A second life: Torahs represent lost communities

The Czech Memorial Scrolls are identified by a small metal plate on the eitz chayim (the wooden handles). Photo by Lee Shedroff

The Czech Memorial Scrolls are identified by a small metal plate on the eitz chayim (the wooden handles).
Photo by Lee Shedroff

Every Torah has a story. Whether its existence is due to one generous benefactor or the result of a community effort, each Torah represents a community that lovingly read from its scroll.

More than a dozen Arizona synagogues have in their possession a Torah that was saved from the Holocaust; a Torah that symbolizes a long-gone Jewish community.

One of these Torahs – which has been in the possession of the Grand Canyon Council of the Boy Scouts of America since 1974 – recently returned to its hometown of Kolin, which is about an hour east of Prague in the Czech Republic. In June, Lee Shedroff of Peoria accompanied the Torah there to mark the 70th anniversary of the deportation of the town’s Jews.

“Kolin’s Jewish population was 30 percent of the population for more than 500 years,” Shedroff says. “A piece of them just disappeared in 1942.”

During a Shabbat service at the restored synagogue that was part of the commemoration in June, Shedroff read an aliyah from the Torah then placed it in the same ark the Nazis removed it from 70 years earlier.

Shedroff also left in the ark a letter from Temple Havurat Emet in Sun Lakes, another Valley congregation that has a Kolin Torah. Tonight (Friday, Oct. 5), Havurat Emet is rededicating its Torah – which was written in 1650 and is the oldest of the Czech Memorial Scrolls – during a Shabbat service, in anticipation of Simchat Torah. Shedroff plans to bring the scouts’ Torah to the service; the two Torahs shared the same ark more than 70 years ago, he says.

While in Kolin, Shedroff also visited the Old Jewish Cemetery and brought the Torah to the dedication of a memorial plaque at the Zakladni School, where the town’s Jews spent three days and three nights being registered for deportation 70 years earlier. During the ceremony, Shedroff held up the Torah so the town’s schoolchildren could see the open scroll.

From June 1 to June 13, 1942, 2,202 Jews left in three transports dispatched from Kolin, according to “My Town Kolin: Jews in Kolin,” a book released at the commemoration. The dates had a particular significance to Shedroff: “This all happened in the same week I was born.”

Since its arrival in the Valley in 1974 – the Grand Canyon Council Jewish Committee on Scouting in Phoenix was the original recipient, according to Shedroff, who is a member of the National Jewish Committee of Scouting – the scouts’ Torah has been on display with its story in the interfaith booth at the annual Scout-O-Rama event and is used at other Boy Scout events. In March of this year, Sam Zager, a Boy Scout from Glendale, read from the Torah for his bar mitzvah.

A reunion for all the Czech Memorial Scrolls that are now in Arizona is being planned for late fall 2013 or early 2014, according to Shedroff, who is the local representative for the trust. Before the scrolls were repaired and loaned to congregations around the world, they were stored on shelves first in Prague and then in London. “These Torahs were all together for many years, forgotten and deteriorating until 1963,” Shedroff says.

Another local synagogue that has a Holocaust Torah is the Sun Lakes Jewish Congregation. “We keep it in a special ark that was built for it and is displayed permanently,” Rabbi Irwin Wiener wrote in an email. “It cannot be used to read from, for many of the letters cannot be distinguished as it was rescued from a fire,” he wrote, but the congregation includes it in its Yom Hashoah observance. The Torah, written in 1850, came from Kolodejc, Czechoslovakia.

Beth El Congregation in Phoenix has had a Torah from Rakovnik since 1978. It sat in a case there until 1998. Then, the synagogue sent it to a New York scribe who restored it letter by letter and returned it to the congregation in 2000 (“Torah’s long journey into light,” Jewish News, Jan. 14, 2000).

Temple Chai’s first Torah, which the Phoenix congregation acquired in 1976, also originated in Czechoslovakia.

In Prescott, Temple B’rith Shalom has a Torah scroll from Slaný, Czechoslovakia, which it received in 1984. In 2001, the scroll was restored by a Los Angeles scribe and rededicated.

“As the keeper of this scroll, Temple B’rith Shalom accepts its special responsibility: to care for and learn from the Torah,” reads a message in the Reform congregation’s membership directory. “It is a reminder of the Jewish community of Slaný that disappeared in the Holocaust, and their devotion to Torah. As we care for the scroll, we remember them and we learn about their times and their lives.”

Story of the ‘Holocaust Torahs’

The Czech Memorial Scrolls – often called the “Holocaust Torahs” – have a unique story. As congregations throughout Bohemia and Moravia disappeared after the Nazi invasion, a group of members of Prague’s Jewish community devised a way for about 100,000 religious items, including approximately 1,800 Torah scrolls, to be sent to what became the Central Jewish Museum in Prague, according to czechmemorialscrollstrust.org.

In 1964, the Westminster Synagogue in London purchased 1,564 Czech Memorial Scrolls. Most of the scrolls could be traced to a specific Jewish community in prewar Czechoslovakia; 216 could not. Those whose history cannot be traced are called “orphan Torahs.” Temple Beth Shalom in Sun City has such a Torah.

According to the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust site, scribes spent many months viewing the scrolls, determining which ones were still kosher or could be made usable, and which ones could only be used as memorials.

One professional sofer, David Brand, spent nearly 30 years restoring and repairing many of the scrolls, which then were loaned to congregations around the world.

Missing Torahs

About 1,400 of the 1,546 scrolls are currently on loan to congregations and more than 1,000 of these are in the United States. All of them remain the property of the Memorial Scrolls Trust. The others are in display at the trust’s museum, located at West-minster Synagogue in London. Those that are not in good enough condition to be used during worship services are displayed in museums, Shedroff says, which includes one that used to be on display at the Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum in Scottsdale.

One of the loan requirements is that every five years, the recipient must provide the trust with a condition report and that the Torah must be returned to the trust if the synagogue closes or merges.

Unfortunately, as synagogue leadership changes, the history of the Torah – as well as responsibility for it – is often forgotten.

“There are some sad stories,” says Susan Boyer, the trust’s U.S. director. More than 100 scrolls are currently lost, meaning that the trust has no record of what happened to them, she says.

Each scroll is identified with a gold-colored plaque on the base of the handle plate. Shedroff encourages congregations to check their Torahs for this plaque. The text lists the number assigned to the scroll (1 through 1,564) and reads, “Czech Memorial Scroll, Westminster Synagogue London, 1964-5724.”

One of these lost Torahs, Number 508, was last traced to a Scottsdale synagogue that no longer exists.

When a memorial scroll is entrusted to a congregation on a long-term loan, the congregation is committed to giving the Torah a prominent and meaningful role in the synagogue’s spiritual and educational life, according to a document that lists the trust’s conditions of the loan. “Each scroll is a messenger from a martyred community that depends on its new congregation to ensure that they are remembered as individuals, and that their local Jewish heritage is cherished.”

As it says in “The Second Life of Czech Torah Scrolls,” a publication by the Jewish Museum of Prague: “These congregations are building a bridge between the past, present and future and are helping to preserve a historical memory of events that must never be forgotten.”

To learn more about the Czech Torah Scrolls, visit czechtorah.org. Contact Lee Shedroff, 623-376-8737 or lshedroff@aol.com. Contact Susan Boyer, czechtorah@aol.com. At press time, Jewish News was unable to confirm the whereabouts of all the Holocaust Torahs in the Valley to provide a full list here.

This article first appeared in the Oct. 5, 2012 issue of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.

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