Journey of a Holocaust Torah
The three-storey brick building, trimmed in white marble, stretches along Private Street, resembling many other notable buildings in London. However, when we walked through the door of Kent House in Rutland Gardens on the morning of June 6, 2022, we entered another world – the lost world of pre-Holocaust Bohemia and Moravia.
Kent House is home to the Westminster Synagogue and the Memorial Scrolls Trust, MST, which has preserved or restored 1,564 Torah scrolls and other artifacts. The story of how these scrolls traveled from Czechoslovakia in London to the Jewish Center in Pembroke Pines is truly amazing. Our guide was Jeffrey Ohrenstein, Chairman of the Board of MST, who spent several hours telling us about the history and lore of this unique museum and showing us all of its treasures. [See the history and collection at https://memorialscrollstrust.org]
Before World War II, there was a thriving Jewish community in the regions of Bohemia and Moravia in what is now part of the Czech Republic. According to the 1930 census, these two areas were home to 117,551 Jews and 350 synagogues. There were 356,830 Jews in all of Czechoslovakia. 26,000 managed to emigrate, 7,000 were murdered in the country, and 71,000 of the 82,309 sent to the camps were murdered.
Prague was home to the Jewish Museum founded in 1909. When the Nazis invaded in March 1939, they began the systematic takeover of the Jewish community. Unlike the Sudetenland, which they had invaded the previous year, they did not destroy synagogues, artifacts, and expel the Jews immediately. They needed the country’s arms industry to support their war effort.
Dr. Stein of the Jὓdische Kiltusgemeinde (Jewish Religious Community) in Prague sent an order to all synagogues in Bohemia and Moravia to send their Sifrei Torahs as well as all their silver and gold subsidiaries, books, textiles and other items of value to the museum. These 212,000 treasures and 1,800 Torahs filled 14 warehouses. Staff were compelled to meticulously catalog each item, describing it in detail and the city of origin.
A myth grew around the collection that Hitler wanted to create a museum of an extinct race after being victorious in war. There is absolutely no evidence of this, and we know how meticulous the Nazis were in their documentation. Instead, they looted anything of monetary value. The personnel, once they have fulfilled their role, are deported to the camps, where most do not survive.
After the war, fifty Jewish communities opened up throughout Czechoslovakia and received Torahs from the reestablished Jewish Museum in Prague. This revival was short-lived when the Communists took power in 1948, closing places of worship. In 1958, the 18th-century Michle Synagogue became the warehouse that housed hundreds of Torah scrolls from the large Jewish community in Prague and what remained of the smaller communities in Bohemia and Moravia. Unfortunately, the rollers were placed in the basement where they were attacked by mold, insects and mice.
This story could have ended here if it hadn’t been for a fortuitous event. In 1963, the communist government needed money. Through their puppet company, Artia, they approached Eric Estorick, a London art dealer who often bought paintings in the country to buy the scrolls. Estorick turned to his client, Ralph Yablon, who discussed the idea with Rabbi Harold Reinhart at the Westminster Synagogue. They contacted an academic to examine the scrolls to determine their authenticity, current condition, and compliance with the religious rules of these scrolls. Yablon purchased 1,564 Torahs that met the criteria for $30,000 and brought them to London the following year.
The synagogue established the Memorial Scrolls Trust as an independent nonprofit organization and donated two floors of its facilities to the effort. As they raised money, they brought in sofrim, scribes, to restore the Torahs. Ruth Shaffer came in as administrator to organize work and resources. The restoration proceeded slowly as the MST had to raise funds to support each team of scribes. One day David Brand, a professional sofer, showed up and volunteered to take on the extensive restoration and repair work. For the next thirty years, Brand worked on the Torahs, preserving them for posterity.
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As the news spread, requests poured in from all over the world for the Torahs. The MST has decided to retain ownership of the scrolls and loan them to congregations who have agreed to use them for educational, religious purposes and to promote interfaith work.
Edward Weinberg and Lorraine Brod, members of the Century Pines Jewish Center on the Century Village campus in Pembroke Pines, wanted to honor their spouses. In 1998 they went to London to get a Torah for the synagogue. Brod’s husband, Morris, survived imprisonment in five different camps. She told the Jewish newspaper“He survived because he was determined to live. This is a memorial to him and one we should never forget [the Holocaust].”
On November 4, 2001, the congregation received Czech Torah #1194. Local officials and a state representative joined the celebration presided over by Rabbi Leon Fink. Synagogue President Ralph Cohen said, “It is a constant and vivid memory of the Holocaust…a sign of the suffering and catastrophe of the extermination of 6 million Jews.
Century Pines, a conservative congregation merged with the Village Reform Congregation in 2019 to form the Pembroke Pines Jewish Center, a traditional congregation. As current President, Merv Levin led the celebration of Holocaust Remembrance Day, he encouraged people to honor the Torah with donations to advance the work required. Our Torah is believed to be 200 years old from Uhrineves, near Prague. We studied the history of the Jewish community there which began in the 16th century and developed until Rosh Hashanah, September 12, 1939, when the Nazis closed the synagogue and deported members to the concentration camp. of Terezin and in the gas chambers. Only fourteen members survived.
The Memorial Scrolls Trust reminds us: “Czech scrolls are survivors and silent witnesses. They not only represent the lost communities of Bohemia and Moravia, but all those who perished in the Holocaust. The MST encourages all of their scroll holders to use their scrolls for inter- and intra-religious work, as well as for rituals and education.
The Pembroke Pines Jewish Center works actively to fulfill this obligation. We began communication and cooperation with other congregations in Florida and elsewhere to share our ideas for educational and other projects. MST has asked scroll holders to create a webpage and ours will be launched soon.
If you want to know more about our Torah, contact us through our website, https://www.pembrokepinesjewishcenter.com/contact.