Czech Torah Page
- There was a small Jewish museum in Prague (JMP) since 1906, the third oldest in the world.
- When the Nazis invaded and closed synagogues, those close to Prague sent their valuables to the JMP for safekeeping.
- The Nazi leaders in the Protectorate were collecting books they thought might have value and instructed the Jewish communities to send them to Prague in early 1942.
- A letter was sent out by Karel Stein, curator at the JMP in August 1942, to all communities to “send all their items to Prague. To include their Torah, books, silver, textiles, furniture, and items of the mohels and chevrah Kadisha such as saucers, bowls, knives, needles, and nail clippers
- The collection filled over 13 buildings in the center of Prague and was meticulously cataloged and stored.
- After the war, approximately 5000 Jews returned and were helped with ritual objects to restart their communities.
The Nazis collected gold and silver ornaments, ceremonial objects, and Torah scrolls from towns all over Europe. [see note] A group of Czechoslovakian Jews was forced to arrange and catalog the items which had been assembled in Prague. After the war, the Communist Government of Czechoslovakia released the Torah Scrolls.
In 1964, the Memorial Scrolls Committee of Westminster Synagogue in London arranged for the shipment of 1564 scrolls to the Synagogue, where they were cataloged and repaired and restored when possible. Each Torah was given a numbered brass plaque to identify its origin. Scrolls that could not be made fit for synagogue use were sent to religious and educational institutions as solemn memorials. Those that were repaired and could be used in religious service were sent to fulfill requests of synagogues all over the world in return for a contribution toward restoration expenses.
The Memorial Scrolls Trust, a U.K. non-profit organization, has recently begun to reach out to synagogues and other institutions who received the Czech scrolls to gather updated information about them. They plan to continue to enhance their website so it becomes “a repository of all knowledge concerning the 1564 scrolls, the Jewish history of the towns they came from, the Jews of those towns, their fate, survivors stories, photos, etc. Also where the scrolls are now, how they are used and honored etc.” More information about the Memorial Scrolls Trust is available on their website.
In October 2015, a delegation of TBC members transported our Memorial Scroll to Temple Sinai of Sharon, Mass., where a number of Czech scrolls from around the region were reunited for a special ceremony and carried together in a procession.
More background on TBC’s Holocaust Memorial Scroll and Historical photos from Ceske’ Budejovice may be found on our special Pinterest site, “Our Torah-Memorial Torah Scroll #529” The certificate of identification for Memorial Torah Scroll #529.
Note: Previously it had been thought that the Czech scrolls and other Jewish ceremonial objects had been collected by the Nazis as part of a plan to set up a “museum of an extinct race” after the war. As it turns out there is apparently no documentary proof for this theory, and recent studies indicate that the saving of scrolls and other ritual objects was the result of the actions of members of the Jewish community. For more information, see:
“SURVIVOR OF THE HOLOCAUST”
A Torah Scroll from Czechoslovakia Surviving the Holocaust and Reconsecrated by Temple Emanu-El Birmingham, Alabama 1986/5746
I have always been deeply moved by our Jewish liturgy. One particular phrase, part of the introduction to our ‘Kaddish’ prayer, continues to have a profound effect on me, “… whereby the living honor the dead.”
For many years, Janis and I have wanted to find some suitable form of memorial that we felt would be appropriate to honor our deceased parents. Nothing that was suggested to us really appealed to either of us until we learned of the Czechoslovakian Torah Scrolls that had miraculously survived the Nazis’ occupation of that country.
Rabbi Steven L. Jacobs called me regarding the availability of one of these Torah Scrolls and then contacted the Westminster Synagogue in London, England, to arrange for the “permanent loan” of these such Torah scrolls for us to present to Temple Emanu-El. He also helped us to select the appropriate cover, which is simple and tailored, reminiscent of a ‘tallit’ or prayer shawl, and further suggested that we not get a breastplate but only a ‘yad’ or pointer so as not to detract from the stark simplicity of this Torah Scroll. These two items were purchased in America through sources with which he is familiar.
The next major goal was the construction of a cabinet that would do justice to such a treasure, and for this, I turned to artist Cheryl Totty and craftsman Dan Ingram. Cheryl, Dan, and I met with Rabbi Jacobs for most exciting several hours during which the Rabbi showed us the Torah Scroll (which had only recently arrived). He then opened it and read from it in Hebrew and translated what he read not English as he went along. Cheryl and Dan, being quite religious Christians, were almost in a state of shock as they heard both the Hebrew and English versions of the Jewish Scriptures with which they were quite familiar.
