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60 in '24
MST Newsletter September 2021
Welcome to the 19th edition of our Newsletter.
Welcome to the 19th edition of our Newsletter. We are looking forward to taking our Sefer Torah MST#1052 to Prague later this month where it will be allocated on loan to community Ec Chajim. We are extremely thankful to the World Union of Progressive Judaism who donated the money required to restore the scroll to kosher.
Rabbi David Maxa the Ec Chajim Rabbi, has been a friend of MST for many years. His first contact with a Torah was with #1052 at Kutz Camp in the USA. He also spent time at the Westminster Synagogue in London mentored by Rabbi Thomas Salamon. We are delighted to help Jewish communities in the Czech Republic where possible.
On behalf of the Memorial Scrolls Trust, I will hand over this SeferTorah scroll to Rabbi Maxa for Ec Chajm, on 27th September, at a Hachnasat Sefer Torah, kindly hosted by the City of Prague at the Patriotic Hall of Charles University.
On behalf of all of us at the Memorial Scrolls Trust I wish you, your family and friends Shanah Tovah u'metukah, a very happy and sweet New Year 5782.
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.
With an anguished, heavy heart I bid farewell to the year 5781. A year filled with sickness, spread With speed throughout the world Sparing only those who heeded words Of caution, encouragement, and deed.
With a trembling, shaken heart I hear the pounding rain drenching, Drowning fields, I see rising waves Carry, swallow homes, cattle, humans. A gentle, tranquil river transformed Into a roaring, raging stream of death.
With pain in my heart, visons in my mind I see before me vicious red, yellow flames Shoot up high on trees, reaching Toward heaven, sending sparks, engulfing, devouring forests, homes, Humans: a scorched earth in their tracks.
With sorrow, sadness in my heart, I recall The divisiveness, cunning ways of humans, Civility, honesty, caring, vanished- Concern for the other but a memory- A vision, a dream to be renewed.
Welcome to our New Year 5782! May it usher in a Renewal of spirit, Of Hope-a gift of unity to the World.
L’shanah Tovah-a year of health of body, of spirit and peace embracing the world.
Dear reader, sometimes the stories in the Steiner files of the MST speak for themselves. The third Steiner story does just that. The best thing I can do, is to get out of its way.
In a letter to Frank Steiner from the 8th of December 1986, Rabbi George Vida writes:
“Dear Mr. Steiner,
I read with great interest the report of a dedication of a Czechoslovakian Torah in our neighboring town Fremont. I wrote to the Rabbi of that Congregation and he suggested that I contact you directly. I have a very personal interest in your research of the Jewish communities where these Torahs came from.
I was the Rabbi of the Jewish community of Gablonz a/N (Jablonec n/N) from 1930-1938 when we had to flee, first to Turnov and then to Prague, from where we left for the U.S. A. in 1939.
As you will see from the enclosed article, written by my wife, I saved a Torah from Gablonz a/N. This Torah is now very much at home in the sanctuary of Beth Tikva, Rockville, Md.
Three years ago, we were in London and saw the remaining scrolls in the Westminster Synagogue. We were so moved that we made arrangements to bring over one Torah from Kladno, CSR to Temple Beth El, Berkeley, CA, where we live now.
If there is any way in which I can assist you in your wonderful work, please do not hesitate to call on us. Hoping to hear from you, I am sincerely yours,
A Torah comes home
This is a story and like all stories it should begin with: “Once upon a time”, there was a Torah. It was a beautiful, proud Torah, one of nine scrolls. They all had their proper places in a dark mahogany ark and they were very particular about the order in which they were arranged. All week they waited for the one day, the special day, the Sabbath, when they would come alive. Now, when I say they would come alive, this is not quite correct; for normally only one, sometimes two were taken out of the ark. Oh, what a thrill it was, when amidst the chanting of the Cantor and the prayer of the Rabbi, the blue velvet curtains were pulled back, the richly carved doors opened and two strong hands lifted out a Torah. This was the big moment, to be chosen, to be read aloud.
