryside. Our beloved one, all our heart is with you and your letters were always our greatest joy. Remain healthy so that we will all be reunited in joy and health one day.”
After that, nothing was heard directly from any of them regarding their life in Terezin or their subsequent transport to Auschwitz and there was no firm news of their fate (whether they had lived or not) until that definitive telegram that I mentioned earlier. As my father (whose escape from occupied Czechoslovakia is another story) said to me shortly before he died in 1999: “We knew that life would be bad under the Nazis, but no-one could imagine in their wildest dreams how bad it would be!”. That is reflected in the letters to my mother and, even when he was taken in October 1944 to the cattle car that would transport him to Auschwitz, my grandfather said to his sister (who survived): “I will try to survive; I don’t know if they will let me.” Even so, by then he must have had some idea of what might await them at the other end of that last train journey.
None of the family lived.
One more thing that you may like to know is that I am now a Czech citizen – in which case you are doubtless impressed with the quality of my English. Well, it’s just as well that I’m not speaking in Czech as I have virtually no knowledge of the language. However, the wheel has come full circle which is why this occasion has a particular resonance for me.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank my old friend, Katka Kessler, who very kindly translated those letters that were originally written in Czech (about 60 in total) and who has taken the trouble to come along today.