Temple Beth-El

Our Holocaust Torah

Meet Our Holocaust Torah, MST #1561 from Rakovnik

The Legacy of the Czech Memorial Scrolls

People are fascinated by the story of the Czech scrolls: how they were not destroyed; how they were not plundered or traded; how they remained together and forgotten as a collection in a deserted Prague synagogue for years; how they were rescued by the Westminster Synagogue in 1964 and put back into Jewish religious life.

It is a great story, and the success of the Memorial Scrolls Trust (MST) under Ruth Shaffer’s supervision is a great achievement that spanned 40 years. But it is much more than a story, and it is much more than any achievement. It is a key to opening a door to a whole aspect of Jewish life.

For most congregations who received a scroll, it was the most powerful symbol of the Holocaust that was in their midst. Its presence in their congregation acknowledged that they associated themselves with the Holocaust while having been spared being touched by this atrocity and the lifelong trauma of those who endured and of those who somehow survived.

The Czech Memorial Scrolls were celebrated on their arrival. After the euphoria of the ceremonies that welcomed them into their new congregation, they became part of the everyday life of the congregation. Synagogue life returned to normal, and the congregation went on with the things that congregations typically do.

They missed out on the benefit of having been part of the legacy that came with their scroll and all it could tell them about the sort of Europe from which most of them had come; a version of their own personal history that had been confused and often lost in the turmoil of emigrating from an oppressed life in Old Europe to a life with more opportunity in Britain, the Americas, Australia, South Africa, or, of course, Israel. They missed out on the benefit of being able to involve the children in their religious schools in an approach to the Holocaust that would interest them, because they could identify with some of the children who had to face the Holocaust, and they could picture a place somewhere in Europe that was special to them.

What Is This Legacy?

It is a legacy that belongs to all of us, but many of us are scarcely aware of it because we have very little connection with it.

We all know that we are, in most cases, the descendants of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. But many of us don’t have the picture of a particular place in our mind that exemplifies where we came from. After all, our grandparents’ roots come from all over the place, and few of us have been there. For some of us, the nearest we come to it are the cinematic images of Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof or scenes from Yentl. But we cannot depend on Hollywood for reliable images or objective information. So how would we feel if there were a place in the heartland of Jewish Europe with which we could feel a real connection—a place that we knew and recognized—and could even visit?

We know what happened to Europe’s Jews under Hitler, and for the most part we can’t bear to think about it. And if we do and if we go to a Holocaust museum like the one at the Imperial War Museum in London, the impact and the realism and the horror activate our subconscious defenses against such an assault on our emotions. We protect ourselves from identifying too closely with what it was like for those Jews who didn’t have our good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. And, anyway, we could never feel a millionth of what those people felt as they came face-to-face with the unimaginable.

And then there are our children or grandchildren.

The problem of getting children in the family or in the religion school interested in the Holocaust is a real one. Adults know that it is important for children to be aware of what happened and learn what it was about. The trouble is that most children seem to not want to deal with a subject that is interesting to their parents but is boring to them. They recoil from engaging in a subject which is unremitting bad news with no happy ending.

Brutal realism may be honest and truthful, but it is ineffective if it fails to engage the interest of those whom it seeks to engage. But is there a way to gain children’s interest and enable them to identify with aspects of the Holocaust and relate to it?

Each Czech scroll came from a congregation, and dozens of small Czech congregations existed in addition to the few large and famous congregations in Prague, Brno and Plzen. These small congregations were important only to those who knew them. Each had its own story, often going back centuries. Sometimes trivial and seemingly unimportant, they were often full of insights into the Jewish life of people who were probably more like our ancestors than we might imagine as we know so little about the lives of our ancestors and the history of our own congregations usually go back less than 100 years. With the scroll came an acquired history.

This Is the Legacy of Roots

The year 1848 marked the beginning of an era of escalating change for the Jews, as they emerged from the ghetto and became involved in aspects of community life from which they had previously been excluded. No longer restricted as to where they must live, freed from secular restrictions on marriage and able to enter the professions, politics and the army, the community of peddlers increasingly became a driving force in the economic life of the whole community.

