Fifty-one years ago, 1,564 Torah scrolls rescued from synagogues in pre-war Czechoslovakia arrived at the Westminster Synagogue in London. After months of sorting, examining and cataloguing, The Memorial Scrolls Trust was established to distribute these Torahs back into the life of Jewish congregations across the world.
About 20 scrolls found their way to congregations and organizations in Arizona and in February, they will be brought to downtown Phoenix for a Holocaust Torah reunion. Congregations and organizations throughout the state, from Sierra Vista to Prescott, are being asked to bring their Czech Memorial Scroll to the Czech Torah 51st Liberation Anniversary celebration on Feb. 9 at the Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center.
The commemoration ceremony, planned by Lee Shedroff of the Memorial Scroll Trust in Phoenix and led by Rabbi Barton Lee, rabbi emeritus of Hillel at Arizona State University, will include a procession of the Torahs. The program will also feature Michael Heppner, research director of the Memorial Scroll Trust in London, who will speak about “The Myth of the Museum,” which confronts the legend that there was a Nazi plan for a “museum of an extinct race.”
Additionally, representatives from all of the Arizona congregations and organizations that have one of these Torahs are invited to attend a 1-5 p.m. workshop that day, led by Heppner. He will discuss how to research their scrolls and learn about those who once prayed with it.
“We want these congregations to make these scrolls a part of their congregation, like melding the people who once prayed with them as congregants of congregations in Arizona,” said Susan Boyer, the U.S. director of the Memorial Scroll Trust in Los Angeles, who is expected to attend the Feb. 9 event. “It’s not that different. It was a nice congregation of people who would come and pray and for no good reason, they were taken away and killed and their scrolls were gathered up. … These scrolls remind us that we have to keep them precious.”
Jews had lived in Bohemia and Moravia for more than 1,000 years, and before World War II, there were at least 350 synagogues in those towns, according to memorialscrollstrust.org.
In 1942, 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 website.
In 1964, Jews in London purchased 1,564 Czech Memorial Scrolls – often called the “Holocaust Torahs” – from the Communist government and transported them to Westminster Synagogue in London.
About 1,400 of the 1,546 scrolls are currently on loan to congregations throughout the world, with more than 1,000 in the United States, according to Memorial Scrolls Trust. All of them remain the property of the trust and the others are in display at the trust’s museum, located at Westminster Synagogue in London.
Reunions similar to the one planned in Phoenix have been held in other cities, said Boyer. In 2005, about 400 people attended an event coordinated by a Los Angeles synagogue that brought its survivor Torah together with more than 20 Czech Torahs from around Southern California. A survivor who had lived in the same town where their Torah was from spoke at the event.
“We would like to see them used,” Boyer said. “Putting them in some sort of case and not remembering them, it’s too easy to walk by it. But if they’re in your ark and they’re brought out at least once a year – which is one of the new conditions of the loans are – then you … don’t forget to tell the story.”
Jeffrey Ohrenstein, who started as CEO of the Westminster Synagogue and the Memorial Scroll Trust in London earlier this month, will travel from London to attend the Phoenix reunion. Elaine Page, a Memorial Trust associate in Toronto, is also expected to attend.
Funding for the event included grants from the Jewish Community Foundation and the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix and is a component of the “Judaism in the Desert” exhibit currently on display at the center.
“Each of the rescued Czech scrolls is a messenger from a destroyed congregation, where there is no new generation to honor and remember those who went before,” Heppner wrote in an article about the scrolls.
“When they were sent across the world to resume their role in living congregations, the scrolls took with them a message. The message was to save the Jews from that congregation from the anonymity of being lost among the 6 million.”
This article first appeared in the Jan. 30, 2015 issue of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.