Our Torah was selected more often than the others. She had been donated by a pious old woman, was written on the finest parchment, in big clear letters and dressed in a lovely royal blue velvet coat. Two mighty lions adorned the tablet with the Ten Commandments, embroidered in silver and gold. What a beautiful sight it was. Whenever the Cantor raised the Torah towards the Congregation, she seemed to grow even taller, almost majestic in all her glory and splendor. As the Congregation was proud of it’s Torah, so she was proud of them and their Synagogue. It was considered to be one of the most stately buildings in this thriving, industrial town in Czechoslovakia. Thus, for years our Torah brought knowledge and enjoyment, thereby fulfilling its mission; “the more you study it, the more you’ll love Judaism”.
Until one day. And this was not a Sabbath or a Holy Day. It was an ordinary weekday, when the doors of the ark were opened hastily. Several hands reached in to take out the Torah, all Torah scrolls. These were the hands of the Rabbi and some other men, but they trembled and there were no chants, no prayers to greet them. The Synagogue was empty. There was no sound, but the whisper of these men. This was not right. The sanctified peace and quiet of the Holy scrolls was broken. What had happened?
Before they could find out, they had been placed into small wooden boxes, two each. “Like a coffin”, our Torah whispered to the one next to her. The lid closed. A chapter in history closed. A dark, unhappy one began.
It was the time of Hitler, the madman. This town was too close to the German border: could be overrun by German troops any minute. Thus, it happened that one day in September 1938 an entire Jewish community, led by their Rabbi, left their homes overnight with what they could carry in their hands and on their backs. They took with them their Torahs and fled into that part of Czechoslovakia, where Hitler promised not to invade.
When they got to the first large city, the Rabbi approached the Jewish leaders and asked them to keep their Torahs for them “until such time as…” however it soon became only too clear that the time to return again would never come. This new home for the homeless was doomed to fall too. No price seemed to be big enough to pay for “Peace in our Time”.
There remained only one thing to do, in order to s[t]ay alive: Go! Leave this country forever!
The Rabbi’s wife had parents and family in the United States, who urged them to come immediately. Oh, but it was not as simple as that! There was a quota and there were visas and one had to wait and wait, while times was running out and the borders were closing in, slowly, but inevitably. How long this wait, how long!
When it became certain that the processing of papers would take many months, the Rabbi decided to take out one of the Torahs. He lifted out of the box the one he had read from so often, and removed the silver crown and the velvet coat. Then he wrapped the Torah into a plain white sheet and like a child, he carried it home in his arms. Home, by now, was a dark one room flat with an old coal stove both for warmth and cooking. Gently, he bedded the Torah down into a long narrow trunk, reciting prayers, while tears streamed down his cheeks. They formed tiny spots on the sheet and were like precious little pearls. The trunk was closed and shipped off to a warehouse in France to wait for a call by its owner; “Destination unknown”!
For almost a year the dark chest with its sacred contents was sitting, nearly buried beneath numerous other trunks, some of their owners never to claim them again.
Yet, there must have been something special about this, our Torah. She was one of the very few to survive the terrible holocaust.
Together with her Rabbi, she finally arrived in America in 1939. She was free, though silent in her box. For many years, while he served as a United States Army Chaplain, she kept on waiting and wondering: “Would she ever again become a source of living Judaism?”
Almost twenty-seven years have passed since that tragic day, when her wanderings began. Her beautiful Synagogue in Czechoslovakia was burned to the ground. But God in his infinite wisdom made it come to pass that another Synagogue has been built, as if to take it’s place. Miracle, over miracle, her Rabbi has told her that she is coming home at last.
This is the story. “But is it true?”, you will ask. “How do I know all this?”
“You see, I was there when it happened. The Torah was our special Torah and now, as she will enter her new home: Beth Tikva, I can hear her whisper imploringly: “Please, let me not ever be silent again!” Emmie Vida [Rabbi Vida’s wife]
The Jablonec Torah was saved by Rabbi Vida from the Sudetenland in September 1938, a couple of weeks before the Munich Agreement (aka Munich Betrayal to the Czechs) came into effect.
It was spared the malicious fire of the Kristallnacht of the 10th of November 1938, which engulfed the synagogue in Jablonec within two months of the Torah’s hasty departure.
And it left Europe for the safety of the United States with Rabbi George Vida in 1939.