In the case of the Czech Jews, October 15, 1918, marked the foundation of their own state and the beginning of what was later looked back on as the “golden age.” But for the Jews, it was also a period of deepening secularism and a time which saw the closing of many Jewish schools, the decline in local congregation numbers and the closing of many small congregations.

This Was the Legacy of Emancipation

The shame of the Munich Agreement in September 1938 and the betrayal of Czechoslovakia to the Germans brought everything to a sudden halt, particularly for the Jews. The image of Neville Chamberlain flying back to Heston aerodrome on September 30, waving his piece of paper and declaring “I believe it is peace in our time,” coincided with a largely unknown catastrophe for the Jews in the congregations of the Sudetenland area that had been handed to the Germans. Most Jews fled within 48 hours, never to return. Every Jewish community in Czechoslovakia was directly affected by either refugees or by those who took in those who lost everything. That is part of the story of each scroll, and it is a story that most Jews have never heard. Less than six months later, on March 15, 1939, Hitler entered Prague.

With war declared in September 1939, the Jews in all their towns faced a stream of unbearable restrictions and deprivations, and the children did not escape it. Throughout 1942, the deportations to Terezin took place from the various deportation centers across the country.

Graphic descriptions of the suffering in the camps and the horrors of onward transportation are attempts to bring home to us, who can have no conception of what it must have been like, the horror of what it was like. Whether these descriptions help us identify with the victims is a matter of opinion. What is important is that future generations of Jews should be aware that the deportation of the Jews did happen as well as when it happened, where it happened and who the victims were. If we can get our children and our children’s children to understand and appreciate sufficiently and personally that it happened and it becomes part of their overall memory, then we shall have made important progress.

This Is the Legacy of Destruction

And then, there is the Legacy of Remembrance.

Each of the rescued Czech scrolls is a messenger from a destroyed congregation, where no new generation will honor or remember those who went before.

When they were sent across the world to resume their role in living congregations, the scrolls took with them a message.

The message was to save the Jews of that congregation from the anonymity of being lost among the six million. For each lost congregation, there is a list of every Jewish man, woman and child who died at the hands of the Germans. With each scroll came the obligation to dedicate some part of the life of the new congregation, particularly the children in its religion school, to honor and remember its lost Jews as individuals, just as they would remember their own family and just as they would themselves wish to be remembered. No one wants to be forgotten, and we must not let our little group of Jews be forgotten.

A congregation that has been entrusted with a Czech Memorial Scroll has an obligation to dedicate one Shabbat a year to their Memorial Congregation and to include the Jews of their scroll in their thoughts and prayers on Yom HaShoah and Yom Kippur.

So why all this concentration on the Czech Jews? In numbers, they account for only 77,297 Jews out of six million. The reason is that with each Czech scroll, the connection with a lost congregation is easy and straightforward. Most living congregations do not have a Czech scroll, but they can dedicate one of their scrolls to a lost congregation somewhere across the heartland of what was Jewish Europe—Poland, Germany, Greece, Lithuania, Hungary and Norway. These Jews are just as important as the Czech Jews. The Czech scrolls have set an example. They have shown the way. They have put out the idea that focusing attention on one community that was lost in the Holocaust can help us understand and teach about what happened to the Jews more effectively than trying to take in the full scale and reality of the enormous panorama of the Holocaust.

The Legacy of the Scrolls is that it shows us how the little picture can help us better relate to what happened, to identify, to feel involved, to understand. Remembering is a very personal affair.

How the Scrolls Were Saved

When the Munich Agreement was signed on September 29, 1938, Britain and France agreed to Hitler’s demand to be given the German-speaking border regions of Czechoslovakia, and the Germans marched in.

The Jews from approximately 60 congregations in the prosperous industrial and commercial towns in the Sudetenland had two or three days to flee to the interior, which was still a free and sovereign area in Czechoslovakia. They left behind their synagogues, which were in German hands in time for the destruction that occurred during the Pogrom of November 1938, also known as Kristallnacht, when synagogues across the expanded Germany, which now included the Sudetenland, were burned or vandalized and looted. In almost every case, the ritual treasures of these Sudetenland synagogues were destroyed or lost.

