By MARILYN SHAPIRO

They escaped destruction, survived under Communist rule, and eventually found their ways to new homes around the world. This is a story of how three Torahs that were used and respected in long-gone Czechoslovakian synagogues were given a new life.

Escaping Destruction
Up until World War II, Czechoslovakia had a thriving Jewish population rooted in hundreds of years of interaction with its Christian neighbors. With the rise of Hitler, however, came the rise of anti-Semitism and The Final Solution. Throughout Europe, synagogues were burned and most Jews were deported to concentration camps and murdered.  Jewish artifacts, including Torahs, candlesticks, and prayer books were destroyed.

Some of the many preserved scrolls Photo courtesy of the Memorial Scrolls Trust.

The one exception was Bohemia and Moravia, with a population of 115,000 Jews, which was declared a “German Protectorate.” Miraculously, except for the items in Sudetenland, most of the Jewish artifacts remained unscathed during the early years of the war.

In 1942, the Nazis ordered all Jewish synagogue possessions in the region to be sent to Prague. The Nazis had planned a future “Museum to an Extinct Race.”

The Jews of Prague, believing the Judaica would be safer if stored in one place, worked with the Nazis to collect and catalogue over 210,000 items. It took 40 warehouses to store the treasures. Unfortunately, nearly every Jew who worked on the project was sent to his or her death in the concentration camps. Very few survived.

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The Czech Torahs survived the war but almost did not survive the Communist rule that followed. The artifacts, including the 1,564 Torahs, sat in a musty, damp warehouse until 1963. Then the Czech government, in need of currency, made an arrangement with Ralph Yablon, a philanthropist and founder of Westminster Synagogue in London and he put up the funds to ransom them. On Feb. 5, 1964, Torot and other scrolls arrived at the Westminster synagogue. They were divided into three categories: those in usable condition, those in need of some repair; and those deemed too far damaged to be restored.

It was set up in London to preserve and restore the Czech scrolls. They were loaned out to Jewish communities and organizations around the world in need of a Torah. The Torahs were never sold or donated, but allocated on loan on the understanding that they would only need to be returned if the synagogue no longer operated. Each congregation was responsible for the Torah’s upkeep. Each one had an identity plaque fixed to one of the etz chaim, the wooden shafts onto which the Torah is rolled.

As of 2022, 1,400 scrolls have been allocated on loan around the world, including at least six in the Capital District and surrounding areas. Those organizations with the scrolls include Congregations Beth Emeth, Ohav Shalom, Gates of Heaven, Temple Sinai, Beth Shalom, and Beth El. The University at Albany also has one on the third floor of its Science Library. Aproximately150 scrolls remain in the Memorial Scrolls Trust museum, which also has some 500 binders and wimples.

Experience In Clifton Park
I first had the honor of holding one of these Torahs as a member of Congregation Beth Shalom in Clifton Park. In 1981, the synagogue requested a replacement for three that had been stolen. The Czech Torah number MST#293 written circa 1870 was once housed in a synagogue in Vlasim. The scroll was allocated thanks to a gift from then congregants Abbey and Richard Green. It arrived from London with a tag that had been attached during the Shoah stating: “The Elders of the Jewish Community in Prague.”

At the time, Beth Shalom was less than 10 years old, Congregant Yetta Fox, she, the child of Holocaust survivors, said, “Having lost one community, there is now a new community that can nurture this Torah.”

In 2007, the parchment was repaired. That June, the congregation held a rededication ceremony, which included a procession from the Clifton Park Town Hall to the synagogue. The scrolls were passed from hand to hand under a chuppah. Upon its arrival, the Torah was wrapped in a wimple, the cloth traditionally used to wrap a boy at his circumcision. “This is our baby,” said Fred Pineau, a former president, “so we’re wrapping it on our Torah.”

David Clayman, the current president, reports that the Torah is still in good condition. To preserve it, however, it is left rolled to Parasah Beshalach, which contains “The Song of the Sea.” Every year, in the month of Shevat, the Torah is brought out and Beshalach is chanted. The congregation also brings the Holocaust scroll out for Simchat Torah. The Torah is also held during the  Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur. “The scroll is so fragile, we are afraid to roll it to other parashot,”said Clayman

A Temple Needs A Torah
When my husband and I moved to Florida, we joined Congregation Shalom Aleichem, which was founded in 1981. Initially, congregants had met at the Kissimmee Women’s Club. When Harry Lowenstein, a Holocaust survivor whose parents and sister were killed during World War II, joined with his wife Carol, he began to press for a building. “I saw a synagogue burn,” said Harry, “and I was determined to build another one.”

