Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
This Shabbat marks a special anniversary in modern Jewish life, and I am pleased that Rabbis Karen and Micah wanted to mark this occasion and invited me to speak. I feel privileged to have been involved a little bit in what makes tonight special.
In November, 1988 the Jewish world commemorated the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, which many scholars believe marked the beginning of the Holocaust. In preparing for our own Temple observances, I asked Rabbi Rosenthal, of blessed memory, about our Czech Torah. He explained that Moe and Dorothy Gimp had very generously made possible the acquisition of a Czech Scroll for Congregation B’nai Emunah, the Fenster Museum, and Temple Israel. Frankly, Rabbi Rosenthal said he did not know much about our scroll, which had arrived here in 1971.
I examined the little bronze plate on our scroll, which indicated that it was from the Czech Memorial Torah Trust and was number 815. On a long shot, in October, 1988 I wrote to the Memorial Scrolls Committee at Westminster Synagogue in London, where I knew the scrolls had been housed.
The Trustee of the Trust wrote back, telling me that scroll number 815, which was allocated on permanent loan to Temple Israel, was written in the 19th century and came from the town of Vlasim. “If you want more information about the town of Vlasim, I suggest that you contact Mr. Frank Steiner,” and she provided me with an address and even a phone number in North Miami, Florida.
I immediately called and Mrs. Steiner answered. She said her husband was away for a couple of hours and would be happy to call me back – but she said she could talk to me about the Jewish community of Vlasim herself.
Frank and Hana Steiner are Czech Jews themselves. She explained that the town of Vlasim is located approximately 40 miles southeast of Prague, and its story is similar to many other European Jewish communities. It’s a small town, population about 14,000. Jews lived in those parts of Czechoslovakia known as Bohemia and Moravia since the Middle Ages, and many lived in tiny villages. Beginning in the middle of the19th century, Jews tended to move toward the urban centers of Czechoslovakia. We know that in 1921 there were still 87 Jews in Vlasim.
In 1939 the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia. Hana Steiner was compelled to do forced labor in a munitions factory in Vlasim, which was an ammunition-manufacturing center. Somehow the Steiners managed to get out of Czechoslovakia. On December 11, 1942, 63 Jews – then the entire Jewish population of Vlasim – were deported to Terezin, the way station to Auschwitz. Four survived.
A couple of hours later, Frank Steiner called and shared what information he had on the Jews of Vlasim and followed it up with a letter, including an Encyclopedia Judaica article on the Czech Memorial Scrolls, a list of the deported Jews of Vlasim, and a map of Slovakia indicating the location of Vlasim.
On November 11, 1988, during our Kristallnacht Service of Remembrance, we rededicated the Temple’s Holocaust scroll. You may remember that we asked Dr. George Pikler to hold the Torah Scroll that night, because George’s family had left Czechoslovakia shortly after Kristallnacht.
In keeping with the custom which has developed in Jewish life, our Czech Scroll is adorned only with a yad – no breastplate, crown or rimonim, and usually stands proudly in the center of our ark. For the past 25 years, since we rededicated it, we have used that scroll for two special occasions. First, on the last day of Pesach when the Cantor chants the victorious song at the sea; and secondly, I’ve asked our confirmands to chant from this scroll at their Confirmation service on Shavuot Eve. They introduce their reading by affirming that they carry on for that community of Vlasim Jews who no longer exist.
Last month at the Retired Reform Rabbis Convention, I was among a dozen rabbis in a seminar with Evelyn Friedlander on the subject of the Czech Scrolls. Mrs. Friedlander’s late husband, Alfred, a 1952 ordainee of the Hebrew Union College, served as Rabbi of Westminster Synagogue in London. She is now Chair of the Memorial Scrolls Trust, and I listened to her updated account of how these scrolls came to be saved. It is a little different than the Encyclopedia Judaica account, and I share this miraculous story with you tonight.
In most countries overrun by the Nazis, as Jews were murdered or transported for slaughter, their synagogues, homes and their contents were destroyed. It was different in Czechoslovakia for some reason. In Bohemia and Moravia, the Nazis ordered what we would call klay kodesh in Hebrew, the ritual items – Bibles, prayerbooks, kiddish cups, chanukiot, Torah scrolls – were collected and sent to the Central Jewish Museum in Prague. More than 100,000 ritual items were warehoused in a disused, suburban Prague synagogue. The Nazis maintained that the purpose of this museum was to serve as a testimonial to the “extinct Jewish people and the extinct Jewish tradition.” Eventually the museum housed 1,564 Torah scrolls.
After the war, with fewer than 8,000 Czechoslovakian Jews having survived – remember, from a population of more than 100,000 before the war – the scrolls remained in this unused synagogue. Following the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, discussions were held with Israel with the view of selling the collection, but the negotiations dragged on. The surviving remnant of the Prague Jewish community lacked the resources to maintain the museum, so it came under the control of the Czech state authorities.
The sifrei Torah proved an embarrassment. They could not effectively be displayed as museum exhibits, and they would eventually deteriorate if they remained rolled up and unused. In fact, the synagogue housing the scrolls was near a river which overflowed each spring and so some of the scrolls became water damaged, and all of them suffered from the moisture in the stuffy, stale, humid rooms.
