THE CZECH MEMORIAL SCROLLS
WESTMINSTER SYNAGOGUE, LONDON, 1964
During World War II, the Nazis began to close and destroy synagogues in the Jewish communities in Moravia and Bohemia. In 1942, the Nazi officials in charge of the Czech “Protectorate” established the Central Jewish Museum, located in Prague, and shipped over 10,000 ritual objects from liquidated Jewish communities and synagogues to the Museum. The objects included ceremonial objects, books, pictures and embroidered vestments. The museum curators, who were later taken to Terezin and Auschwitz, meticulously catalogued the vast collection of objects that would later become part of the collection of the Jewish Museum of Prague.
Approximately 1,800 Torah Scrolls were also brought to the Central Jewish Museum with the hope that eventually they would be returned to their communities. After World War II, the Torah Scrolls were taken to the abandoned Michle Synagogue, in a suburb of Prague. They lay piled in disuse in the 18th century stone building, a damp warehouse.
In 1963, London businessman Ralph Yablon acquired the Torah Scrolls with the help of the Czechoslovakian government and a London art connoisseur. The 1,564 Torah Scrolls were packed and sent to London and in 1964, the Westminster Synagogue was selected as trustee and a Memorial Scrolls Committee was established to distribute the Scrolls “on permanent loan” to congregations throughout the world.
After the Scrolls were unpacked and numbered, they were inspected and classified into five grades, from the best to unusable. The best Scrolls could be read while those deemed unusable would serve as sacred memorials. During 1965, several scribes repaired the Scrolls and, to the extent possible, identified their origins.
CONSECRATION OF TWO MEMORIAL
CZECH SCROLLS AND THE ARK
(#42 AND #1349)
“THE TEMPLE BRANCH” BEACHWOOD, 1972
During the summer of 1971, Rabbi Daniel Jeremy Silver visited the Westminster Synagogue in London and selected two Memorial Torah Scrolls for the special Consecration of the new Ark on May 5, 1972.
Torah Scroll #42 is considered an “orphan” Scroll since the city of origin is currently unknown. It was written over 125 years ago and in some places it may be even older. It is 16 ½” high, with each column 11 5/8” high and 44 lines per column. The parchment is calfskin and the writing style is Lithuanian and Czech.
Torah Scroll #1349 came from the town of Kolin and was written over 85 years ago. It is 15 ½” high, with each column 10 5/8” high and 55 lines per column. The parchment is calfskin and the writing style is Ari Style Hungarian.
Kolin is a city in central Bohemia, Czech Republic, second in importance only to Prague. There is evidence of a Jewish population from the late 14th century. Between the World Wars, the Jews of Kolin were assimilated into the Czech culture. In 1939, the Nazis occupied all of Czechoslovakia and in 1941, a ghetto was formed in Kolin. A concentration camp in Theresienstadt was established, located only 40 miles away. Soon 2,202 Jews were transported from other towns to the ghetto and most were sent to Theresienstadt on June 13, 1942. From there they went on to the death camps in Poland where 2,098 people perished.
After the war there were no Jews left to rebuild the synagogue in Kolin where one of our scrolls come from so they remained in the possession of the State Museum in Prague until they were purchased by a group of English Jews, members of the Westminster Synagogue of London, who were determined that the scrolls would be put back into use and be a living memorial. I was able to secure from this committee our two scrolls for the new Ark in our new building where they will be a living memorial.
Rabbi Daniel Jeremy Silver, From the Rabbi’s Desk – A Special Day
The Temple Bulletin, April 9, 1972
The Jews of Kolin, Bohemia
There is evidence of a Jewish population from the late 14th century in Kolin and the history of the Jewish community mirrors that of many in Europe, periods of persecution alternated with times of relative tolerance.
The Jews were twice expelled from Kolin by King Ferdinand; once in 1541, returning in 1557, and then again in 1561, returning in 1564. It was at this time that Ferdinand ordered all the Jews in his realm to wear a yellow circle on the left breast of their outer garment, a precursor to the hated yellow star of the Nazi era. Any Jew caught without the circle lost all of his belongings, with half of them being awarded to the Christian who reported this crime.