As the synagogue neared completion, the Lowensteins continued to work tirelessly to obtain the prayer books for both every day and holy days, the Torah finials, and the yartzheit (memorial) board. Most important to the congregation was obtaining a Torah.

Lowenstein and other members reached out to the Memorial Scrolls Trust, noting in the correspondence that four of its members were Holocaust survivors. “Our Temple will be dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust,” wrote then president Henry Langer. “We would therefore deem it an honor to have you lend us a Scroll for our Temple.” With the Lowenstein’s financial support, they were able to obtain Scroll MST#408, from Pisek-Strakonice in what was then Czechoslovakia, about 60 miles south of Prague and dated back to circa 1775.

Once they received word that they would indeed be loaned a Czech Torah, it was now up to the congregation to figure out how get it from London to Kissimmee. The Lowensteins realized that they had British friends who had a vacation home near the synagogue. “[Our friend] sat on the plane with the Torah on his lap for 12 hours,” recalled Carol Lowenstein. “He would not let it out of his sight until he could hand the Torah to Harry.”

For those who had miraculously escaped hell, welcoming the Torah was like welcoming another Holocaust survivor. “It’s like holding a piece of history,” said Phil Fuerst in 1993. “You feel like you own a piece of a world that survived.”

According to Marilyn Glaser, the congregation president, the atzei chayim are broken. The congregation is making arrangements for replacements in accordance owith the terms of the loan agreement with MST.

Used Once Again
In 1982, Sharon and Barry Kaufman, now residents of Kissimmee, obtained a Holocaust Torah for Jewish Community North, their congregation, located in in Spring, Texas, to note their daughter Robin’s upcoming bat mitzvah. While awaiting completion of their new building, that congregation was holding services at Christ the Good Shepherd Catholic Church. Their only Torah was on loan from another synagogue. The Kaufmans worked with Rabbi Lawrence Jacofsky, the regional director of the United Association of Hebrew Congregations, to obtain Scroll MST#20, written circa 1850, a Torah that had previously been housed in a synagogue in Kostelec/Orlici, Czechoslovakia.

When their Torah arrived at the Houston airport, Barry and Sharon immediately brought the Torah to the church to show Father Ed Abell, Good Shepherd’s priest. The three of them carefully unrolled the scroll to where the last Torah reading before the Jews in the community were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, Yom Kippur 1938. Father Abell then read from the scroll in Hebrew.

The Kaufman’s brought the Torah home that evening to show Robin. As they slowly unrolled the entire scroll their pool table to make sure is was undamaged, they found a cardboard tag that had been attached when the scroll was catalogued during the Shoah.

At Robin’s bat mitzvah in May 1982, the Torah was dressed in a cover sewn and embroidered by Barry’s mother. In a speech to the congregation held at Good Shepherd, Barry spoke eloquently about the Torah’s history saying,  “If this Torah could talk—might it share with us the heart-wrenching knowledge of a prosperous people whose world had suddenly been taken from them, whose home and synagogues were gutted and destroyed for the value of their belongings? Would it tell us of the helpless terror in the fragile hearts of old men and women forced to watch their children brutally slaughtered before their own end was to come?”

Clutching it tightly, Robin walked through the congregation. For the first time in two generations, a b’nai mitzvah carried it with joy and reverence throughout a tearful congregation

Three Czech Torahs. Three congregations. As Gloria Kupferman stated in her speech at the rededication of the Congregation Beth Shalom Torah rededication, contrary to the Nazis’ plan to eradicate the Jewish people, “We are by no means extinct, We are alive. We are thriving.”

 

Sources:

Jeffrey Ohrenstein, chairman, Memorial Scrolls Trust, London, U.K.

David Clayman, Yetta Fox, Marilyn Glaser, Frank Gutworth, Harry Lowenstein, Flo Miller, and Sharon and Barry Kaufman for their input.

https://www.albany.edu/news/releases/2005/nov2005/holocaust_scroll.shtml

https://bnaisholom.albany.ny.us/our-sanctuary-sp-845/

https://bethshalomcp.webs.com

https://cjcn.org

www.czechtorah.org/thestory.php.

www.memorialscrollstrust.org.

www.czechtorah.org/thestory.php.

https://www.shalomaleichem.com

https://www.sojc.org/holocaustmemorial/stories/czech_memorial_torah/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beshalach

By Editor

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