Stories that connect us- from Bohemia and Moravia to New York, Tucson, and London
MST Newsletter Summer 2019
Friends, welcome to the 10th issue of our Newsletter.
The Tri-State Scroll Gathering
We had a very successful scroll-gathering in New York in February (see Rabbi Patz’s article below). Whilst in New York I was invited to also speak at the Yavneh Academy in Paramus. The Jewish Federation of Allentown arranged for me to give talks at the Jewish Day, a Federation lunch and also at a local Church.
New Scroll Holder Communities
We have been able to make new Scroll loans to communities in Canada, Switzerland, Australia and the USA during the past year. Although all viable Czech Torah scrolls were allocated many years ago, when Scroll Holder communities close, or merge with another of our scroll-holders, scrolls become available for new loans.
One of our projects is for our website to list the towns our scrolls came from, together with information about their Jewish history and the fate of their Jews. In addition to information, we shall be adding photos. We have been extremely fortunate and are very grateful to Sheila Pallay and her husband Herb, who kindly volunteered to visit the Czech Republic to photograph synagogues and other places of Jewish interest. They have just returned to the USA after spending two months in Bohemia in the Czech Republic and will be returning later in the year to Moravia to complete their work.
Jeffrey Ohrenstein, Chairman
PS We publish many short articles and Czech Scroll Museum visitor pictures on our Facebook page - please click Facebook Like to keep in touch with us.
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis
A very special event was held at the home of Chief Rabbi Mirvis on May 22nd, when MST Trustees and others involved with the Czech scrolls attended the presentation of Czech Sefer Torah MST#1458 to the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. This Sefer Torah, allocated on loan like all our scrolls, will be kept in an Aron Kodesh and used regularly for services.
Chief Rabbi Mirvis opened our travelling exhibition in 2014, has visited our Czech Memorial Scrolls Museum and has continuously shown interest and support of the work we do, both within and outside the Jewish community which we felt could best be recognised by his becoming a custodian of one of our Czech scroll.
It is appropriate that Torah MST#1458 is an Orphan scroll, provenance unknown, from a town in Bohemia and Moravia, a survivor and silent witness of the Shoah, that represents all those communities the Nazis destroyed. This Torah has been meticulously restored by Sofer Bernard Benarroch, who arranged for it to be computer checked in Jerusalem.
The Memorial Scrolls Trust represents all branches of Judaism and has allocated some 1300 scrolls to communities around the world, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, as well as some to non-Jewish institutions.
We hope that our scrolls can encourage people to remember what they have in common rather than what divides them.
A new Trustee, from North America
We are delighted to announce the appointment of Lois Roman as a Trustee of the Memorial Scrolls Trust (MST).
The MST is a registered UK charity, that was set-up by the Westminster Synagogue (WS) to take over the responsibility for the 1564 scrolls that survived the Shoah in Prague and were brought to London in 1964.
An independent charity, we retain close links with the WS who have the right to appoint our trustees. The MST and our Czech Memorial Scrolls Museum are located in Kent House, that is also the home of the Synagogue.
Not only is Lois the first non-UK resident to be appointed as a trustee, but she is also the first trustee to be appointed who is not a member of the Westminster Synagogue.
Lois has been volunteering for some time and took responsibility for arranging our very successful scroll-gathering at Temple Emanuel in February in which 73 Sifrei Torah, from 10 States and nearly 800 people participated.
The majority, over 1000, of our scrolls are in the USA and we are looking for volunteers in different States to help us maintain communications with our scroll-holders, make them aware of the heritage of their scrolls an encourage them to use them for memorials, education and inter-faith work as well as for services.
New Tucson synagogue receives historic Torah
A congregation can exist without a building and it can exist without a rabbi, but it cannot exist without a Torah, according to Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon of Congregation Beit Simcha in Tucson.
When Beit Simcha opened its doors last October, it had its Torah — one steeped in a rich history.
The synagogue recently acquired one of the historic Czech Memorial Scrolls from the Memorial Scrolls Trust in London. It’s one of 1,564 Torahs representing the hundreds of Jewish communities in Bohemia and Moravia that were erased during the Holocaust.
“All of us at Congregation Beit Simcha are incredibly touched to have been permanently lent a Torah that was saved from destruction during the Holocaust,” Congregation Beit Simcha President Craig Sumberg said. “It gives that much more meaning to our experience when we read from the scroll each week.”
Cohon, who was the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Tucson for 19 years, recently became the senior rabbi for Beit Simcha and wanted a Torah that felt significant for his new congregation, but could still be used for services. He turned to the Czech Memorial Scrolls because he was well acquainted with them and their history.
In 1939, the Nazis invaded Bohemia and Moravia in what was then Czechoslovakia, and took over Jewish businesses and properties. They also closed down all synagogues and confiscated any and all religious items, holding them in 40 different warehouses across Czechoslovakia.
The Memorial Scrolls Trust’s website includes information from a 1930 census that states at the time there were more than 100,000 Jews in Bohemia and Moravia, and more than 350,000 in all of Czechoslovakia. Today in the Czech Republic, there are only about 4,000 Jews. The Memorial Scrolls Trust’s website also notes there were 350 synagogues in the area, 60 of which were destroyed.