We then went into the Sanctuary and the Rabbi opened the Ark and showed us how the Torah Scrolls rested there. We discussed the fact that we wanted the cabinet to be compatible with the woodwork in the Temple.
Then came the design of the cabinet. WE three went back to my office where I sketched out what I thought would be an appropriate general appearance/ Cheryl and Dan added their own expertise. Since Rabbi Jacobs had indicated that there might be certain Worship Services when he would like to move the cabinet and the Torah Scroll to a different location in the Temple, I suggested that we make the base and cabinet in two separate pieces.
The successful completion of this beautiful cabinet which now stands outside the center doors of our Sanctuary is a tribute to the awe and reverence this Torah Scroll inspired in the four of us.
My roots are deeply implanted in Temple Emanu-el. My father, Jacob Friedman, became a member of the congregation soon after he arrived in Birmingham in 1897 and served as Treasurer of the Temple for approximately twenty-five years. My earliest memories of the Temple are hearing my mother, Sara, sing in the choir, which she did for most of her adult married life.
As a young boy, Friday Evening Sabbat services were a must for all three of us, and I believe that this early indoctrination into Temple Emanu-El led eventually to my serving three terms on the Board of Trustees as well as two terms as Vice-President of our Congregation.
Janis and her family moved to Birmingham in 1937 from Montgomery, Alabama, where Morris and Rose Monsky raised their three children, Sylvia, Leroy, a former All-American football player at the University of Alabama, and Janis. The Monskys were members of Temple Beth-Or in Montgomery, and their roots were bound up in that Temple prior to their move to Birmingham. Soon after, they joined Temple Emanu-El and regularly attended Worship Services and other functions here.
As I have indicated on the brass plaque which is embedded in the cabinet that now houses this Torah Scroll: “It is, therefore, with great pride and with a feeling of deep humility that we present this Torah Scroll to our Congregation in memory of our beloved parents.” Paul Friedman, Sr. January 1986/Tevet 5746
THE FATE OF CZECHOSLOVAKIAN JEWRY
In March 1939 Slovakia was declared an independent state, with Father Jozef Tiso, a Catholic priest, as Prime Minister, and with the Hlinka People’s party, a right-wing Catholic nationalist group, as the only legal party. Slovakia had to adhere to the German- Italian-Japanese axis, to provide rail and road access for the Germans to the east, and after the German attack on Russia, also to provide fighting troops. In October 1939 Tiso was elected President; pro-Nazi Voytech Tuka became Prime Minister/ Sano Mach, head of the Hlinka Guard, became Minister of the Interior, and Ferdinand Durcansky, Foreign Minister.
For the first two years of the war, Slovakia enjoyed significant benefits from its new status, such as increased trade and help in industrial development, but after the German defeat at Stalingrad and the turning of the tide of the war, Slovak sentiment among both government and people became noticeably less pro-German. At the beginning of 1944, when the Soviet army stood at the frontiers of Ruthenia, young Slovaks began to be more responsive to the appeals for resistance issued by the Czech government-in-exile. Soldiers in the Slovak army began to desert to join resistance groups in the mountains. Popular opposition grew. Open fighting broke out in August 19443 Tiso then proclaimed martial law and total mobilization. The Slovak uprising gave the Germans the pretext they needed to occupy the country. Serious fighting between the Slovak partisans and the Germans continued through October when the Germans succeeded in crushing the resistance. The Russian advance through Slovakia Began in January 1948, but it was not before April 1945 that Slovakia was liberated from German occupation.
JEWS IN PREWAR SLOVAKIA
In 1938 about 135,000 Jews lived in Slovakia, of whom 40,000 lived in the territory ceded to Hungary (Ruthenia and Subcarpathia). About 5,000 emigrated voluntarily before the war, leaving about 90,000 Jews, 3 percent of the population. Slovakia was poorer and far less industrialized than the historic Czech crown provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, and so were its Jews. They were engaged mostly in retail trade and handicrafts, servicing the peasantry.
The small segment of well-to-do Jews spoke Hungarian and were assimilated, maintaining religious congregations of a somewhat lukewarm character. Most other Jews were highly traditional, among whom Hasidic rebbes enjoyed huge followings.
