The Memorial Scrolls Trust lends Torahs worldwide

They escaped destruction by the Nazis, survived communism, and found their way to new homes. This is the story of three Torahs that all have their roots in long-vanished Czechoslovakian synagogues.

Until World War II, Czechoslovakia had a thriving Jewish population rooted in hundreds of years of interaction with its Christian neighbors. With the rise of Hitler, however, came the rise of anti-Semitism and the Final Solution. Across Europe, synagogues were burned down and Jews were deported to concentration camps. Almost all Jewish artifacts, including Torahs, candlesticks and prayer books, were destroyed.

The only exception was Bohemia and Moravia, with its population of 115,000 Jews, which was declared a “protectorate” of Germany. Miraculously, the artifacts remained unscathed throughout the early years of the war.

In 1942, however, the Nazis ordered that all Jewish synagogue property in the area be sent to Prague. The Jewish Committee of Prague, believing that the Judaica would be safer if stored in one place, worked closely with the Nazis to collect and appraise over 210,000 objects. In the end, it took 40 warehouses to contain everything. Unfortunately, almost all of the Jews who worked on the project died in concentration camps.

Czech Torahs survived the war but almost did not survive communism. The artifacts, including 1,564 Torahs, lay in a damp, moldy warehouse until 1963. At that time, the Czech government, in need of foreign currency, struck a deal with Ralph Yablon, a philanthropist and founding member of the Westminster Synagogue in London, which he raised the funds. On February 5, 1964, the Torahs and other scrolls arrived at the synagogue. They were divided into three categories: usable condition, requiring some repairs; and those deemed too damaged.

The Memorial Scrolls Trust was later established in London to preserve and restore the 1564 scrolls. They were then loaned to Jewish communities around the world in need of a Torah on the condition that the Torahs were not sold; they could only be assigned on loan with the promise that they would be returned if the synagogue ceased to function. Each congregation was responsible for the maintenance of the Torah. Each had a dog tag attached to one of the etz chaim, the wooden rods on which the Torah is rolled.

In 2022, 1,400 scrolls have been loaned worldwide, including two in the Orlando area – the Southwest Orlando Jewish Congregation and Congregation Shalom Aleichem. There are 150 scrolls remaining at the Memorial Scrolls Trust museum, which also has some 500 binders and gimps.

Scroll MST#293, a Torah circa 1870

I first had the honor of holding a Holocaust Torah as a member of Congregation Beth Shalom, Clifton Park, New York. In 1981, the synagogue received one after requesting replacements for the three that had been stolen. The Czech Torah from around 1870, which once stood in a synagogue in Vlasim, was loaned thanks to a donation from then worshipers Abbey and Richard Green. It arrived from London with a label reading: “The Old Testament of the Jews near Prague for the Central Museum”.

At the time, Beth Shalom was less than 10 years old, an irony not lost on one of her devotees, Yetta Fox, who is a child of Holocaust survivors. Having the Torah in a new congregation is “almost like a second life,” Fox said. “After losing a community, there is now a new community that can nurture this Torah.”

In 2007, the scroll needed to be repaired. In June, the congregation held a rededication ceremony, which included a procession from Clifton Park Town Hall to the synagogue five minutes down the road. The scrolls were passed from hand to hand under a huppah that the Hebrew school children had decorated with Stars of David. Upon arrival, the Torah was wrapped in a wimple, the cloth traditionally used to wrap a boy during his circumcision. “It’s our baby,” said Fred Pineau, a former president, “so we pack our Torah.”

David Clayman, the current president, reported that the Torah is still in good condition. To preserve it, however, it is left rolled up at Parasah Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16), which contains “The Song of the Sea.” Every year in the month of Shevat, the Torah is taken out and Beshalach is chanted. The congregation also brings the scroll of the Holocaust for Simhas Torah, a holiday that celebrates the completion of the reading of Deuteronomy and the beginning of Genesis. The Torah is taken out and held for Kol Nidre, Erev of Yom Kippur. “The roller is so fragile, we’re afraid to roll it over other parashots,” Clayman said.

