Stories that connect us- from Memoirs from Boskovice and Dvur Kralove, to meeting together on Zoom, and back to our new bookshop MSTshop.org
60 in '24
MST Newsletter April 2021
Friends, welcome to the 16th issue of our Newsletter.
We are building to 2024 and the 60th anniversary of the Czech scrolls arriving in London. We look forward to your offer to host Scroll Gathering Celebrations for scroll holder communities in your region. We encourage you to plan your own community celebrations honouring the memory of the Czech Jews who once worshipped using your Czech Torah Scrolls. We look forward to telling you many more stories about people from Bohemia and Moravia who survived the Holocaust.
We are delighted with the number of people visiting the MST Shop. We welcome suggestions of any book with a Czech Jewish connection, just send the book's name and author, we can do the rest.
The Czech Jewish Memoirs project keeps building. Please send any memoirs and essays about Czech Jews and Jewish life in Bohemia and Moravia that you have so we may add them to our archives.
Our Czech Torah Web page project for Scroll Holder Communities has grown to 450 links. We look forward to seeing your community's web page about your Czech Survivor Scroll.
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.
The Torah scroll of Boskovice finds a new home in Pennsylvania
This article was written by Charles Ticho for the Jerusalem Post He and his family facilitated the donation of a scroll that is now in The Jewish Day School of the Lehigh Valley
In 1899, when the Torah scroll had already reached the venerable age of 85, it may have been read during the bar mitzvah of my father, Nathan Ticho.
Few tourists these days visit the small town of Boskovice. It isn’t usually part of a tourist’s itinerary. As a matter of fact, while the capital of the Czech Republic, Prague, is today one of Europe’s major tourist attractions, all of Moravia is considered to be off the beaten path and is usually ignored by visitors.After the First World War ended in 1918, Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia and Subcarpathian Russia were combined to form Czechoslovakia. Under the benevolent and liberal administration of the first president and founder of the republic, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, this mixture of Czechs, Germans, Hungarians, Roma, Poles, Russians and Jews thrived and lived in comparative harmony.
In the center of Moravia, which together with Bohemia forms today’s Czech Republic, is the town of Boskovice. Boskovice was probably founded in the 11th century and, at one time, had one of the largest Jewish communities in the country. Today it features the ruins of a 13th-century Gothic castle, St. Jacob’s Church, an Empire château, a large synagogue and the Jewish cemetery of Boskovice, which was established in the 17th century and is one of the largest in the Czech Republic.
The first mention of a Jew in Boskovice was around 1343. By 1589, there were 148 Jews living in 25 family houses. At the turn of the 18th century, there was an active yeshiva and by the mid-19th century, the Jewish population comprised one-third of all Boskovice inhabitants.The Synagogue Maior (Large Synagogue) was built in 1698. In 1705, it was upgraded with beautiful painted decorations and Hebrew liturgical texts on many of the interior walls. During the Holocaust, all the Jews of Boskovice, including many members of the Ticho family, were deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp and from there to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. The 14 Jews who survived the Holocaust did not return to Boskovice, and there are no more Jews there today. The Synagogue Maior survived, but two small synagogues were destroyed. From 1943 up to the 1990s, the Synagogue Maior was used as a storehouse. All the walls were painted white. In 1999, a restoration began and it was then when the old murals were discovered and restored.Boskovice was known as a center of prominent Talmudist scholars. The most famous of these was Samuel ha-Levi Kolin, who is buried in the local Jewish cemetery. In 1851, Rabbi Placek of Boskovice was appointed chief rabbi of Moravia and served until 1884. In 1942, at the height of the Nazi power, 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.