During the life3 of the Czechoslovak Republic, Jews enjoyed full civic and religious rights, even though anti-Semitism, particularly among the predominantly peasant population, was widespread.
MEMORIAL SCROLLS COMMITTEE
WESTMINSTER Synagogue, Rutland Gardens,
London SW7 1BX
The 1,564 sacred Scrolls which came to Westminster Synagogue on 7th February 1964, had been gathered together in Prague, from the desolated synagogues of Bohemia and Moravia, by the Nazi official in charge of the embroidered vestments, and ceremonial objects of silver and gold, were similarly collected by the Nazi, and many of these articles are now in the State Jewish Museum in Prague. The Scrolls themselves lay piled in the disused Michle Synagogue for more than 20 years.
In 1963, with the sympathetic concern of the Czechoslovak Government, Mer. Eric Estorick, a London art connoisseur, was able to arrange with Aritis, the authority responsible for such treasure, for the acquisition of the Scrolls.
Mr. Ralph Yablon of London responded generously to a request to finance the enterprise/and, at his insistence, Mr. Chimen Abramsky traveled twice to Prague to make a cursory examination of the Scrolls. The packing and shipping were themselves no small undertakings and all was done with meticulous care. It was agreed from the outset by the Czech Authorities and the British interested parties that the Scrolls should pass in trust of a responsible non-commercial body/ and Mr. Yablon nominated Westminster Synagogue. The offer was solemnly accepted by the synagogue officers/ and a Memorial Scrolls committee was formed under the chairmanship of Mr. Frank R. Waley, then chairman and later president of the Synagogue. Rabbi Harold F. Reinhart, founder Minister of Westminster Synagogue, gave his devoted attention to every aspect of the care and distribution of the Scrolls from the moment of their arrival until his death in 1969.
The first task of the committee was the careful unpacking and numbering of the Scrolls, and the construction in three rooms of racks designed for the purpose, with positions properly numbered so that each of the 1,564 Scrolls could be readily accounted for through the period of their study and distribution. Then came the major task of inspection. A system of cataloging was devised/ and in accordance therewith, each Scroll was gone through by an expert, and a record made so far as was possible, of the origin and age of the Scroll, the physical condition of its components and, most important, the state of the writing and the defects therein. On the basis of this study, the Scrolls were classified into five grades, from best to unusable. The middle grades are such as can be made usable by a little or a greater amount of labor, and such as have some parts which are or can be made usable. It is hoped that eventually, with much effort and at great expense, the majority of the Scrolls will be made fit for use in Synagogues. Of the remainder, some will serve as sacred memorials.
The experts who worked on this task for part of or all of the ten months from July 1964 to April 1965, were: Mr. Chimen Abramsky, Mr. Morris Sanders, Rabbi Ilisha Rosenfeld, the Rev. Jacob Akiba, Mr. David Acoca and Mr. Moise Assouline, the last three under the supervision of Rabbi Pinchas Toledano.
On 28th June 1965, a Solemn Assembly was held at Westminster Synagogue to mark the completion of the preliminary study of the Scrolls and the beginning of the task of distribution. The Assembly was representative of all sections of the Jewish community and included also members of the clergy and academics of different faiths. Sir Seymour Karminski, President of the Congregation, presided; Der. Brodie, then Chief Rabbi, read the memorial prayers; and Dr. Reinhart spoke of the past tragedy and future hope of which the Scrolls were a symbol. A message of good wishes was read from the Resident of the Prague Jewish community.
From the beginning, the Memorial Scrolls Committee has received the encouragement of the Congregation and the leaders of the Anglo-Jewish community: the then Chief Rabbi, Dr. Brodie; the Haham, Dr. Gaon, who gave valued practical help; Dr. Richard Barnett, of the British Museum; and many, many more.
The object of the Memorial Scrolls committee is to distribute the sacred Scrolls throughout the world wherever they can be of most service. The press, both general, led by the New York Times, and Jewish, gave publicity to the arrival of the Scrolls in London/ and during the past ten years, hundreds of requests have come from all parts of the world. The committee has decided that priority shall be given to requests from synagogues and in particular from those in immediate need of Scrolls for use in their services. It is appreciated that many synagogues which already possess sufficient Scrolls for use n worship may wish to receive a Czech Scroll as a memorial to the martyred communities, and the committee hopes that many imperfect Scrolls will serve this sacred purpose. When a request is approved by the committee, a Scroll handed over on a “permanent loan” / and the recipient is asked to make a contribution towards the expenses involved.
