MST Chairman's greeting, The story of the rescue of the Scrolls, Ostrava: recreation of a virtual community, MSTTravelling Exhibit, The Scroll Tracking Form, Czech Scrolls news from around the world and more......
MST Quarterly Newsletter issue 1, April 2016
WELCOME FROM THE CHAIRMAN
by Jeffrey Ohrenstein, MST Chairman
Welcome to this first edition of the Memorial Scrolls Trust Newsletter.
It is now 52 years since 1564 Czech Torah scrolls arrived at the Westminster Synagogue in London and 36 years since the Memorial Scrolls Trust (MST) was created as an independent organisation. Over the years some 1400 Torah scrolls have been allocated to over 1000 communities and organisations around the world.
Our Torah Scrolls are survivors and witnesses of the Shoah. Having been saved from destruction it is essential they and their history are preserved. The MST has started a project to encourage everyone of our Torah scroll holders to create a Czech Torah page on their website linked to our own site www.memorialscrollstrust.org telling the history of their scrolls. This will ensure that their Czech Torah remains identified and is never forgotten. We hope to link over 1000 Scroll holders to the MST and to each other. So far we have made over 92reciprocal links.
The original Czech Memorial Scrolls exhibit opened in 1988, which was then developed and expanded to become a Museum in 2006. It is now internationally recognised and tells the history of the Czech Torah scrolls. A Travelling Exhibition was opened in 2014 by UK Chief Rabbi Mirvis, which now is being exhibited in communities around Britain. At the same time an Education Pack was developed that can be freely downloaded from our website.
New Trustees were appointed in 2015 who created a committee that included members from both Orthodox and Progressive communities for the first time in the Trust’s history.
On taking office the Trustees realised that for the legacy of the Czech Scrolls to be passed to future generations a great deal more needed to be accomplished. The Trust has only one paid part-time employee working 24 hours per week. The database was only accessible by one person at a time and woefully out of date. Most significantly there was little communication between the MST and their Scroll holders some of whom they had not been in touch with for many years, if ever.
During the course of the last year with the help of a generous donation from a Westminster Synagogue member, a volunteer Julia Levy, arranged for our data to move onto a new cloud based platform which now allows instant information for multiple users, from anywhere. As a result, whilst previously in touch with around 125 communities annually, we plan to contact every one of our Torah scroll holders by Rosh Hashanah 2016.
In the coming year we hope to start work on revamping our website. We wish it to be one our scroll holders find useful, so please let us know what you would like to see on it. We also plan to digitise our archives covering more than 50 years, however we shall need to find the funding in order to do this.
During 2014 I had the honour to attend a gathering of 22 of our scrolls in Phoenix AZ last February and a siyum celebrating the restoration of Torah MST#655 in Sharon MA as well as visiting scroll holders in St Louis MO. I have made a commitment to try and visit the USA twice a year where over 1000 of our scrolls are cared for.
I hope you find this first Newsletter interesting and would welcome any comments and suggestions from you as to how we can improve it going forward.
ABOUT THE MST NEWSLETTER By Nick Young (MST Advisory Committee)
A very warm welcome to our first ever MST newsletter. With more than 1000 communities around the world holding Czech Scrolls, it may appear that we've got our work cut out keeping in touch with everybody. It is our honour and privilege to do so however, and we certainly aim to do our best. One way of doing that is the establishment of quarterly newsletters of which this is the first. These newsletters will feature news of the many exciting projects that are taking place with the Scrolls and also in honouring the lost Jewish communities from where the Scrolls originate. We will also of course let you know about the ongoing work of the Memorial Scrolls Trust. If you have news or articles that you would like to share with us, or would like us to publish, then please do get in touch. Feedback on our newsletters would also be appreciated. In the meantime, thank you for reading and we hope that you enjoy our first newsletter.
OSTRAVA AND ITS JEWS: RECREATION OF A VIRTUAL COMMUNITY
by David Lawson (MST Advisory Committee)
From the inspiration of sefer torah on loan from the MST, a group in Kingston upon Thames in SW London, UK, have effectively recreated, in virtual and partly in actual reality, the destroyed Jewish community of Ostrava. David Lawson, the leader of the group, explained:
“It started as a simple historical research project, to find out where Ostrava is; what it was like; who lived there and how they lived; and what happened to them. The idea was to remember them, as we are the heirs of the Ostrava Jewish community, who had effectively bequeathed their sefer torah to us in Kingston. At the same time, the information would be used for educational purposes.
