Our Holocaust Memorial Scroll


Jews have lived in the region of the modern Czech Republic for more than a thousand years. Life for Jewish communities there over the centuries was much the same as it was for most of European Jewry: uncertain. The Jews of the Czech lands were subjected to periodic fits of anti-Semitic hostility and violence, sometimes even resulting in temporary expulsion. However, nothing they had experienced during the previous millennium could have prepared them for what was to happen in the spring of 1939.

In March of that year, Nazi Germany invaded the recently established nation of Czechoslovakia, and declared it a "German Protectorate". The Nazi military administration immediately ordered Czechoslovakia's Jews to wear a yellow Star of David, signaling that they were now formally stripped of their citizenship and regarded as "no longer wanted" ("unerwünscht"). Throughout Czechoslovakia, the Nazi authorities assumed control of Jewish businesses and shut down Synagogues. In 1941, the Nazi military began to deport Czechoslovakia's Jews to slave labor camps and killing centers.
Remarkably, in the midst of these deportations, the Nazi regime suddenly announced that it would permit Czechoslovakia's Jewish communities to store their ritual possessions in the Central Jewish Museum of Prague, the capital. As a result, during 1942, hundreds of packages containing Menorahs, Shofars, Tallesim, Tefillin, Mezuzahs, Passover plates, Purim Scrolls and of course ornamented Torah scrolls arrived at the doorstep of the small Central Jewish Museum. The volume of Judaic objects sent by Czechoslovakia's synagogues was so great that more than forty warehouses were required to shelter them. The treasured items and their places of origin were painstakingly catalogued and recorded by the museum's Judaic scholars. During this period, over 50 Jewish staff members worked for the German authorities, creating what would one day come to be known as Prague's "Precious Judaic Legacy". When their work was completed, almost all were deported to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps.

What exactly was Germany's interest in this enormous storage project? Why didn't the Nazi regime destroy Czechoslovakian Jewry's ritual objects as it had destroyed the same objects throughout Europe? And perhaps most baffling, what interest could Nazi Germany have possibly had in the nearly two thousand Torah scrolls stored in the Museum? Eventually, this enigma gave rise to a rumor: The German government was hoping to one day turn the enormous collection of Judaica amassed in Prague into a "Museum of an Extinct People." Indeed, some even believed that the Torah scrolls were meant to go up in flames in an enormous bonfire celebrating Germany's annihilation of European Jewry! There is, however, absolutely no evidence in support of any of these rumors. To this day, historians continue to puzzle over the mystery of Prague's Jewish Museum and the survival of its Torah scrolls.

The next chapter in the story of the Holocaust Memorial Scrolls is also shrouded in mystery: In 1948, just three years after Germany's defeat, Czechoslovakia was overrun yet again - this time by Soviet Russian troops, bringing the country under the hegemony of Soviet Russia. Soviet Communism, which was officially antagonistic toward all forms of religiosity, was especially hostile toward Judaism. And the newly installed Communist Czech government was no exception. No sooner had the Russian occupation been completed, than the handful of Jewish congregations that had survived the war were compelled to close. (Most of Czechoslovakia's Jews, consisting of approximately 350 communities, had been murdered by Nazi Germany.) Remarkably, however, the Czech government decreed that Prague's Jewish Museum would be protected and maintained by the Soviet State of Czechoslovakia! Indeed, the museum would henceforth be referred to as the "State Jewish Museum".  What was the Soviet government's interest in the museum? This question is the subject of much speculation. Did the museum's Judaic treasures serve as a Communist propaganda device, showing the world that, unlike Hitler's racist fascism, Soviet Communism truly cared about its ethnic groups? Was the museum maintained simply out of sensitivity to public opinion abroad? Or was the museum seen as a possible attraction to foreign tourists and their dollars? This question may never be satisfactorily answered.

In the late 1950's, the Czech government decided that it was no longer interested in preserving the Torah scrolls stored in the museum. The scrolls were therefore transferred to a ruined, leaky synagogue in the outskirts of Prague where they remained, stacked from floor to ceiling, condemned to slow decay. Remarkably however, in 1963, an agent of the Czech government approached a London art dealer visiting Prague with an odd question: "Do you have any interest in purchasing Jewish scrolls?", he asked. The art dealer conveyed this strange offer to one of his customers, a noted Jewish philanthropist named Ralph Yablon. Mr. Yablon, in turn, informed Rabbi Harold Reinhart, spiritual leader of London's Westminster Synagogue about the matter. Rabbi Reinhart, who was evidently intrigued, immediately dispatched an expert to Prague to examine the Torah scrolls. The report brought back by the expert propelled Rabbi Reinhart to implore Mr. Yablon to negotiate a deal for the scrolls with the Czech government at once. Mr. Yablon did so, and indeed generously agreed to fund the purchase of the scrolls himself. Thus, in February, 1964, 1,564 Czech Torah scrolls arrived at the Westminster Synagogue of London!

During the next several months, Rabbi Reinhart assembled a team of local Orthodox rabbis who volunteered to inspect the Torah scrolls. The team was tasked with the work of determining which were Kosher, which were so badly damaged that they could only serve as memorials and which might be repaired.

It was decided by the rabbinical team that approximately 1,000 Torah scrolls were in need of repair. But would these Torahs ever be rendered Kosher and used again? According to a story that has assumed legendary status, an ultra-Orthodox Scribe by the name of Rabbi David Brand happened to be in London at the time looking for work. As he walked in the vicinity of Hyde Park, he noticed the Westminster Synagogue, and knocked on its door. Rabbi Brand, speaking in Yiddish, asked, "Do you have any Torahs in need of repair? "Yes!" came the receptionist's enthusiastic reply, "We have many! Do come in!" That serendipitous encounter appears to have been "bashert" – divinely meant to be: For over the next twenty-seven years, Rabbi Brand performed his holy work in a room at the Westminster synagogue! During those years, he repaired approximately 1,000 Czech Torah scrolls, rendering them Kosher for use in synagogues around the world.

In the meantime, a "Memorial Scrolls Trust" was established at the Westminster Synagogue charged with the mission of distributing the Czech Torahs to Jewish communities, and keeping track of them. The Trust has distributed 1,564 scrolls as "permanent loans", to fortunate congregations worldwide.

Congregation or Shalom is one of these fortunate congregations! For in 1970, Civianne & Eric Bloch, longtime members of our Synagogue, traveled to London in hopes of obtaining a Czech Memorial Torah. The Torah they brought back with them is "Memorial Scroll #984", from the town of Sobeslav, written in the year 1810. Years later, this Memorial Torah was generously reconditioned by Holly & Ian Green, also longtime members of our Congregation.

We read from our Memorial Scroll every Yom Kippur and every Holocaust Memorial Day. It occupies a cherished place in our Holy Ark, one of 1,564 silent messengers. What is the message of these scrolls? To my mind, it may be summarized in one Yiddish word: "Gedenk!" "Remember!" "Please Remember us!"

With Shalom,
Rabbi Alvin Wainhaus

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