The Jablonec Torah has thus become a uniquely saved Sudeten sister to our 1564 Czech Torahs, long before the call for their collection and shipment to Prague in 1942.
It can still be seen in the Tikvat Israel Congregation (formerly Beth Tikva), Rockville, Maryland.
This portrait of life in Brandỳs nad Labem is drawn from an interview given by Jiri Munk, to Terezie Holmerova, January, 2006, centropa.org, recalling his childhood.
In the late 19th century, there were 250 souls living in Brandýs who identified as Jews. Although they had achieved emancipation in 1860, allowing them to move to Prague (which many did), by 1930 only 60 of them remained. Others who were of Jewish origin, although they did not identify themselves as such, still remained in Brandỳs; they, too, would go in the Nazi Transports. There were about 80 of them in all.
The men in the Brandỳs community were mostly in the textile business, and had worked their way up economically during the first Republic (1918-1938). However, Mr. Umrath, who was of Jewish origin, owned the largest factory in Brandỳs , called Melicharka. His partner, Mr. Melichar, had been an ordinary blacksmith and locksmith, who made an important invention by improving seeding machines. He was poor, and made his machines by hand. When Mr. Umrath, who was wealthy, discovered this, he went to Mr. Melichar and they went into business together, creating the biggest farm machinery business in Czechoslovakia. The factory exported their machines all over Europe. Other prominent Jewish businessmen in the town were Adolf Munk, Jiri’s father, who was a lawyer, and Dr. Laufer, his close friend.
There was no organized Jewish community in Brandỳs . When the Munks were children, the community had already been secularized. There was no longer a visiting rabbi, nor was there any communal leadership. Munk recalls that a rabbi sometimes came from Prague to teach; however, he also thinks that there must have been some structured system, because the rabbi would have needed to be paid for his time. The community was neither Orthodox, nor Liberal, nor Conservative, and there is no record of anyone celebrating Passover. However, the community did observe the High Holy Days, and a rabbi was present for those.
The community consisted of the synagogue, which had originally been built in the Renaissance style, but had undergone reconstruction many times; the school, which continued to exist well into the 19th century; and the old cemetery, which was next to the synagogue. Jiri Munk has a recollection of walking around the synagogue with candles during Purim, which he recalled as a Jewish custom. He described the synagogue itself as “very beautiful – inside it has a vaulting roof like the sky, blue with stars.” That is his only memory of the synagogue, and it is shared with his sister Helena.
None of the Jews of Brandỳs spoke any German, possibly as a result of the influence of Rabbi Bondi. However, in his extensive interview with Centropa, Jiri speaks of having a devout Catholic nanny who knew German; he called her Nanicka. When he was a child, the family was not religious, although he did attend some cheder classes both before and after the war. Christmas, however, was observed in the Christian manner. He attended Catholic services with his nanny in Brandỳs and recalls a time when she pressed him forward to meet Cardinal Kaspar, who blessed him and gave him an autographed holy picture. He thought this might be one reason why he survived Terezin. He says that he only attended religion class during first and second grade; after that, it was prohibited by the Nazis. He enjoyed the classes because the rabbi gave him sweets. It appears that he attended class by himself, as he does not recall whether there were any other Jewish children there or not. He remembers little about the classes, except reading from the Old Testament.
Adolf Munk, Jiri’s father, was born in Brandỳs in 1887 to a poor family. Although he was not expected to attend high school or university, he did go on to both. Adolf’s sister and brother, Bedriska and Josef, did not go to high school. Since Adolf was not a particularly good student, he was sent to stay with his uncle, Rabbi Kohn, in Rychnov nad Kneznou. Afterwards, he studied at the Faculty of Law in Prague, where he also studied philosophy with Professor Masaryk.
In addition to his education, Adolf was an accomplished carpenter. He had a workshop where he made furniture – tables and chairs – and he gave away his products as gifts. He also painted. There was a studio in the attic from which he could see, through the window, a view over the Polabi landscape. Jiri remembers that his father painted beautifully, and taught the children some of these skills. Jiri’s sister wanted to be a fashion designer, but never did become one. In all, they were a talented family.