We quickly built up a picture of a modern dynamic town which was where the coal, iron and steel industry had developed. Ostrava grew from a small group of villages with a combined population of less than 2000 in 1780 to an economic powerhouse of 225,000 inhabitants in less than 150 years. The Jewish population grew from effectively none to about 10,000 in that time, with fine synagogues and a diverse and wealthy community. We also found and made contact with Ostravaks who had survived the Holocaust and their families, and interviewed them, building up an archive of our own of Ostrava stories, photographs and documents. The Jewish Museum in Prague are collaborating in the project and all the material we have found will be held by them and entered on their data base so that future generations of researchers will have access to it and the memory of the Jews of Ostrava will be preserved.
We started to write and circulate a quarterly Newsletter (downloadable here), and this produced a continuing stream of responses from people worldwide who recognise names and families, are interested in Ostrava, wish to make contact with someone, or who contribute their own family history. In this way, we have reconnected members of several families who had lost touch with each other; re-introduced old friends after a gap of over 60 years and been able to provide family histories and genealogies. The city authorities in Ostrava have been helpful and welcoming of all these activities and so we have slowly recreated an Ostrava Jewish community in virtual reality.
But we have gone further, and organised a trip to Ostrava for survivors and families. This has encouraged other families to arrange their own “pilgrimage” to the place where their family came from. Some of them wished to commemorate family members, murdered by the Nazis, so – with the help and support of the City authorities – we have arranged to lay over 40 Stolpersteine in Ostrava. Where it is not possible to lay Stolpersteine we have arranged to have plaques fixed in the Ohel in the cemetery.
Survivors and their family and friends like to meet to talk about the happy times before the war and to learn about the latest research results, so we have organised an annual tea-party. For the past few years, with the kind permission of H.E. The Ambassador, this has been in the Czech Embassy in London and 50 or 60 people attend. We have a display of photographs and documents and, on one occasion one of our Ostravaks who is a retired concert pianist played a delightful tango written by another Jewish Ostravak, before the war.
The Ostrava story is spreading. We have given talk on Ostrava and its Jews and on the research project to many groups in the UK and in the Czech Republic, including to students at the University of Olomouc who were able to follow the talk which was in English! And finally, the story is being properly written up and will – we hope – be published next year.”
THE STORY OF THE RESCUE OF THE CZECH SCROLLS
by Tony Yablon (MST Advisory Committee)
The story of how the Czech scrolls arrived at Westminster synagogue is truly remarkable.
My father, Ralph Yablon, (pictured), was grateful to have had the opportunity to play a part in rescuing 1,564 Czech scrolls from a synagogue in Prague, which had effectively become a warehouse. Many of the scrolls were already in poor condition and many were deteriorating.The rescue, and the subsequent repair and distribution of the scrolls around the world, required many other people.
In 1963 a well known London art dealer, Eric Estorick, a friend of my father, was working with Artia, a state entity under the Czech Communist Government with responsibility for the country’s cultural heritage – and this included the scrolls. Estorick was informed by Artia that they wished to hand over the scrolls in return for payment. Estorick passed this information to my father, whose initial reaction was that, although the payment was not a problem, the responsibility for such an undertaking was enormous .My father sought advice from Harold Reinhart, the first Rabbi of Westminster Synagogue in London and a close friend. Reinhart was a very spiritual man and his immediate response was that the opportunity to bring the scrolls to Westminster synagogue was a divine call. He pointed out that the Westminster synagogue building had a whole floor which was not being used. A number of synagogue members were found, notably Ruth Shaffer, the first chairman of the MST, to take on the onerous task of being responsible for so many scrolls. So the decision to acquire the scrolls was made.
I will never forget the day, 7 February 1964, when 1,564 scrolls arrived at the synagogue. My wife and I, together with a few other members of the synagogue, were there, waiting for the arrival. We helped to carry them from the lorries into the building. It was a desperately sad sight. Wrapped in grey covers, they looked like dead bodies. And in truth they represented the members of all those communities who had been murdered by the Nazis.
