Attendees at the 50th anniversary event in London. (photo from David Schwartz)
Behind the treelike doors of Temple Sholom’s aron kodesh are six beautiful Torahs, each with its own history. The Torah in the centre of the top row is known as our Czech Torah. It is one of 1,564 scrolls rescued from Prague at the end of the Second World War and brought to London, England, in 1964 by a group of dedicated volunteers: the Czech Memorial Scroll Trust (MST). We honor our Czech Torah each year by dedicating our afternoon Yom Kippur service to it.
The Torah, on loan to the congregation from the MST, is officially known as Czech Memorial Scroll #1036, and it was brought to Vancouver in 1971 by Temple Sholom trustee David Huberman, who traveled to London on our behalf to chaperone the Torah to its new home.
Earlier this month, my wife Debby and I escorted Scroll #1036 back to London for something of a “family reunion,” celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Torahs’ arrival in London. In the years since 1964, most of the scrolls brought to London have found new homes around the world and, this month, for the first time, 53 of them were reunited.
It was a great pleasure to see the Torahs arriving, and a little humorous to see how different congregations found creative ways to safely transport these precious artifacts. One scroll from an American congregation arrived in a golf bag, while another was given free shipping and chaperone service from FedEx. Many congregations who were unable to attend in person sent large posters of their Torahs to include in the commemorative service.
Ours was the only one to come from Canada, and it was shipped in a hard-shell, foam-filled Torah case loaned to us by the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia. Air Canada was also very supportive of our journey, supplying us with two complimentary seats for the large case. We were seated right behind it so we could keep an eye on it the whole way. Coincidentally, Air Canada’s Vancouver crew handled other unique cargo the same day – the Stanley Cup.
The tragedy of these extraordinary scrolls is that they are often the only surviving relics of some 153 Czech Jewish communities whose members were deported and exterminated in the Nazi death camps during the Second World War. Our Torah is one of 18 from the small town of Sedlcany, located 60 kilometres south of Prague in Central Bohemia. It was written in 1890.
In the years after the war, a rumor spread that the Nazis had planned to create a “museum to an extinct race.” According to the MST, this has little foundation in fact. They do know that a pious group of Jews from Prague’s Jewish community worked to bring artifacts and Jewish possessions of all kinds from Bohemia and Moravia to what had become the Central Jewish Museum in Prague. There, they preserved what little remained of Jewish communities, previously at the mercy of plunderers. The MST believes that this Jewish initiative was directly responsible for the subsequent conservation of the scrolls. All the curators at the museum were eventually taken to Terezin and Auschwitz. Only two of the curators survived, and the Czech Jewish community after the war was too depleted to be able to care for them. The pious group’s legacy was the catalogue of the vast collection in the museum, eventually to become the Jewish Museum of Prague, and the saved 1,564 scrolls.
For 20 years following the war, the scrolls remained in a disused synagogue in a Prague suburb until the communist government, in need of hard currency, decided they should be sold. A British art dealer learned of this opportunity in 1963 and worked with the rabbi of Westminster Synagogue, a Hebrew scholar and a generous donor, to bring the 1,564 scrolls to London. Many were in pitiful condition – torn or damaged by fire and water – a grim testimony to the fate of the people who had once prayed with them.
The Memorial Scroll Trust has given these precious scrolls a second life by restoring them and loaning them to more than 1,400 communities around the world, thereby spreading their message to new generations in diverse communities and institutions such as Temple Sholom.
The Feb. 9 Czech Memorial Scrolls Commemorative Service at Westminster Synagogue was sublime. It began with a procession of the 53 scrolls that had been brought for the occasion, mostly from around the United Kingdom and the United States. To the strains of Gustav Mahler’s 5th Symphony, each Torah was lovingly brought to the bimah, held by a member of its current community and its original hometown announced.
David Schwartz is a lawyer and the president of Temple Sholom Synagogue.