The plan was that, after the anticipated Nazi victory, a “Museum of an Extinct Race” would be established. The Nazis were persuaded to accept this plan, and they ordered all Jewish communities to send their ritual objects to Prague. More than 100,000 artifacts were brought to the Prague Museum. Among them were about 1,800 Torah scrolls, which were stored in the closed synagogue at Michle, a small town that became part of Prague, where they remained until they were discovered and were brought to London.Today, Subcarpathian Russia has been absorbed by its neighbors, and the Slovaks have decided to go their own way. Typical of the non-confrontational nature of the Czechs, the parties split amicably, and Bohemia and Moravia now form what is today the Czech Republic. One could easily assume that the ethnic Czechs living in Moravia, surrounded as they were for the past millennium by militant countries such as Germany, Austria, Poland and Russia, might have been the victims of constant turmoil.Actually the opposite was true. Moravia, located off the path of the Crusaders, away from the conflict between the Catholic Church and Protestant firebrands and of relatively little economic and political importance, was usually bypassed and ignored as power struggles made the rest of Central Europe a focus of many conflicts.So it shouldn’t be a great surprise that even today, most of the visitors to Boskovice are not foreign citizens but rather Czech nationals. They climb the lovely wooded mountain to visit the fortress that once dominated the valley below or tour the castle at the bottom of the hill, which was, and still is, the seat of the Mensdorff-Pouilly family, the aristocrats placed there by the Austro-Hungarian Empire centuries ago to keep the Czechs under control and to “protect” the Jews.It was the unique position of Moravia, away from the turmoil and turbulence that affected the rest of Europe, that created an unusual and fertile atmosphere for the Jews living in this region. While the kings in Prague and the emperors in Vienna formulated rules and edicts governing the lives of Jews, in Moravia these laws and regulations were often ignored or not enforced. As a result, Jewish life, with few exceptions, tended to be civilized and humane.Visitors to Boskovice, as a result, can wander a few yards from the castle and visit the well-preserved section of the town that once constituted the Jewish ghetto. They can walk the few narrow streets, look for signs of the Jewish life that once thrived there or examine the tombstones of the well-preserved Jewish cemetery and, perhaps, visit the old synagogue. This synagogue was already a hundred years old, when a local scribe sat down to carefully and painstakingly start the creation of a perfect copy of our sacred scripture, the Torah.By the time my grandfather was born in 1846 that Torah scroll had already served three generations of Jews as they gathered each day and on the Sabbath to practice the faith taught to them by their previous generations. In 1899, when it had already reached the venerable age of 85, it may have been used during the bar mitzvah of my father, Nathan Ticho. And when World War I started, the then-century-old Torah scroll continued to mark the passing of each year as it provided the sacred readings each time the congregation met to pray.Then, on March 15, 1939 the Nazis marched into the country. The synagogue of Boskovice was ordered closed and all of the congregation’s possessions, including all Torah scrolls, were shipped to Prague. Today, after a millennium of Jewish life in Boskovice, there are no more Jews in this city. The only things that remain are the synagogue, the cemetery, the streets and houses of the former ghetto and the sacred articles collected by the Nazis now stored and cared for in Prague by the Jewish Museum, including the 200-year-old Torah scroll. It and 1,564 other Torah scrolls were discovered by a British art collector. He returned to London and found a generous philanthropist who financed the transfer of these holy scrolls to the Westminster Synagogue in London. There, for more than 40 years, they were stored, cared for, repaired, restored and made available to synagogues all over the world.
In honor of our grandson Nathan’s bar mitzvah, after decades of searching for a home, the Boskovice Torah scroll, a survivor of the Holocaust, crossed the Atlantic and became part of the celebrations. My wife, Jean, and I had the honor, in the tradition of mi’dor l’dor (from generation to generation), to present this sacred parchment to our son, Ron, who, in turn, passed it to his son Nathan who placed it into the hands of Rabbi Allen Juda, who placed it into the holy ark of the congregation.Today, this sacred parchment, this honored and loved scroll, this Holocaust survivor, resides in the warm and friendly surroundings of Congregation Brith Sholom in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, passing on its power and inspiration from one generation to the next.
A presentation made to Temple Israel, Ottawa, Ontario, April 10, 2021
Shabbat shalom! Thank you, Rabbi Mikelberg, for inviting me to speak to you about the Torah scroll from Dvůr Kralove in your synagogue’s ark. Having that scroll puts your congregation in an exclusive club, one with only six members, each of which is a trustee for a Torah scroll from the destroyed Jewish community of Dvůr Kralove nad Labem in the northeastern region of the Czech Republic. I am here because my congregation in New Jersey is one. The others are in Newton, Massachusetts; Geneva, New York; Claremont College, in California; and in Wellington, New Zealand.
It is a great privilege for your congregation to be the custodian of this scroll. It is one of the 1,564 Czech Torah scrolls that were saved from the destruction visited upon our people during the Second World War. In nearly all of the countries they occupied, the Nazis looted the synagogues – melted, destroyed or scattered the ritual objects – and condemned our people to be murdered. But in the historic lands of Bohemia and Moravia, which today constitute the Czech Republic, they adopted another procedure. They permitted the Jewish community leadership to gather the ritual Judaica together and sent them to Prague, the capital city. The motives of the Jewish community were clear: to save whatever ritual objects they could possibly preserve; there was no way they could save all their fellow Jews. Why the Nazis allowed it is still a mystery.
In this way, the little Jewish Museum in Prague, which had been founded in 1906 and had about 2,000 items in its prewar collection, was dramatically expanded. By the end of the war, when Prague was liberated, the museum’s collection numbered over 100,000 items, stacked floor to ceiling in eight synagogues and 50 warehouses throughout the city, with very few survivors alive to reclaim their possessions or to reestablish the synagogues that had existed in interwar democratic Czechoslovakia.
