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 is a great achievementacross 40 years. But it is much more than a story, and it is much more than any achievement. It is a key toopening 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 intheir midst. Its presence in their congregation acknowledged that they associated themselves with the Holocaust, while having been spared being touched by the life long trauma of those who endured and of thosewho somehow survived.
The Czech Memorial Scrolls were celebrated on their arrival, and after the euphoria of the ceremonies thatwelcomed them into their new congregation, they then became part of the everyday life of the congregation. Synagogue life got back to normal, and the congregation got on with the things that congregations get on with.
They missed out on the benefit of having been joined to the legacy that came with their Scroll, and all it couldtell 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 alife with more opportunity in Britain or the Americas, Australia, South Africa, and, of course, Israel. Theymissed out on the benefit of being able to involve the children in their religion 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 manyof us don’t have the picture of a particular place in our mind that exemplifies where we came from. After all,our grand parents’ roots come from all over the place, and few of us have been there. For some of us, thenearest that we come to it are the cinema images like Anatevka in “Fiddler on the Roof” or “Yentl”. But wecannot depend on Hollywood for reliable images or objective information. So how would we feel if there werea place in the heartland of Jewish Europe with which we could feel a real connection ? A place that we knewand recognised, 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, theimpact and the realism and the horror activate our subconscious defences against such an assault on ouremotions. We protect ourselves from identifying too closely with what it was like for those Jews just like uswho didn’t have our good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. And anyway we could never feel a millionth part 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 to be interested in the Holocaust is a realone. Adults know that it is important, and that it is important that the children should know that it happenedand what it was about. The trouble is that most children seem not to want to deal with a subject which isinteresting to their parents but is boring to them. It is worse than boring. They recoil from engaging a subjectwhich 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 itseeks to engage. But is there a way to gain children’s interest and to enable them to identify with aspects ofthe Holocaust and to relate to it ?
Each Czech Scroll came from a congregation, and there were dozens of small Czech congregations apartfrom the few large and famous congregations in Prague and Brno and Plzen. Small congregations that wereimportant only to those who knew them. Each had its own story, often going back over centuries. Sometimestrivial and seemingly unimportant, and yet often full of insights into the Jewish life of people who wereprobably more like our ancestors than we might imagine, for we know so little about the lives of our ancestors,and the history of our own congregation usually goes back for less than a hundred years. With the Scrollcame an acquired history.
This is the Legacy of Roots
1848 marked the beginning of an era of escalating change for the Jews, as they emerged from the ghetto andbecame involved in aspects of community life from which they had been excluded. No longer restricted as towhere they lived, freed from secular restrictions on marriage and able to enter the professions, politics and thearmy, the community of pedlars increasingly became a driving force in the economic life of the whole community.
In the case of the Czech Jews, 15 October 1918 marked the foundation of their own state and the beginningof what was later looked back on as the “golden age”. But for the Jews it was also a period of deepeningsecularism, and a time which saw the closing of many Jewish schools, the decline in local congregationnumbers and the closing of many small local congregations.
This was the Legacy of Emancipation
The shame of the Munich Agreement in September 1938, and the betrayal of Czechoslovakia to the Germansbrought everything to a sudden halt, particularly for the Jews. The image of Neville Chamberlain flying back toHeston aerodrome on 30 September, waving his piece of paper and declaring “I believe it is peace in ourtime”, coincided with a largely unknown catastrophe for the Jews in the congregations that lived in the area ofthe Sudetenland that had been handed to the Germans. Most Jews fled within 48 hours, never to return.Every Jewish community in Czechoslovakia was directly affected, either as refugees or as those who took inthose that lost everything. That is part of the story of each Scroll, and it is a story that most Jews have neverheard. Less than six months later, on 15 March 1939 Hitler entered Prague.
With war declared in September 1939, the Jews in all their towns faced a stream of unbearable restrictionsand deprivations, and the children did not escape, and throughout 1942, the deportations to Terezin tookplace from the various deportation centres across the country.
Graphic descriptions of the suffering in the camps and the horrors of onward transportation are attempts tobring home to us, who can have no conception of what it must have been like, the horror of what it was like.Whether they help in enabling us to identify with the victims is a matter of opinion. What is important is thatsucceeding generations of Jews should be aware that the deportation of the Jews did happen, when ithappened, where it happened, and who were the victims. If we can get our children and our children’schildren to understand and appreciate that it happened sufficiently personally that it becomes part of theiroverall 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 there is no newgeneration to honour and 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 from 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 thehands of the Germans. With each Scroll came the obligation to dedicate some part of the life of the newcongregation and particularly the children in its religion school, to honour and remember its lost Jews asindividuals, just as they would remember their own family, and just as they would themselves wish to beremembered. 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 Memorial Scroll has an obligation to dedicate one Shabbat ayear to their Memorial Congregation and to include the Jews of their Scroll in their thoughts and prayers on Yom Hashoah and on Yom Kippur.
So why all this concentration on the Czech Jews? In numbers they account for only 77,297 Jews out of SixMillion. No reason, except that with each Czech Scroll the connection with a lost congregation is easy and straightforward. But most living congregations do not have a Czech Scroll, and they can decide to choose todedicate one of their Scrolls to a lost congregation somewhere across the heartland of what was JewishEurope – Poland, Germany, Greece, Lithuania, Hungary, Norway. These Jews are just as important as anyCzech Jews. The Czech Scrolls have set an example. They have shown the way. They have put out the ideathat focussing attention on one community that was lost in the Holocaust can help us to understand and toteach about what happened to the Jews more effectively than trying to take in the full scale and reality of theenormous panorama of the Holocaust.
The Legacy of the Scrolls is that they show us how the little picture can help us better to relate to whathappened and to identify and to feel involved, to understand. Remembering is a very personal affair.
How the Scrolls Were Saved
When the Munich Agreement was signed on 29 September 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 about sixty congregations in the prosperous industrial and commercial towns in the
Sudetenland had 2 or 3 days to flee to the interior, which was still a free and sovereign country. They left
behind their synagogues, which were in German hands in time for the destruction of the Pogrom of
November 1938, when synagogues across the expanded Germany, which now included the Sudetenland,
were burned or vandalised 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 programme 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 fourteen 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 over one hundred congregations in Bohemia and Moravia. It needed over forty 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 that worked before, during and after the war to protect a legacy that was threatened with
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. Prague, which had had a Jewish population of
54,000 in 1940, was reduced to under 8,000 by 1947, and many of these were to leave.
On 27 February 1948, after less than 3 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 which housed hundreds of Torah
Scrolls from the large Prague Jewish community and what was left from the smaller communities of
Bohemia and Moravia. 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
1960’s. He got to know 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 2000 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 twelve days in November 1963 to examine the Scrolls and to 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 1564 Scrolls arrived at the Westminster Synagogue
on 7 February 1964.
After months of sorting, examining and cataloguing 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