Ferdinand’s successor, Maximilian II, extended certain rights and basic freedoms to the Jews in return for which they were very highly taxed. In 1655, the Jews were given permission to operate their own judicial court instead of being tried by the municipal court. The Beth Din of Kolin administered its own internal matters until 1788.
Maria Theresa, who inherited the throne in 1740, was a virulent anti-Semite and her reign was filled with terror. The yellow badge was reinstated and severe restrictions were placed on Jewish trade. In June of 1745, the Jewish community was expelled from Bohemia. However, a few Jewish families remained and in 1748 a commission decided to allow Jews to return so that they could be required to shoulder the $4 million in military taxes needed by the Archduchess. The Jews did return and the amount of “tolerance money” they were compelled to pay increased.
The Jewish community was released from the stranglehold of Maria Theresa in 1780 when Joseph II ascended the throne. He passed the Judenpatent law declaring that the Jewish population should become part of society at large. However, Jews still paid special taxes and restrictions were placed on where they could live.
Kolin housed a much-admired yeshiva dating from the 1600’s. Rabbi Samuel ben Nathan Ha-Levi was recognized as a child prodigy while attending the Kolin Yeshiva. The many books on Jewish law and commentaries on the Talmud that he wrote established Kolin as a center of learning. Another famous scholar, Rabbi Jacob Illowy, emerged from the Kolin Yeshiva and was the community’s rabbi from 1746 to 1781, after which he emigrated to the United States. Young children were educated at the Kolin Talmud Torah from 1788 until the pre-Holocaust era, when the community could no longer afford to support the school.
Between the two World Wars, Kolin was a stronghold of the Czecho-Jewish movement, which urged assimilation into Czech, rather than German, culture. Following the Nazi annexation of the Czechoslovakia’s northern and western regions (the Sudetenland) in October 1938 many refugees sought refuge in Kolin. Six months later the Germans occupied all of Czechoslovakia. In January 1940, Jewish shops were confiscated and Jewish women were forced to work in a local soap factory.
In October 1941, a concentration camp was established in the town of Theresienstadt (named for the infamous Maria Theresa), located just 40 miles from Kolin. A ghetto was formed in Kolin and soon 2,202 Jews were transported from other towns into the newly formed ghetto. Most of the Jews were sent to Theresienstadt on June 13, 1942, and from there to the death camps of Poland where 2,098 perished.
A small Jewish community was reestablished in 1945 and a memorial to the Nazi victims was erected in 1950. By the end of the century, virtually no Jews lived in Kolin.
RABBI DANIEL JEREMY SILVER’S
20TH ANNIVERSARY AT THE TEMPLE
THE TEMPLE, BEACHWOOD, 1976
To commemorate Rabbi Daniel Silver’s 20th Anniversary at The Temple, he secured a third Czech Torah Scroll for The Temple and presented it at the 126th Annual Meeting that was held on May 29, 1976.
Torah Scroll #843 came from the town of Trebic and was written over 150 years ago. It is 28 ¼” high, with each column 22½” high and 55 lines per column. The parchment is natural calf front and back and the writing style is Czech and Moravian.
In our tradition, as you know, the deed is more important than the word. For some months I puzzled how I could show you tonight what I feel, my gratitude, and my commitment. Those of you who shared our visit to London some weeks ago know that we climbed one morning to a little storeroom in the attic of the Westminster Synagogue. Twenty years ago Rabbi Reinhardt went to Prague where he purchased from the Czech government the Torah scrolls which had somehow survived the war. A scroll committee was established.
They hired a sofer to repair these nine hundred scrolls so that they could be used again. These scrolls are not only memorials of the Holocaust but testaments to the loyalty of our people and a commitment to the survival of the Jewish people. Five years ago when we dedicated this sanctuary we purchased two of these Czech scrolls and they have been in our Ark ever since. There are three places for scrolls in the Ark. This spring the Scroll Society was kind enough to allow me to purchase a third scroll. As a commitment to our future and to our tradition I would like to present this scroll to our Temple. It comes from Trebisch. Trebisch is a small town in central Czechoslovakia near Brno. The scroll was written in 1900 and was in use in Trebisch until 1940 when the Nazis turned the town into an instant ghetto, a collection point for Czech Jews before they were shipped off to the death camps.