The major problem was to find a sofer - a scribe – to carry out the task of checking and repairing such a huge number of scrolls. The solution to this problem came about in a truly amazing way. Quite early on, a man, Rabbi David Brand, knocked on the synagogue door one day and explained that he was a sofer seeking work and finding it hard to get any. He said that he presumed that the synagogue would have at least one scroll and that perhaps it might need a little repair. You can well imagine the sofer’s reaction when he was taken upstairs to see so many scrolls. He worked in the synagogue for nearly 30 years and did all the repair work himself.
Just before my father died in 1984, he told me that he felt that playing a part in the rescue of these scrolls was one of the most important things he had done in his life. All over the world these scrolls serve to ensure that the death and suffering of their former owners will never be forgotten. He would have been delighted to have known that the MST Centre, opened in 1988, and the improved Museum, opened in 2006, are helping to make the remarkable story known.
This is just a short and personal summary of my memories of the beginning of the MST. If you would like to know the full story, I can heartily recommend that you buy a book called Outof the midst of the fire by Philippa Bernard, published by Westminster Synagogue in 2005 and available from the MST.
CONTACT WITH THE COMMUNITIES AND THE SCROLL TRACKING FORM
by Shelley Laddie (MST Trustee)
When the new Trustees joined in January 2015 they prioritised the need to make contact with all the Trust’s scroll-holding communities. This is being achieved primarily through the Scroll Tracking Form. It is a key document for the Trust as it allows not only for the updating of the database but also for the monitoring of the wellbeing of the Scrolls.
In some instances, the receipt of the Scroll Tracking Form has served to remind a community of a Scroll that has all but been forgotten by them. In other cases, the Trust has learned of remarkable work done by communities in honouring those who were deported, killed and who might otherwise be forgotten. Members have visited the Czech towns town from where their Memorial Scroll came, have worked with the local community to pay tribute to their Jews and have undertaken various activities, including the laying of Stolpersteine. It was always hoped, and it is now written into the new Loan Conditions, that every Memorial scroll-holding community holds an annual commemorative service dedicated to the Jews associated with their Memorial Scroll.
The Trustees thank the hundreds of communities that have returned their Scroll Tracking Forms.The Trustees ask that those receiving one in the future appreciate what a key document it is to the Trust.
Please complete it and return it as soon as you can.
MST TRAVELLING EXHIBITION
by Sarah Derriey (MST Trustee)
Since its launch in December 2014, this travelling arm of the Museum has been hosted by schools and synagogues through out the UK. We are hoping to raise money for another exhibition which would tour North America.
My name is Sarah Derriey and I am the Trustee responsible at the Museum for the Travelling Exhibition which was launched in 2014. As a valued custodian of one of the 1564 saved Czech Scrolls who reveres its history please contact me if you would like to borrow the Exhibition. The display comprises of 12 banners with built in stands that showcase the work of the MST since its inception more than fifty years ago.
SCROLLS AROUND THE WORLD- TELL US YOUR STORIES...
We are very keen to be told and to share accounts of all of the developments concerning the Czech Scrolls. Here are a few that have taken place over the past months including a reunion of 18 Scrolls in Massachusets, a workshop event for 4 communities at the MST Museum, and MST Chairman Jeffrey Ohrenstein's recent trip to Arizona for a state-wide MST Scroll gathering :
"...there were 18 MST Sifrei Torah and there were a lot of wet eyes in the congregation. Rabbi Meszler and his community have done an incredible job and I was privileged to take part in the siyum." Sofer Kevin Hale of Temple Sinai, Sharon, MA. To read and see a slideshow of this event that took place in Spring 2016, click on this link.
Students from HaMakom, the pluralistic religion school that serves the communities of Mosaic (Mosaic Liberal, formerly Harrow & Wembley Progressive; Mosaic Reform, formerly Middlesex New & Hatch End Masorti) and Kol Chai Hatch End Jewish Community, came to Kent House to hear the story of the Czech Scrolls and learn more about history of their own scrolls as well as to take part in a workshop. To see photographs and learn more about their visit in October 2015, click here.
MST Chair Jeffrey Ohrenstein recently travelled in 2015 to Phoenix, Arizona to attend the first ever state-wide MST Scroll gathering in the State. The report that was in the Phoenix Jewish News online may be accessed here with additional photographs and video clips of the Torah procession.