Very few people in our congregation know that our Shul is the custodian of a Torah Scroll from the Czech town of Turnov.
So let me tell you a little about these scrolls. On 31st October, 2004, Ralph Schiller and I took our Sefer Torah to the Westminster Synagogue in Knightsbridge, where about 200 people from Britain and America gathered for a series of lectures and a short service to mark the 40th Anniversary of a unique event in Anglo-European history.
On 7th February 1964, 1,564 Torah Scrolls arrived at the Westminster Synagogue. These were part of a larger collection of Shul possessions confiscated by the Nazis from Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia, which included gold, silver, vestments, books, manuscripts and other treasurers. These were very carefully labelled and catalogued under Nazi direction to be used after the “final solution” as a museum of an extinct race! After the War, the Jews left in Prague could not afford to maintain these treasures and they came under the control of the Czech state authorities. It was realised that the scrolls eventually would deteriorate if they remained rolled up and unused.
In 1963, a prominent British art dealer, who enjoyed the confidence of the Czech government agency ‘Artia’ responsible for cultural property, was able to arrange for the scrolls to be acquired by Ralph Yablon, a London businessman and philanthropist, on the understanding that they would be entrusted to a responsible non-commercial body. Westminster Synagogue’s honorary officers accepted Mr Yablon’s invitation to undertake this responsibility.
When the scrolls arrived, they were housed in racks made especially for them and each was given a number from one to 1564. The numbers the Nazis gave the scrolls ran as high as 82,800, which is a point of speculation – why? Many of the labels attached at the time of confiscation had survived and provided valuable information and, in some cases, despairing messages were concealed in the scrolls. The scrolls were carefully examined and classified into grades ranging from those without serious defects to those which could not be made usable and suitable only for commemorative use. Almost all bore some evidence of the tragedy of the Holocaust. Many were blood-stained, some charred by fire or damaged by water and, in some cases, wrapped in personal clothing or a tallit, as though to protect them from harm.
The task of inspection and classification was organised by the then minister of the Westminster Synagogue, Harold F Reinhart, until his death in 1969. Index cards were prepared with details of each scroll’s condition, place of origin, place of writing and the repairs required. The examination was carried out by five student scribes under the supervision of Rabbi Pinchas Toledano. The completion of the preliminary study and classification was marked in June 1965 by a solemn assembly at the Synagogue. This was attended by representatives of many sections of the Jewish community and by ministers and scholars of other faiths. The memorial prayers were read by the Chief Rabbi, Dr Israel Brodie, and messages of good wishes were received from the President of the Prague Jewish community.
One day, in 1965, there was a ring at the Synagogue door by a sofer (scribe), David Brand, who asked “Do you have any scrolls that need repair?” The answer was, “Yes, we have 1,564!” and Mr Brand worked for 20 years, until his death, on the repair of the scrolls!
This is just a little of what I could tell you about the Czech scrolls. There is a lot more that could be told.
Our Czech scroll is number 1379. It had been held by Northwold Road Synagogue, Stoke Newington, and was transferred here when they closed in 1989. There was a re-dedication service to mark its arrival. It should not only be another Sefer Torah in our Aron Hakodesh but a haunting memorial to the people of Turnov who gave their lives for being Jewish.
If interested, you could visit the Czech Memorial Scrolls Centre’s exhibition open from 10am to 4pm on Mondays and Thursdays or contact the Secretary, Memorial Scroll Trust, Westminster Synagogue, Kent House, Rutland Gardens, Knightsbridge, London SW7 1BX, Tel 0207 5843741. The nearest underground station is Knightsbridge and buses 9, 52 and 73 pass the door.
There is a website for Turnov. You will find more background information and examples of projects by some of the communities with scrolls. These include specially embroidered mantles, learning about the places the scrolls came from and their history, and making contact with those places.
What could we do as custodian of a Czech Scroll from Turnov as a moral obligation?
- Mention the background whenever the scroll is used;
- Mention at the Yom Kippur Memorial Service;
- Mention at the Yom Hashoah Memorial Service and near Holocaust Day;
- Tell the Hebrew classes – Bar and Bat Mitzvah;
- If you visit Prague, you could visit Turnov, which is not far from Prague, and find out if there are any survivors, or try to find out more from old residents, the Town Council, the police etc.