After the end of the Second World War, the surviving Czech Jewish community, reduced by 85%, struggled to resume living. One of their challenges was figuring out how to cope with the extraordinary treasure of Judaica that had fallen so tragically into their hands. But just three years later – in 1948, a Communist government – totalitarian, atheist, more orthodox in its Communism than Moscow itself – came to power in a coup d’état and, among its other acts, nationalized the Jewish Museum. From then until 1989, when the Velvet Revolution brought an end to that terrible regime, the museum – dedicated at least in theory to the faith and fellowship of our people – was under the control of an atheist Communist state.
The Torah scrolls the Nazis had allowed to be collected were never put on display. They were stored in a disused synagogue in Prague until 1962, when the Communist government, looking for Western cash, sold them to an English art collector for £30,000, a much larger amount of money than it is today. (In those years, a new Cadillac cost $5000.) The scrolls were brought to London, where the Memorial Scrolls Trust was established and a sofer was hired to repair those that could be repaired. To the best of its ability, the Trust researched the history of each scroll. It then began distributing them in trust to living Jewish communities such as ours to enable the kosher scrolls – those fit for ritual use – to be given an honored place in the aron kodesh and be read to the congregation at appropriate times; and to display those that were too damaged for ritual use in ways that would honor the memory of the Jewish communities that were destroyed in the maelstrom of the Holocaust.
Your Torah scroll comes from a town called Dvůr Králové. My congregation in New Jersey is also custodian of a Dvůr Králové scroll, which we received in 1975. We have been living with our scroll, treasuring it, and researching its history and that of Dvůr Králové in the more than 50 years since. It is my privilege to speak to you on this Shabbat to share some of that with you.
If your scroll could speak, this is what I think it would tell you: “I am an aging survivor. I need you to be my witnesses so that the truth will not vanish, so civilization can be saved. If you are not willing to be my witnesses, then big lies – like those being circulated on Holocaust denial sites on the Internet – will permanently displace truth, you and your family will be endangered, and civilization will be doomed because everything that I stand for will be lost.”
On what basis do I make such a dark statement? How does your scroll get to carry so much weight, to be so central to our very survival? I believe that this scroll – like all of the others rescued from the Nazis – has the burden of conveying not only our understanding of God’s word and our people’s covenant with the Holy One, but also the knowledge? of the darkest period in Jewish history.
After we got our scroll, we tried to find out whatever we could about the Dvůr Králové Jewish community before, during and after the Holocaust. But until the fall of the Communist regime, all we could learn was that 111 Jewish men, women and children had been deported to Terezín and then to the death camps, and that there was no information about survivors. And we were told that the synagogue, a major structure whose dome, topped with a Jewish star, was clearly visible on the skyline along with the town’s church spires, had been torn down in 1966 as part of a renewal project to make way for a highway. And we were told that there were no names – not the names of survivors nor the names of those who were murdered. It was as if they had not been. They had disappeared and so, too, had their names.
The Dvůr Králové scroll in my synagogue is kosher and quite small and can be comfortably carried by our b’nei mitzvah. Every week, beginning in 1977, I would tell what I knew of the story of the Czech scrolls to the worshipers and guests at the bar/bat mitzvah service and the b’nei mitzvah would then read from that scroll and display it to the congregation. But there was virtually nothing I could say about our particular scroll, a scroll from Dvůr Králové.
Still, at the time, it felt like a great deal of information because, by the early 1980s, my wife Naomi and I had begun visiting Communist Czechoslovakia and everything was so secretive, closed and frightening there that getting any information at all felt miraculous. We became friendly with a few leaders of the small, fragile Jewish community there, but every time we asked about visiting Dvůr Králové, we were told it was many hours away – a long journey over virtually impassible roads. “And besides, there’s nothing to see there.”
We finally traveled to Dvůr Králové for the first time after the fall of Communism, at which point we learned that the roads were indeed bad, but not that bad, and that the town is only 65 miles from Prague!
With the revival of the Jewish Museum after the collapse of Communism, the files we had been told were non-existent or destroyed suddenly reappeared. By the end of the 1994, five minutes after I asked the then-new director of the museum about the Jews of Dvůr Králové, he handed me a computerized list of deportees from the town, all one hundred and eleven names we had been told about, in alphabetical order, with birthdates, transport numbers and, in some cases, the actual date of their murder.
With so much new information available, accessible by computer and transmittable by email, Naomi wrote a long monograph, which she called “Thus We Remember,” about the history of the Jewish community of Dvůr Králové and as much as she could discover about its individual members and their fate.