I would like now as my commitment to you and to the future of this congregation, and, of course, as a renewal of lifelong commitment to all that this Torah represents, to give it to our congregation. I pray that we will always be loyal to the feelings that vibrate from it.
Rabbi Daniel Jeremy Silver, from Rabbi Silver Responds
The Temple News, June 26, 1976
The Jews of Třebíč, Moravia
The first written record of the presence of a Jewish community in Třebíč dates back to 1338. The autonomous Jewish Religious Community of Třebíč was founded in the second half of the 15th century. By the mid-19th century, the community was one of the most populated in Moravia boasting 260 families of 1,700 members. This represented a quarter of the city’s population and made Trebic an important cultural center for Moravian Jews.
By the 1930s, however, only 300 Jewish people remained in Trebic. All of them were deported to concentration camps where nearly all were murdered by the Nazis during World War II. Tragically, there were only 10 Jewish survivors who returned after the war. While the Jewish community was restored for a short period of time, it later was formally adjoined to the Jewish community of Brno.
Although there currently are not Jewish people who reside there, the Jewish Quarter in Třebíč is probably the best preserved Jewish Quarter in Europe. A priceless urban complex, it was – together with the Jewish cemetery and St. Prokop Basilica – given the prestigious listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, a single landmark of its kind in the world.
Located on the north bank of the Jihlava River, the Jewish Quarter lies in the vicinity of the town’s historical centre. It was an 18th century Jewish ghetto and although eventually Jews lived outside the neighborhood, for generations much of Jewish life was centered there. The Renaissance-style Rear Synagogue dates from the 17th century. The quarter is preserved exceptionally well, having survived both the Nazis and the Communists. It is comprised of 123 original houses, two synagogues and a “Jewish Town Hall.” Although many buildings do not serve their original purpose, some have been identified as having been a rabbi’s office, a hospital, a poorhouse and/or a school. The Jewish cemetery is located outside the area of the town.
THE CZECH MEMORIAL SCROLLS
IN CELEBRATION OF THE ARRIVAL IN LONDON OF
1,564 SCROLLS RESCUED FROM PRAGUE FEBRUARY 2014
Today we have gathered from around the world to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Czech Torah Scrolls from communist Europe. The tragedy of these extraordinary relics 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 World War II. The Nazis sent the men, women and children who once used these Torah Scrolls to their death, destroying their synagogues and communities; but the holy scrolls survived. For 20 years following the
war, they remained in an unused synagogue in a Prague suburb until the communist government in need of hard currency, decided that they should be sold. They were thus acquired by Westminster Synagogue and, in 1964 1564 Scrolls arrived in London. Many of the scrolls were in a pitiful condition-torn, damaged by fire and water – a grim testimony to the fate of the people who had once prayed with them.
The Memorial Scrolls Trust has given these precious scrolls a second life by lovingly restoring them and loaning them to over 1,400 communities around the world, thereby spreading their message to new generations in diverse communities and institutions.
The particular history of these Scrolls means that they are dynamic messengers, especially as we near the day when witnesses to the events of the Holocaust will no longer be with us. The Scrolls are not only a reminder of the atrocities committed against our brothers and sisters in Europe, but also help us with our renewed mission:
To Remember the Czech communities before the Holocaust
To Challenge us to confront prejudice and hatred
To Inspire us into action to commit to a Jewish life and education, and build
bridges across communities.
The Czech Memorial Scrolls Commemorative Service Program,
The Memorial Scrolls Trust, a U.K. non-profit organization, has recently begun to reach out to synagogues and other instititutions who received the Czech scrolls to gather updated information about them. They plan to continue to enhance their website so it becomes “a repository of all knowledge concerning the 1564 scrolls, the Jewish history of the towns they came from, the Jews of those towns, their fate, survivors stories, photos etc. Also where the scrolls are now, how they are used and honoured etc.” More information about the Memorial Scrolls Trust is available on their website. http://www.memorialscrollstrust.org/