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Czech Torah Scrolls

It is 1873. A group of Jews have moved to Klatovy, a small village in a valley in what is now known as the Klatovy District of the Czech Republic. By the 1870s, it had been over fifty years since the region, known as Bohemia, had been absorbed into the Austrian Empire. Jews had lived in the area for several centuries intermittently, depending on the permission (or lack thereof) of local and regional rulers. But industrialization, modernity, and opportunity brought a few hundred Jews to make a home for themselves in this little town. And what do Jews do when we move in? We form burial societies (chevre kaddisha) and found synagogues. Why more than one synagogue typically? So we have one in which to pray and one about which to complain.

But in one of the synagogues, inspired by hope for a strong and long-lived community, a number of committed members either bought outright or commissioned, we will never know, a new Torah for their shul. Using parchment from and the skills of Czech scribe, the Torah came to be used for chagim (holidays) and shabbatot, and smachim (happy times). With a beautiful hand, the scribe gave a gift to the Jews of Klatovy. Years later, the Torah, as happens, was in need of repair. So, a scribe was commissioned to fix a few tears, some broken letters, and do some teaching for the community. He came for a week, stayed with local families who nourished him with kosher food and sat in the synagogue teaching and restoring the scroll. There was a tear along the seam near the famous passage of Mah Tovu – Numbers 24. That passage tells the story of a king from Moab – Balak. Balak wanted to wage a war against our ancestors as they wandered from Egypt to the Promised Land. Balak drafted his best prophet to curse the Israelites so they may lose in the impending war. Bilam, the Moabite prophet, ascended the heights of a nearby mountain, looked over the people Israel and instead of a curse, out came the words of a blessing – words of God – words of deep spirit and understanding, which we recite to this day as we enter a synagogue: Mah tovu ohalecha ya’akov, mishkentocha yisrael. How goodly are your tents o Jacob, your dwelling places o Israel.

The scribe, sitting in the shul of Klatovy, reached into his satchel and pulled out a scrap of parchment to repair the seam there. He wanted a nice piece of parchment to anchor this formidable passage. He chose a piece of parchment that had writing on it from a scroll that had fallen into disrepair but still had salvageable sections. The scribe cut a piece of that scroll, which happened to be from the Scroll of Esther. He placed it with an adhesive on the Torah’s seam and gave new life to the Torah as well as the used Scroll of Esther and made a midrash (interpretation) all at once. As Balak, a king wanted to come along and kill the people Israel, and failed, so with the story of Esther, when a Persian king wanted to kill the people Israel, disaster turned to triumph, we survived, and Torah was saved and THIS Torah was fixed – ready to be read again.

During the First World War (1914-1918) the number of Jews swelled in Klatovy to over 1,000 as Jews from the east poured into the region searching a more hospitable environment. After the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the creation of Czechoslovakia, Jews remained engaged in life in the towns and cities where they had lived and prospered for many years. When the Nazis rolled into Prague in 1939 and took control over the country, nearly 350,000 Jews subject to the horrors that would ensue, were locked in. Part of my own family among them. Anti-semitism had always existed in the area – but now … it was given license. In 1941, Jewish congregations in Czechoslovakia were ordered to cease operations. The main Klatovy Synagogue was pillaged by Czech Fascists. Jews over six years old were ordered to wear a yellow Jewish star. The first deportations of Jews began in October. In March 1942, all Jewish communities (except Prague) were officially abolished. The mass deportations of Czech Jews began. The Jews of Klatovy and surrounding villages were concentrated in a school building, then deported on the 26th and 30th of November. They were first sent to Terezin and from there … Auschwitz.

Over 600 Jews from Klatovy and the local area were rounded up and shipped like cattle. Nearly all of them perished in the Holocaust. Nearly 600 souls … nearly the same number of Jews we have in our synagogue membership. Right now.

Seven Jewish scholars, in the darkest hours of WWII, sensing that the Jewish people was going to be destroyed, submitted a plan to the Nazis to save the Jewish ritual and cultural treasures from the now-abandoned synagogues by bringing them to the Prague Jewish Museum to be cataloged and preserved. Over 2000 Torah scrolls were warehoused in the Michle Synagogue, outside of Prague. Ten Torahs were taken from Klatovy – including the one procured in 1873 and later repaired by that scribe, on which was affixed those lines from Esther near the story of Balak and Bilam.

In May 1945, Germany was defeated. Once again, Czechoslovakia was self-governing, this time as a country largely without Jews. A total of 55 Klatovy Jews survived and returned to the city, only to leave a year or two later. Another king tried to kill the Jews. He nearly succeeded. How difficult to utter the words: Mah tovu ohalecha ya’akov mishkenotecha yisrael when our homes and tents, our dwelling places had been destroyed, burned, ruined…and yet, live we must. And live we did! In 1948, with the establishment of the modern State of Israel in our people’s ancient land – l’yisrael, yeish chayim! For Israel, there is life!