In 1963 a prominent British art dealer who enjoyed the confidence of the Czech government agency responsible for cultural property was able to arrange for the scrolls to be acquired by Ralph Yablon – a name which should not be forgotten by Jews. Yablon was a very successful London businessman and philanthropist. The understanding was that the scrolls would be entrusted to a responsible, noncommercial body. The officers of Westminster Synagogue, an independent London congregation, accepted Mr. Yablon’s invitation to undertake this responsibility. After a preliminary examination in Prague, the scrolls were carefully packed and shipped to London.
On February 8, 1964 – 50 years ago tomorrow – a consignment unprecedented in Jewish history, arrived at Westminster Synagogue. Some scrolls did not have protective covering. Others were bundled in tattered prayer shawls. Two were wrapped in women’s garments, another tied with a small belt from a child’s coat. One scroll was splattered with human blood.
The scrolls were housed in numbered cradles in specially constructed racks, while the work of inspection and classification was undertaken. Mrs. Friedlander wrote: “In those early days, the racks of scrolls lay as if in a morgue, and no one could view them without weeping.”
Each scroll was expertly examined. Mr. Yablon and the Memorial Scrolls Trust which was established, hired sofrim – Torah scribes – to examine and record the condition of each scroll, the state of the calligraphy, and -so far as could be ascertained – the age and place of origin of the scroll. Many of the labels attached more than 20 years before had survived and provided valuable information; in some cases, despairing messages were concealed in the scrolls.
On the basis of this painstaking study, the scrolls were classified into grades ranging from those without serious defect and thus readily usable, to those beyond satisfactory repair and therefore only for commemorative use. Between these were the middle grades comprising many scrolls which could be made usable by repair.
The formidable task of administering the work of restoration and distribution was undertaken by a committee headed by Ruth Shaffer, daughter of the renowned Yiddish novelist and dramatist, Sholem Asch. Mrs. Shaffer worked for more than 45 years in this position and was succeeded by Evelyn Friedlander, whom I heard last month.
In the years following 1964, visitors from many parts of the world came to Westminster Synagogue to see the scrolls and often to witness the work of restoration in progress. Jews and non-Jews, including visitors from schools and other institutions, were deeply moved by the human tragedy implicit in what they saw and by the scope and importance of the project.
The arrival of the scrolls in London, 50 years ago this weekend, had been widely reported and requests for scrolls soon reached the committee from many parts of the world. The process of allocation and distribution, which started soon after classification had been completed, continued for years. The scrolls were distributed to synagogues, educational institutions, and other bodies wishing to have a memorial to the communities destroyed in the Holocaust. The scrolls were entrusted to recipients on “permanent loan.” Congregations were invited to make a contribution toward the cost of repair and distribution. Each scroll bears a brass identification tag.
Approximately 100 scrolls which were beyond repair became the nucleus of the Scrolls Museum housed at the Westminster Synagogue. The state Jewish Museum of Prague continues to hold the other ritual items – thousands and thousands of Torah ornaments – crowns, pointers, breastplates, wimples, the textiles of the ark curtains, and so forth. Some of those you may recall were made part of a traveling exhibit called “The Precious Legacy.” God willing, Nancy and I plan to visit the Prague Museum this coming May.
We used to refer to the scrolls as “Holocaust Scrolls.” The preference today is “Czech Memorial Scrolls.” In the 50 years since their arrival in London, these scrolls have brought new life to new Jewish communities, and provided a unique way to remember shattered communities. They are read in almost 1400 synagogues around the world with a combined membership of over a quarter million. They have been used by an estimated 100,000 B’nai Mitzvah, confirming a new generation in their Judaism – the ultimate symbol that Nazi extermination failed.
A number of scrolls are going to be brought back this weekend to the Westminster Synagogue for the commemoration on Sunday, really a celebration of what I consider to be a modern miracle. This poster of our students holding our Czech MemorialScroll will be on display.
I believe that this scroll is our Temple’s most precious possession. It has been appraised by our sofer for insurance purposes as worth $45,000. Obviously no monetary figure can fully account for its worth. This is the Torah scroll of 67 Jews of Vlasim, Czechoslovakia. It is our privilege to have it in our midst, and it is our responsibility to make sure that its story is told.
There are no Jews in Vlasim today. We carry on for them. May we be worthy of perpetuating their memory by the way we reverently use their most sacred possession and live its lessons.
On this 50th anniversary of its deliverance, I ask the congregation to rise for the prayer which we prayed 25 years ago.
“Our God and God of all generations of Jewish faith, may this Torah scroll serve as more than just a monument and memorial to the Six Million. May it stand in our Holy Ark as a survivor and a witness. A survivor of the greatest period of destruction in our history and, at the same time, a witness to the indestructability of our faith and our people. In its presence we affirm once more the words spoken by so many of our people with their last breath of life, the words which affirm tonight our commitment to live as Jews. Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Elohainu, Adonai Echad.”