After World War II, the rise of Communism in 1948 stifled remaining Jewish communal life in Czechoslovakia. Many of the synagogues remained closed for decades and nearly 2,000 Torah scrolls from all over Bohemia and Moravia were sent to an abandoned synagogue in a small town outside of Prague called Michle, where 1,564 of them managed to survive.
The scrolls stayed in Michle until 1964, when Rabbi Harold Reinhart of Westminster Synagogue in London and a few congregants purchased them from the Czechoslovakian government, which at the time was adopting an atheist policy and was actively trying to sell religious objects.
In London, a team of scribes looked over each of the scrolls to determine which ones were readable and repairable. Some of them could not be repaired, but are still valued as religious objects. After the Torahs were examined and repaired, the Memorial Scrolls Trust charity was set up
and the scrolls have subsequently been allocated to communities and organizations around the world. The scrolls are never sold or donated, but are permanently on loan. Communities that close or merge with other Czech scroll-holders are obliged to return their scroll to the Trust. There are Torah scrolls from the Memorial Trust all over the world now.
Reinhart was Cohon’s great uncle and knew the story of the scrolls and had always felt that they had great importance, saying, “it’s much more personal for us than just any great or ancient text, because this is an old text that we can feel so personally involved with.”
Cohon knew that some of the scrolls were still available for loan, but he wasn’t sure if any were usable for the congregation. Luckily, he learned that a scroll recently had been returned to the Trust, so Cohon and his son, Boaz, went to London last fall and retrieved it in person because it couldn’t be shipped.
Transporting such an important and delicate object proved to be more difficult than Cohon expected. He discovered there weren’t many bags or suitcases that could carry a Torah scroll without possibly damaging it. He eventually had to settle on a bag designed to carry snowboards to hold the Torah on its voyage to Tucson.
On Feb. 9, Congregation Beit Simcha celebrated the scroll with Cohon’s parents, who helped to fund the trip to London.
Cohon said he is unsure where exactly in Bohemia and Moravia the scroll is originally from and admitted he probably never will know. But he said it is powerful being near it, and housing the scroll in Congregation Beit Simcha’s ark makes him feel as if he is a part of something much larger.
“We’re bringing to life a Jewish community that’s been destroyed and we’re doing so in a new Jewish community that’s just been founded,” Cohon said. “None of us knew any of the people in that community, but that scroll was there for their High Holiday services and their weddings and it was a part of their life.”JN
The Czech Scroll Gathering
February 5th 2019
at Temple Emanuel in New York City
The Torah scroll stands in the center of the Aron Kodesh with a larger scroll on each side. Most of the time, only its small physical size differentiates it from the other scrolls. Its mantle is part of the matched set of multicolor scrolls which declare in Hebrew that the world rests on three principles: Torah, worship and good deeds (Pirkei Avot 1:2). Oh, and the wood finials of this scroll are visible: its silver crown is mounted above it on the back wall of the ark. Only on a few special occasions do we use the unique mantles made for this scroll. The mantles we use for Yom HaShoah and Tisha B’Av are the ones that particularly distinguishes our congregation’s Holocaust scroll from the other scrolls in the ark.
Our Holocaust scroll comes from the Czech town of D’vůr Králové nod Labem, whose Jewish community was destroyed in 1942. On the Shabbat closest to Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, and on the Shabbat closest to the day when we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, this scroll is garbed in one of two special mantles, facsimiles of the scroll’s original mantle, created for our congregation by our late member Peter Layne, a fabric design genius.
Every bar and bat mitzvah at Temple Sholom reads from this scroll and carries it around the sanctuary to display it to the congregation, and yet because it is part of the “furniture” of the ark, we tend to forget its specialness. We respect it, we honor it, we reach out to touch it as it passes, but that’s all.
Sometimes, however, an event occurs that brings the story vividly back to our attention. Such an event occurred on February 5th at Temple Emanuel in New York City. The invitation to the event went out by email. There was no other public announcement, and yet there was astonishing response. Congregants from 75 congregations responded to the call for a gathering of Czech Holocaust Torah scrolls and they came – by car, taxi, bus, plane, train and even on foot – mostly from the tri-state area (NY, NJ and CT), but also from synagogues throughout New England and Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. and Virginia and other states in the southeast. The furthest scroll was brought from Washington State.
Naomi & I came from Puerto Rico to be there, representing two congregations. We brought the Torah scroll from D’vůr Králové which has been in the possession of our congregation since 1975, and we brought a short printed history of the Holocaust scroll in the ark at Temple Beth Shalom in San Juan together with a copy of WE ADOPT AS OUR OWN THE DESTROYED JEWISH COMMUNITY OF JIHLAVA, the 134 page monograph that the congregation published in 2010.
From 1964, when the Memorial Scrolls Trust started distributing the scrolls to congregations around the world, until 1989, when Communism collapsed, Cold War fears kept the congregations with Czech scrolls from knowing anything about their scrolls except the name of the town from which the scroll had come. No information about the Jews who had been deported. None of their names, their ages, their stories, or where they were murdered. Nor did we know if scrolls from the same Czech congregation were in the possession of other synagogues in the West.