In the remainder of Czechoslovakia, which included Prague, the synagogues and their swollen congregations were safe for the time being, and there was no pogrom of destruction, even when the Germans invaded the rest of the country in March 1939. In 1940, the congregations were closed down, but the Jewish community administration was used by the Germans to execute their stream of decrees and instructions. In 1941, the first deportations started and the mass deportations of the Jews took place throughout 1942 and into January 1943.

The Nazis decided to liquidate the communal and private Jewish property in the towns, including the contents of the synagogues. In 1942, Dr. Stein of the Juedische Kultusgemeinde in Prague wrote to all Jewish communities, instructing them to send the contents of their synagogues to the Jewish Museum in Prague. Thus, the Torah scrolls, gold and silver, and ritual textiles were sent, along with thousands of books.

The remaining Jews were deported in 1943 and 1944, but quite a number survived. The inventory of the Prague Jewish Museum expanded by 14 times as a result, and a large number of Jews were put to work by the Germans to sort, catalog and put into storage all the items that had come from more than 100 congregations in Bohemia and Moravia. It needed more than 40 warehouses, many of them deserted Prague synagogues, to store all these treasures. When the task was eventually completed, the Jews who had been put to this work were themselves deported to the Terezin concentration camp and death. There were few survivors.

It was once accepted that the accumulation of this vast hoard of Judaica was intended by the Nazis to become their museum to the extinct Jewish race. There is, however, no evidence that any such museum was ever planned. The Prague Jewish Museum had been in existence since 1906 and was not created in order to house the Judaica collected in 1942. In 2012, the Prague Jewish Museum published Ark of Memory by Magda Veselska, a history of the museum that includes a clear explanation of how it was the Jews of Prague who worked before, during and after the war to protect a legacy that was threatened with destruction.

After the defeat of Germany, a free and independent Czechoslovakia emerged, but it was a country largely without Jews. Most of the surviving Jews in Prague and the rest of Bohemia and Moravia were from Slovakia and further east from Subcarpathian Ruthenia. The Jewish population of Prague, which had been 54,000 in 1940, was reduced to less than 8,000 by 1947 and many planned to leave.

On February 27, 1948, after less than three years of post-war freedom, the Communists staged a coup and took over the government of Czechoslovakia. The Prague Jewish Museum came under government control and was staffed mainly by non-Jewish curators.

In 1958, the 18th-century Michle Synagogue became the warehouse for hundreds of Torah scrolls from the large Prague Jewish community and what was left from the smaller Bohemia and Moravia communities. The collection did not include scrolls from Slovakia, which the Germans had put under a separate administration.

Eric Estorick, an American living in London, was an art dealer who paid many visits to Prague in the early 1960s. He became acquainted with many Prague artists, whose work he exhibited at his Grosvenor Gallery. Being a frequent visitor to Prague, he came to the attention of the authorities. He was approached by officials from Artia, the state corporation that had responsibility for trade in works of art and was asked if he would be interested in buying some Torah scrolls.

Unknown to him, the Israelis had been approached previously with a similar offer, but the negotiations had come to nothing. Estorick was taken to the Michle Synagogue, where he was faced with wooden racks holding anything up to 2,000 scrolls. He was asked if he wanted to make an offer and replied that he knew certain parties in London who might be interested.

On his return to London, he contacted Ralph Yablon, a well-known philanthropist with a great interest in Jewish art, history and culture. Yablon became the benefactor who put up the money to buy the scrolls. First, Chimen Abramsky, who was to become professor of Hebrew Studies at the University of London, was asked to go to Prague for 12 days in November 1963 to examine the scrolls and report on their authenticity and condition. On his return to London, it was decided that Estorick should go to Prague and negotiate a deal, which he did. Two lorries laden with 1,564 scrolls arrived at the Westminster Synagogue on February 7, 1964.

After months of sorting, examining and cataloging each scroll, the task of distributing them began, with the aim of getting the scrolls back into the life of Jewish congregations across the world. The Memorial Scrolls Trust was established to carry out this task. Each Memorial Scroll is a messenger from a community that was lost but does not deserve to be forgotten.

Memorial Scrolls Trust, Revised 9/2/15