Just a few days before we were going to press with the document, Naomi had a very last- minute question she asked of the Jewish Museum even though she was sure it would yield no positive results: Had any children from Dvůr Králové made drawings or written poems like the ones that appeared in the book I Never Saw Another Butterfly and had any of these survived? We sent the names and ages of the children from the list of 111 names. Almost immediately, we got the answer: Yes, drawings and paintings by three of the Jewish children deported from Dvůr Králové had survived.
Appended to the email were 16 attachments, the work of Petr Hellman, Marianna Schonova and Ota Hammerschlag. We clicked each one open and, with chills looked at the work of three children who had been murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau, pictures that had probably not been seen from the time they were catalogued in the late 1940s until they were photographed to send to us for the book. Sixteen disturbing drawings are in the book: an incredible personal connection to the realness, if you will, of the Jews of Dvůr Králové and the horror of their story. Rabbi Mikelberg already has a copy of this book.
In the summer of 2005, Naomi and I finally traveled to Dvůr Králové with a copy of our monograph for the mayor who then took us to see the site of the synagogue. We walked about 500 yards from the City Hall to a heavily traveled four-lane road. This was where the synagogue had stood, said the mayor. And added: the city still owns the land. Perhaps we should put a marker on the site! Three years later, our congregation and the municipality erected a 10-foot-tall Jewish star made of interlocking granite slabs, with a dedicatory plaque at its base, crafted by a young local sculptor named Ota Cerny, who also put us in touch with Eva Noskova, the one Jewish survivor who still lived in town. and put us in touch with her. There isn’t time now to tell you about the incredibly moving dedication ceremony, to which I brought the members of our Confirmation class and their parents on a bitter cold day in February, but I will share with you one very telling story. In a phone call in advance of the ceremony, Eva described to me how fearful she was that the monument, which had been put in place in November 2007, would be defaced or even demolished on the anniversary of Kristallnacht. Instead, on the morning of November 10th, she went to the monument and found dozens of memorial candles and bouquets of flowers on the horizontal slabs of the star which had been placed there during the night, she had no idea by whom.
Eva also gave us a list of eleven names that were not on the official documents supplied to us by the Jewish Museum in Prague and had therefore been missing from our original list. Eleven more names. Eleven more memories rescued from oblivion. Eleven more names connected with your Torah scroll from D’vur Králové. We know their names! We know them as individuals with real stories, a real past – and no future. In my congregation, we read their names in the kaddish list, six names each week throughout the year, noting their age and the place of their death. We include the list in the Yom Kippur memorial book. We remember each of them along with our own loved ones who have died; they are part of our synagogue family and we mourn their loss, name by name.
Your Torah scroll offers you the moving, tangible opportunity to remember the past and to care for the future in its light. As trustees of this scroll, as spiritual heirs of the lost Jewish community of Dvůr Králové, you have a holy task: to tell the vital truth that needs to be told about the legacy it represents – the dark truth about the human propensity for evil, and its bright truth as well: Torah as a source of the wisdom we need to live by and to bring sanity into our world. With this scroll, you are accepting the obligation of bearing witness to the next generation. When the only survivors of the Holocaust will be scrolls like this, you and your children and grandchildren will be able to tell its story and, through the stories of the Jews of Dvůr Králové, tangible representatives of the six million who are no more.
This Torah summons us to be bearers of light in a world that has been considerably darkened by human cruelty. That summons is what we have always meant by the obligation to help bring God’s sovereignty into the world – kabbalat ohl malkhut shamayim. Torah, made most tangible in your Dvůr Králové scroll, calls us to the highest potential that lies within the human heart. May we be worthy!
Using Zoom, MST is delighted to offer sessions to provide educational content about the rescue and ongoing commemoration of 1,564 scrolls from Bohemia and Moravia. These scrolls survived the Shoah and have been spread around the world for safe keeping and to pay tribute to so many lost communities. Our story resonates with all kinds of people: scroll holders, non-scroll-holders, people of all faiths and backgrounds but especially seniors and B’nai mitzvoth students. Our virtual content can help educate and entertain during this unusual time of social distancing requirements.
We offer, free of charge, opportunities to share our programming and expertise with your congregations. We have volunteer Experts available to speak about the following topics:
The Czech Scroll Story: From Bohemia and Moravia to the Diaspora
Our Binder (wimpel) collection: Custom-made Textiles representing 200 years of Jewish life in the Czech Republic
Czech Jewish Towns: A photo journey about the towns that held scrolls
We are reminding scroll holders that, if possible, you should "air" your scrolls, to stop the build up of any moisture or fungal spores. Scrolls should be rolled from beginning to end once a year, even if your scroll is a Memorial and not readable. We do the same with our scrolls in the Czech scroll museum.
We were honoured in 2019 for Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, to accept the personal loan of a kosher Czech Survivor Scroll