For the present, it is hoped that congregations will make larger contributions in accordance with their means, as indeed quite a number of recipients have already done. For, as the work proceeds with the more seriously damaged Scrolls, the funds which the committee now have in hand will be rapidly depleted; and failing continued generous support, the difficult work of restoring the most damaged Scrolls will be delayed.
Each Scroll bears a brass tablet with a number corresponding to the number on a certificate which describes the origin of the Scroll and any known particulars.
A few Scrolls, not necessarily fit for use in a synagogue but appropriate as solemn memorials, have been assigned for display in religious and educational centers, and it is hoped that many future applicants will find these Scrolls appropriate to their needs. One went to Westminster Abbey, where it was a feature in the exhibition arranged by the Council of Christians and Jews in connection with the Cathedral’s 900th Anniversary Commemoration; this Scroll is now permanently in the library of the Council of Christians and Jews. Others have gone to Brandeis University, New York/ Northwestern University, Chicago/ University of Rochester, New York/ Kings College, Cambridge/ Leeds University/ University of Southampton/ University of Warwick/ Clifton College/ University of York, and York Cathedral.
The committee continues to receive many requests; and they will not rest until the sacred treasures shall have found their most appropriate homes, to honor the memory of the martyrs, and to bring light to future generations.
It has been more than four decades since the full and horrifying revelations of the wanton slaughter of Six Million Jewish men, women, and children not to mention more than twenty million others-were first brought home to us. Yet, daily, we continue to be assaulted by the Holocaust, due in large measure to the veritable flood of articles, exhibits, and films which are produced. The television special ‘Holocaust” continues to rank as among the most impressive viewing audience in the history of the medium the presidential Commission on the Holocaust has concluded its work and presented its recommendations to the President urging the creation of a “living memorial museum” as a fitting tribute to the sacred memories of those innocents who perished during the Second World War. The actual construction of the museum building has, at long last, begun.
Pain-filled questions of “How did it happen?” remain exposed in our collective consciousness much like a searing wound that refuses to heal. Humanity stands condemned by the silent cries of those whose only crime was their desire to live at peace in this world. Redemption can only come about by our grasping of that hope which faith and religion have to offer, and by our willingness to perpetuate the memories of those martyred millions through our commitment towards ensuring that the Holocaust remains a historical event and not the prelude to future repetitions.
This Torah Scroll from the now-decimated Jewish Community of Czechoslovakia, which has found a new resting place in the holy precincts of our Congregation, is concrete evidence of our own commitment to a future sensitive to the tragedies of the past and determined, in the words of our Prayer Book, “to build a world of peace for Your children.” It is both fitting and appropriate that our Congregation, the oldest Jewish congregation in the City of Birmingham, have on permanent loan such a Torah Scroll. Since our initial correspondence with Mrs. Rugh Schaffer, Honorary Secretary of the Memorials Scrolls Committee of the Westminster Synagogue, London, England, in September 1984, until the reconsecration of this Torah in 1986, bringing this Torah Scroll home to Temple Emanu-El was understood by Paul and Janis Friedman to be a memorial tribute to their beloved parents, Jacob and Sara Friedman and Morris and Rose Monsky. A dedicatory plaque has been placed on the Torah cabinet to that effect. To Paul and Janis go the heartfelt gratitude and appreciation of the membership of Temple Emanu-El.
Rabbi Steven L. Jacobs
I will give them in My House and within My walls, a monument and a name…I will give them an everlasting name which shall not perish.”
JEWS IN WARTIME SLOVAKIA
In April 1939, the new Slovak state began to enact anti-Jewish legislation, defining the status of a Jew along religious rather than racial lines (Slovakia was a Catholic country, ruled by a priest and a Catholic party). In rapid succession came a series of decrees excluding and restricting Jews in various professions and occupations. Ant-Semitic violence on the part of the Hlinka Guard accompanied the administrative anti-Semitism.
In August 1940 SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Dieter Wisliceny, Eichmann’s representative from the Reich Security Main Office, arrived in Bratislava as an adviser on Jewish affairs. The Hlinka Guard and the Freiwillige Schutzstaffel (Slovak volunteers in the SS) were reorganized on the model of the SS and given the responsibility of carrying out anti-Jewish measures.