Adolf Munk’s closest friend, with whom he spent a lot of time, was Dr. Laufer. Dr. Laufer had a famous brother, Josef Laufer (1891-1966), who founded Czech sports journalism and radio commentary; he was never molested by the Germans during the war. He was of a mixed marriage, which helped him, but he was also too well known from his radio soccer commentaries to be in danger. The doctor and his family were not so lucky; they all perished in Auschwitz.
Jiri’s mother, Olga Nachodova, was born in 1897, ten years after his father. She was also from Brandỳs , but while she was still young, her family moved to Smichov, near Prague. Her grandmother was Aloisie Eisenschimmel, whose husband’s name was Jakob. Olga’s other grandfather was Simon Nachod, who had a “smoke shop” in the ghetto; they lived at building Reg. No. 105. Olga had two sisters, Elsa and Quido. When they were young, a very strict aunt or governess took care of them. Olga recalled Archduke Karel (the late emperor) and King Karel I (1887-1922, and the last emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1916-1918), staying at the Chateau in Brandỳs with their own regiment of dragoons. Olga thought they were beautiful “guys”, but her aunt and governess refused to let her meet them.
Later, when they lived in Prague, and after their mother had died, they were cared for by their grandmother Aloisie. She observed Jewish customs, including the dietary law separating milk from meat. While living in Prague, the family also bought a house in Brandỳs, which later became the Munk home. Olga’s father, Nachod, also happened to be a lawyer, and since Adolf needed an apprenticeship and training, he began to work for him. In this way, Adolf got a wife, a law practice, and a house, all at the same time. Olga, who was very attractive, married Adolf on 27th September 1923; he was 36, and she 26.
Jiri Munk did not think that his parents were well suited to each other. Olga was unhappy in the small town and frequently took a taxi to Prague, where she liked to visit cafes. Adolf, however, was quite different; he enjoyed tranquility, and although he had bad legs, he liked to walk with his dog, Rek, from the road through the fields in the direction of the village of Zapy. Sometimes Jiri went with them, sometimes Dr. Laufer. There were no cars at that time. Jiri was unaware of his father’s political opinions but thought that he was a social democrat.
Munk, therefore, spent his childhood in Brandỳs. His earliest recollection is of his dog waking him in the summer by jumping into the house in the early morning through an open window and licking his head. The dog was the same age as Munk and they looked out for one another.
The house had a veranda covered with purple clematis, which was edible in the summer. It was located on the main avenue, which Munk thinks was called Masarykova. It had two floors, but only a ground floor at the back, and faced north-south so that it was always cold in the front. The law office was located on the ground floor; on the first floor there was an apartment with about five rooms and a kitchen; and Munk lived upstairs in a room with his nanny. His windows looked over the garden. There was a cellar built into the hill where coal was stored, and a garden opposite with very old trees; later, these were cut down to make way for an apartment block.
The family employed a cook, a Mrs. Klouckova, who was a stout lady from a poor family, as well as another who helped around the house, in addition to the nanny. The family ate breakfast and dinner together at a large, round wooden table. Since they were from a poor family, they were required to eat everything on the plate; Jiri recalls that Viktor, his brother, didn’t like cauliflower soup. However, this lesson stood them in good stead during the war, when they learned to appreciate it.
Jiri had an older brother and sister. He described his brother, Viktor, as a greater rascal than he himself was. Viktor did not do well in school, which may have influenced Adolf’s choice of Jiri to take over the law firm one day. Jiri’s sister, Helena, was very pretty and considered one of the beauties of Brandỳs . A lot of boys would turn their heads when she walked by. The young people used to go on “dates” to Stara Bolesa, where they bought ice cream at U Horacku. Once, one of Helena’s dates bought ice cream for Jiri so that he wouldn’t tell his parents when he got home. Helena, however, did not exploit her assets because her mother had told her not to “think that you’re going to be some sort of beauty.” Despite her prettiness, she was miserable because she had freckles.
Munk recalls an incident with his brother when he was chasing him around the dining room table; his brother fell and dislocated his arm, and needed to be taken to Prague by taxi. Viktor said it “hurt like hell.” Dr. Laufer went with him. Viktor has a vivid recollection of being given the anaesthetic – when the mask was applied to his face, he screamed, “Dr. Laufer, help me!”
