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Czech Holocaust Torah Scroll

Rockdale Temple/K.K. Bene Israel is home to a Torah scroll number 18, rescued from the town of Bzenec, Czechoslovakia during the Holocaust and is on permanent loan from the Memorial Scroll Trust in London, England. 

During the Shoah, the Nazis, looted art treasures from wherever their armies marched. They envisioned a permanent exhibition of Jewish relics that would outlive an extinct Jewish race; and to that end, they gathered together the gold and silver artifacts and ritual objects, as well as precious manuscripts and books from decimated temples. Among those vast treasures, were a great number of sacred Torah scrolls. The Nazis used Jewish prisoners to catalog them in a meticulously numbered and labeled system.

When the war came to an end, items were beautifully displayed in a state museum in Prague. But even with that, it did not guarantee that the Torah scrolls would survive over any great length of time. In order for them to do that, they would need to be unrolled from periodically to keep the parchment from perishing. The post-war surviving Jewish community was a mere fraction of its previous existence and they lacked the resources to maintain the collection properly. It seemed then, that the Torah scrolls were condemned to a slow, but continual, deterioration.

That was until 1963, when a group of prominent London art dealers and philanthropists gained the confidence of the Czech government. London’s Westminster Synagogue offered to house a portion of the scrolls in a Holocaust Memorial Museum and distribute the remaining ones within Jewish communities. 

On the February 7, 1964, a total of 1,564 scrolls arrived at Westminster where three rooms had been set aside to store and preserve them. Each scroll contained a number, and was placed into a compartment with the corresponding number. Sofrim, or scribes, were engaged to examine each Torah and to: record its history, its place and date of origin, the condition of its rollers, parchment and the quality of its writing. This process helped to distinguish those that were beyond repair from those that could be read from in synagogues around the world.

Some of the scrolls had no protective covering. Others were swathed in tattered prayer shawls. Two were wrapped in a woman’s garment, and another was tied with a small belt from a child’s coat. One Torah was splattered with blood, and still from another, a slip of paper fell out that read, “Please God, help us in these troubled times.”

There was great interest in the collection and people flocked from all over the world to view it. One visitor said he was shaken as he gazed at, “hundreds of corpses in transparent shrouds.” Another heard the echo of “the cry of hundreds of communities, ravaged and slain.” And still another described the collection as a mountain of spiritual bodies, glowing with the life of revelation, law and promise.”

Requests for Torahs soon reached Westminster from all parts of the world and began to be distributed bearing a brass identification plaque, and accompanied by a certificate of origin. One of the scrolls was presented to the White House, with Jimmy Carter as President, who promised to safeguard it as “a constant reminder of the undying spirit of human rights and dignity.”

To learn more, visit the Memorial Scrolls Trust and explore their Czech Torah Webpage Project, with interactive map linking over 1,000 scroll-holders around the world.




Wed, July 24 2024 18 Tammuz 5784