Scroll MST#408, circa 1775 Torah

When we moved to Florida, we joined Congregation Shalom Aleichem, which was founded in 1981, ironically the same year Congregation Beth Shalom received its Czech Torah. Initially, the devotees met at the Kissimmee Women’s Club. Holocaust survivor Harry Lowenstein and his wife, Carol, began pushing for their own building. “I saw a synagogue burn down,” Lowenstein said, “and I was determined to build another.” Starting with a $120,000 contribution from Sandor Salmagne, another Holocaust survivor, the Lowensteins raised an additional $60,000 for building expenses.

As the Pleasant Hill Road Synagogue neared completion, the Lowensteins continued to work tirelessly to obtain the prayer books for all days and holy days, the Torah finials, and the Yartzheit (memorial) sign. Most important for the congregation was to obtain a Torah.

Lowenstein and other members contacted the Memorial Scrolls Trust, noting in correspondence that four of its members were Holocaust survivors. “Our Temple will be dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust,” wrote then President Henry Langer. “So we would consider it an honor if you lent us a Scroll for our Temple.”

With financial support from the Lowensteins, they were able to obtain a scroll, believed to be from the Pisak-Strakonice region in what was then Czechoslovakia, about 60 miles south of Prague and dating from around 1775.

Once they learned that they were indeed going to be loaned a Czech Torah, it was now up to the congregation to figure out how to get it from London to Kissimmee. The Lowensteins realized they had British friends who had a vacation home near the synagogue. “[Our friend] sat on the plane with the Torah in his lap for 12 hours,” Carol Lowenstein recalled. “He wouldn’t lose sight of it until he could hand the Torah to Harry.”

For those who had miraculously escaped Hell, welcoming the Torah was like welcoming another Holocaust survivor. “It’s like owning a piece of history,” Phil Fuerst said in 1993. “You feel like you own a piece of a world that has survived.”

According to Marilyn Glaser, president of the congregation, the atzei chayim are broken. The congregation arranges for the atzei chayim to be replaced in accordance with the terms of the loan agreement with the MST.

Scroll MST#20, circa 1850 Torah

In 1982, Sharon and Barry Kaufman, now residents of Kissimmee, were tasked with obtaining a Holocaust Torah for the Northern Jewish community in Spring, Texas, in honor of their daughter Robin’s upcoming bat mitzvah. While awaiting the completion of their new building, the congregation held services at Christ the Good Shepherd Catholic Church. Their only Torah was on loan from another synagogue. The Kaufmans worked with Rabbi Lawrence Jacofsky, regional director of the United Association of Hebrew Congregations, to obtain MST scroll #20, a Torah dating from around 1850 that had previously been kept in a synagogue in Kostelec/Orlici, Czechoslovakia.

When their precious cargo arrived at the Houston airport in February 1982, Barry and Sharon immediately brought the Torah to the church to show it to Father Ed Abell, a Good Shepherd priest and their good friend. The three of them carefully unrolled the scroll to where the last Torah reading was before the Jews of the community were rounded up and sent to concentration camps: Yom Kippur 1938. Father Abell then read the scroll in flawless Hebrew.

The Kaufmans brought the Torah home that evening to show Robin. As they slowly unrolled the entire parchment on their pool table to make sure it was undamaged, they found a cardboard tag that read, “Aeltesternrat der Juden Prague.” The ancient laws of the Jews of Prague. “Museum of Decadent Jewish Objects”.

During Robin’s bat mitzvah in May 1982, the Torah was dressed in a blanket sewn and embroidered by Barry’s mother. In a moving address to the congregation held at Good Shepherd, Barry spoke eloquently about the history of the Torah.

Screenshot of all synagogues in the United States where commemorative Torahs are loaned.

“If this Torah could speak – could it share with us the heartbreaking knowledge of a prosperous people whose world had suddenly been taken from them, whose homes and synagogues were gutted and destroyed for the value of their possessions? would he speak of the helpless terror in the fragile hearts of old men and women forced to see their children brutally slaughtered before their own end came.”

After Barry spoke, the Ark was opened and the Torah of the Holocaust was passed from Rabbi to Barry to Sharon to Robin. Clutching him tightly, Robin walked through the congregation. For the first time in two generations, a B’nai Mitzvot carried it with joy and reverence in a tearful congregation.

Three Czech Torahs. Three congregations. As Gloria Kupferman said in her speech at the rededication of Congregation Beth Shalom Torah, contrary to the Nazis’ plan to eradicate the Jewish people, “We are by no means extinct. We are alive. We are thriving.”