When Jiri was small, he did not associate much with other children. Every day, he went for a walk with Nanicka. They would go shopping together, where his nanny knew everyone and got all the latest gossip. They visited the Nobles’ Garden near the Chateau, where Nanny would sit on a bench while Jiri played. Despite being encouraged to play with other children, he resisted. He remembers the visit of the Romanian king, Karol I, before the war: a delegation drove in front of the house wearing feathered helmets on their heads. He also remembers the last Sokol Slet, held in 1937-38, which was national and regional games held every six years in Prague, and a “milestone in the Slet movement.” This included a visiting delegation of mainly Croats and Serbs, who formed a procession and marched to Prague.
Jiri did not attend kindergarten because he was with Nanny, but instead entered straight into elementary school. He was overweight when he began school, but quickly lost it. He did well in Grades 1 and 2 in most of his subjects. At one time, his father was called in and his teacher, Mr. Karhan, told him that his son had perfect pitch and should study music; he regretted that he never had the opportunity to do so.
He remembers Nanny collecting him from school, but he soon found this embarrassing and went home alone. The only other Jewish child in the school was Honza Lustig, who was a distant relative. Occasionally the Lustigs would come to visit; there were two Lustig families in Brandỳs , one who had a textile plant and one who had a beverage plant.
Jiri made friends with one boy, who was called Homolac. They played together at the Munk house, often playing ping-pong in the garden. Jiri was not permitted to leave the house, so Homolac always came to him. Although Munk had been “thrown out of school,” Homolac’s parents still allowed him to go to his house for some time, even though it was beginning to become dangerous. Jiri does not recall any problems with other boys and was not picked on. Instead, he refused to fight, saying that his brother was four years older and big for his age.
From 1939-40, when Jiri would have entered the third grade, Jewish children were no longer permitted to attend school. He claimed that he was fortunate to have begun Grade 1 early in 1938, before the age of six; otherwise, he would not have even had two grades. At first a special teacher was hired to come to the house, but eventually she became too afraid to continue.
He recalls that before the war, “I was still small.” He didn’t think about other people, whether they looked at the Jews in a different way, and he didn’t feel different from others. He was aware that his family was better off than most, and that the other children in his class at school were very poor; often, they were barefoot. Sometimes he would give his lunch away. He felt no sign of anti-Semitism from the other children; that did not begin until the Germans came. His father, who enjoyed a good reputation as a lawyer who helped the poor, is remembered there still.
After the war, Jiri went into third year at school. He couldn’t read or write properly and was missing four grades; he also did not know grammar, math, or the rudiments of education. Even at university, he hadn’t learned fractions and had to compensate for the little schooling that he had had during his childhood.
During the communist regime, when there were great changes throughout Czechoslovakia, he had great difficulty finding work. However, he lived through the Russian occupation, and at his retirement took an interest in philosophy.
Whilst many Jews changed their names and allegiances to avoid any link with Judaism, Munk was an exception. In or about 1959, he married a girl from the Synek family, who were publishers from Schweik. She had been registered as Catholic in the hope that it would help her in life; however, she had also been in Terezin and was one of the “kinderheime.” This was a particularly poignant connection between them. She had been one of the children encouraged to write poems and draw in the camp, under the remarkable direction of Frieda Decker Brandỳs , and was one of the last surviving children. Her drawings and poems are now preserved in the extraordinary exhibition and book, Butterflies don’t live here
Courtesy of David Goldberg from his book on MST#373 The Dublin Scroll. “The Jews of Brandỳs in the Habsburg Era [1526 – 1918]”
Have you booked your MST Conversation?
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
Many people volunteer for MST, helping our Scroll Holder communities to keep alive their Czech Sefer Torahs. For many years, Susan Boyer has been MST's Director in North America. Her deep knowledge of Czech Jewish Life is a rich resource for us. Her personal warmth and kindness makes it a deep pleasure to work with her. She has accepted to take on a new responsibility to support our Network of North American Volunteers. Our thanks to her.
And a personal congratulations to her husband David Boyer the recipient of the inaugural "Summit of Excellence" Life Time Achievement Award - Physician.