On September 26, 1940, a new decree established the Ustredna Zidov (Center of Jews) as the only authority permitted to represent the Jews, responsible to the Central Economy Office (under the Minister of the Interior) and obliged to transmit its instructions to the Jews.
On September 9, 1941, the Slovak government promulgated a major body of anti-Jewish legislation, containing 270 articles, redefining the Jews as a racial group, requiring them to wear the identifying yellow Star of David making them liable to forced labor and evicting them from specific towns and districts.
Plans for deportation began late in 1941; in March 1942 five assembly points for deportees were set up, and despite intensive efforts on the part of Jewish communal leaders to halt them, deportations continued unabated from March through August 1942. By then, only 25,000 Jews remained in Slovakia. Three more transports left in September and October. Some 58,000 Jews, 75 percent of Slovak Jews, had been deported, mostly to Auschwitz.
Further deportations were put off, partly through the intervention of the Catholic church and partly through a strategy of bribery and promises of financial profit that the Jewish leaders used in negotiations with Slovaks and with Wisliceny himself.
After the Slovak national uprising in 1944, the SS took 19,000 prisoners, of whom 5,000 were Jews. Under the subsequent German occupation, 13,500 more Jews were deported. No more than 5,000 Slovakian Jews remained in the country in hiding or on Aryan papers. About 10,000 of those deported n 1944 survived and returned to Slovakia.
(SOURCE: Lucy S. Dawidowicz. The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945. New York, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1975, pages377-379. Reprinted by permission.)
“My Speech At Temple Emanu-El On Yom Kippur Afternoon 2004”
I am glad to have the opportunity to say a few words today in the rededication of the Czechoslovakian Torah which Janis and I procured for our congregation in 1985. This was to honor our beloved parents Jacob & Sara Friedman and Morris and Rose Monsky.
I have always been deeply moved by our magnificent Jewish liturgy and particularly one phrase which is part of the introduction to our Kaddish Prayer.
I heard it as a very young child, and it was from our old union prayer book. It still has a profound effect on me. This phrase states, in part, – “Whereby the living honor the dead.”—–“Whereby the living honor the dead.” It was truly the great significance of this phrase that prompted Janis and me to give something most memorable to our congregation and temple in honor of our parents.
We had heard of the Czechoslovakian Torahs and we decided to find out more about them. We therefore contacted Rabbi Steven Jacobs, who was our Rabbi at the time, and after a lengthy meeting, wherein Steve gave us the whole history of the Torahs, we asked him to take the necessary steps to get one for our temple. It finally arrived in 1985 and we rededicated it in a very beautiful service on January 31, 1986.
WE also had a fine cabinet made for it and for many years it resided in its cabinet in the foyer as you enter the main sanctuary. During our massive construction years, it was housed at the Southside Baptist Church where we held our services.
Early this year Rabbi Miller indicated to Janis and me that the Torah needed some relettering considering it was approximately 150 years old.
He also said he would like to make it a “Living” Torah, take it out of the cabinet, and put it in the Arc to be used in our services.
WE agreed and he then sent it to Rabbi Honan in Huntsville who is a specialist in this work. We received it back just recently.
Back in 1985 I had written a brief overview of the unbelievable odyssey of the Czech Torahs, had it engraved on a brass plate, and then embedded into the cabinet.
I will now read from it to give you additional information about the travails that these Torahs endured-
“During the madness that was the Holocaust in Europe, the Nazis, in their sadistic rape of Czechoslovakia, decided upon a particularly fiendish plot.
They stole all of the Torah Scrolls from the Jewish Congregations in Czechoslovakia for the explicit purpose of later building museums to exemplify what they, in their depravity, perceived to be Jewish “decadence.” The focal point of these museums was to be these Torah Scrolls.
The Nazis stored them in a warehouse in Prague, Czechoslovakia, where they were discovered after WWII. They then were brought to England in 1964 to the Westminster Synagogue in London, where restoration and cataloging were begun. With loving care, they have been carefully restored and have been made available to congregations all over the world to use and protect for posterity.
Although this Torah Scroll, which is in magnificent condition, cannot be considered to be an outright purchase, it is on permanent loan to Temple Emanu-El as long as our Temple is in existence.
It is, therefore, with great pride and with a feeling of deep humility that we present this Torah Scroll to our congregation in memory of our beloved parents”
Jacob and Sara Friedman
Morris and Rose Monsky
Paul and Janis Friedman