When the Communists took over the Czech government in that same year, the Torah scrolls in the Michle Synagogue were now owned by a government that was less than concerned with religion.

In 1963, the cultural department of the Czech government, known as Artia, approached Eric Estorick, a well-known London art dealer, on one of his visits to Prague and asked him what might be done about some 2,000 Jewish scrolls in the Michle Synagogue. Was there, in the West, any individual or organization interested in acquiring a very large number of Torah scrolls from Czech Jewish communities that had perished in the war? Estorick’s response was positive and practical. To begin with, he said that an expert would have to make an on-the-spot inspection of the scrolls to determine their condition; more specifically, to see which of them were still ritually fit for use in synagogue services. He knew of such an expert in London, Chimen Abramsky, a historian and acknowledged authority on Hebraica and Judaica. Arrangements were made for Abramsky to go to Prague. His preliminary examination of about 250 scrolls found them without protective covering. Others were swathed in tattered prayer shawls. He found two scrolls wrapped in a woman’s garment. Another was tied with a small belt from a child’s coat. “It was quite incredible to see this,” Abramsky said in London. “I burst into tears.”
(gleaned from http://www.czechtorah.org)

In January of 1964, Estorick, the art dealer negotiated a deal with Artia, the Czech State corporation responsible for trade in works of art, and on February 7 two trucks loaded with 1564 Czech Torah scrolls arrived at Westminster Synagogue. The scrolls were then sorted, examined, and catalogued. The Memorial Scrolls Trust was established to carry out the task of conserving, restoring and distributing the scrolls.

In 1991, Temple Emanuel of Winston-Salem, NC applied for the permanent loan of a Czech Torah scroll from the Memorial Scrolls Centre of London, England, and paid the Centre an untold sum, which was given by the Miller and Katz families, in memory of Bess Miller Katz. On November 8, 1991, fifty-three years, shy of a day, after Kristallnacht – the night of a pogrom that destroyed thousands of synagogues, Jewish homes and businesses in Germany and beyond, the Torah scroll from Klatovy was dedicated at Temple Emanuel, with an identification number (1058) on the brass plaque affixed on a disc of one of its wooden rollers, the eitz chayim, its tree of life. Our Torah is one of ten from Klatovy – the other nine are elsewhere in these United States and in England.

And now, on this night, we are dedicating a new home for this Torah that has so much story to tell and has been through nearly 150 years of wandering. A small number of years given the life of the Jewish people but a formidable number of years given the last century and a half.

Last year, Lynn and Barry Eisenberg approached Gail Citron and me with a desire to honor their grandson Alex Grosswald as he became a bar mitzvah – a young man responsible for the upkeep and celebration of Jewish ritual and tradition. When Alex’s brother, Gavin, became bar mitzvah a few years ago, our community was working on new Torah covers for our three main Torahs. Your grandparents, Gavin, gave a gift in your honor of a Torah cover. The Torah that it adorns is the Torah brought by Rabbi Frank Rosenthal in 1941 as he fled from Germany to the United States and took his first position as a rabbi with our synagogue. And now, Alex, the Czech Torah which survived also – though under different circumstances – the horrors of humanity’s evil, will be under the protection of a gift given by your grandparents, who are a link between you and Gavin and your great-great grandparents who helped found this very temple and Jewish community: Jenny & Frank Brenner – along with so many other family members, including your great-great grandparents Gertrude & Morris Eisenberg and other dedicated Jewish families in Winston-Salem.

The Torah tells incredible stories. Every Torah tells the same stories. But every Torah has its own story. We, as Jews, are the same. We have the stories of our nation – but every community within our people – has a unique story. And there are cross over points and new lines of connection made all the time. Those invisible – and at times very visible – lines are known as: God. God is in the connection and the survival. God is in the power, the koach, the strength. God is in the love and the nurturing, the tears and panic. God is in the potential and the opportunity. God is in the gift and God is in the receiving. God is present when we speak and when we listen.

A tattered Torah cover came with this scroll from Klatovy. A beautiful fabric with roughly sewn letters arrived dressing the sacred scroll, which is tattered as well and suffers the exposure to time and ill-treatment. Those roughly sewn letters are kaf, chet. Koach. Strength. The Torah gives us strength when we nurture her words and struggle with her teachings. She gives us strength when we feel the connection contained within her inherent energy and ours when we hold her tightly. It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to her and all who cling tightly are rich and happy and fulfilled.

L’chayim Yisrael. To life, O’ Israel.

The above is a excerpt from Rabbi Mark Cohn’s dedication of the Czech Torah Scrolls. 

For more information on the Czech Torah Stories…

www.czechtorah.org; www.czechmemorialscrollstrust.org