Since the end of Communism, there has been a radical change. The gathering of the scrolls at Temple Emanuel, with its procession of 75 scrolls witnessed by more than 800 people, was a brilliant and moving affirmation of Jewish memory.
Temple Emanuel in NYC is one of the largest synagogues in the world. The gathering took place in their main social hall, a large rectangular room with raised balconies along both sides of the enormous space. Along the balcony on the far side were two rows of huge, rectangular tables on which the scrolls were placed. Beside each scroll was a placard identifying it by its Memorial Scrolls Trust number, the Czech town from which the scroll had originated, and the name of the congregation that holds the scroll in permanent trust. Alongside our scroll, we displayed the two monographs about the scroll written by Naomi Patz, THUS WE REMEMBER, published in 2005, and CONTINUING THE STORY OF OUR HOLOCAUST TORAH FROM THE DESTROYED JEWISH COMMUNITY OF D’VŮR KRÁLOVÉ in 2015.
As participating congregations came in with their scrolls, the excitement was tangible – and mounted. People immediately started telling each other the stories: where their scroll came from, how their congregation learned about the Trust, how the scroll came into their possession, if their scroll was kosher or so defiled that it could not be used but only put on display, what they have been doing over the years to honor their scroll and the memory of the Jewish community of which in many cases the scroll is the only survivor. People compared the mantle designs and described the crowns and pointers (which they had not brought with them, per the instructions of the gathering’s organizers).
The dynamic chairman of the London-based Memorial Scrolls Trust, Jeffrey Ohrenstein, presented an informative history of how the 1564 Czech scrolls came to the Trust. The stories he told in his proper British tones kept the audience enthralled. The previous evening, Jeffrey had been part of a small delegation from the Trust that visited TSWE to see our own scroll and to meet Cantor Feibush, who helps curate the eleven scrolls we are temporarily housing for the Trust.
The main feature of the event was a solemn procession of scrolls down the center aisle of the room to the stage while the entire assembly stood and a violinist played variations on Hatikvah. Three rows of Torah scrolls were displayed. Some 800 people, many photographing and almost everyone with tears in their eyes. The gathering was certainly very sad, but it was also exhilarating.
Seven members of Temple Sholom joined Naomi and me at the ceremony. One of them was Laurie Katzmann, who had been in the original procession in 1975 that carried our scroll into the sanctuary under a huppah. Also attending was Janet Oettinger Eisenstein, whose late husband John Oettinger had been another of the huppah holders, as well as Carole Ravin and Ruth and Arnold Shurkin.
Harriet and Larry Plaxe were there too. Larry, a past president of the congregation, was especially thrilled to see that his photograph of the monument, which he took when he accompanied his son Robert on the Confirmation class trip that visited D’vůr Králové in 2008 for the dedication of the monument erected, a year earlier, on the site of the destroyed synagogue, was the featured photograph on the back cover of the brochure being
distributed by the Memorial Scrolls Trust. That photograph is also on display in the museum of the Trust at the Westminster Synagogue in London.
Our congregation’s custom is to read six names of victims of the Holocaust each week in our kaddish list. Each week the list includes two names from D’vůr Králové. These names are our tangible connection to the six million and all the martyrs of our people. The names of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust from D’vůr Králové are also included in the Yom Kippur Memorial Book. With their names, the Holocaust story becomes very specific and unforgettable. We are honoring the names and memory of people we never knew personally but who have become ours, part of our Jewish awareness that we choose to include as we shape our conscience and consciousness.
The current trend in Holocaust historiography focuses on individuals in order to help new generations grasp the horrible human devastation that we dare not forget. That is why we do what we do with our Torah scroll from the destroyed Jewish community of D’vůr Králové.
You had been in my dreams, imagination, At another time, another place, so long ago. When at first my eyes beheld your splendor Your ancient stones gazed upon me Giants rising in a narrow, dusty alley Wisps of green moss breaking the pattern Of square, grey, uneven hewn rocks. Epochs of history, carved deeply Enfolded before my inner eye.
I searched the shapes, contours of Majestic, silent, solid rocks Their weathered, sculptured faces Unchanged, unmoved, standing firm Against stormy winds of history Repulsing waves of enemies, invaders Unyielding in their stoic stance.
You have not changed, not aged You are as when I first beheld Your splendor so long ago. With benevolence you greet the masses Crowding, pushing, swaying frantically In silent, fervent prayer, foreheads leaning On your cool, comforting stones.
Eager hands of young an old Place tiny scrolls between your crevices; Prayers, promises, notes of thanks. You, mysterious source of hope, strength Witness to our people's glory Weeping at our people's fall.
As for me, should my feet not ever again Stand near your hallow ground, nor caress you Nor ever face you, rising from a now Wide open, paved square, no longer intimate, So unlike the Kotel of my youth. Your ancient stones, silent as ever Are in my dreams, etched in my heart forever.