Our Esteemed Visitor

by Shari Zuber

As the years progress, the numbers of our human Holocaust survivors are dwindling at an exponential rate, and with them pass the first-hand stories of their experiences of horror and courage during the conflagration known as the Shoah. However, the targets of the destruction of Judaism were not only flesh and blood, but also the foundations of our very faith: our prayer books, our houses of worship, and our most sacred text, our Torah. Each scroll, as each person, had a history, a home, and a tale to tell.

Since 1992, our synagogue has been honored to be the adopted home for a Holocaust Torah survivor, number 896. On the evening of January 29, 2023, we were fortunate enough to learn the history of our venerable resident which is housed in its abode outside the Wasserman daily chapel. Lois Roman, a trustee of the Memorial Scrolls Trust, which is based in London, enlightened the more than fifty Zoom attendees to the miraculous story of how 1564 Czech Torahs were rescued from the Nazi devastation, which claimed approximately 100,000 Czechoslovakian Jews.

The saga of Czech Jewry dates back more than a millennium, with Prague’s Old New Synagogue having its origins in 1270, and which still stands to this very day. Over the centuries the Jewish population of the Czech Lands became predominantly followers of Reform Judaism, still attending synagogue and observing the holidays, but assimilating to the culture of their neighbors. The rate of intermarriage, 35%, is what perhaps ameliorated the anti-Semitism which was found in the surrounding nations. With the rise of Nazism in neighboring Germany, some of the Jews of Czechoslovakia saw the handwriting on the wall and fled the nation, seeking a safe haven elsewhere.

In 1938, per the Munich Agreement, Great Britain, Italy, and France ceded the Sudetenland, the part of Czechoslovakia abutting Germany, to Hitler, based on the claim that the region’s population was largely German. This was an attempt at appeasement by the dominant powers of the time and the Czech government had no say in the matter. Parts of Bohemia and Moravia, where the survivor Torah scrolls originated, were now in Nazi hands.

On September 1, 1939, German troops marched through Czechoslovakia on the way to the conquest of Poland. SS troops were stationed in Prague and the Nazi leader in charge had a passion for ancient manuscripts. He ordered the Jews in Prague to amass the silver and ancient books. This was seen by some as the opportunity to possibly save the sacred Torah scrolls from destruction, so all Judaica from 300 towns was brought to the Jewish Museum in Prague, which had been established in 1906.

The fact that Moravia changed its allegiance to side with the Axis powers may also have contributed to the salvation of the Czech Torahs, for Prague was never bombed by either the Allies or their enemies.

Once the Jews who were sorting and cataloguing the Judaic artifacts which had been gathered at the museum finished their vital task, they were sent to Terezin concentration camp, 30 miles north of Prague, eventually to be deported to the death camps. Miraculously, one museum curator, Hana Volavková, did survive the war and she served as the museum’s director when the Communists took over the nation, some three years after WW II’s end.

Travel by westerners to the Communist bloc was difficult, although art dealers could obtain special visas to facilitate this obstacle. When Eric Estorick, an American curator of a London gallery, was approached by the Czech government in 1963, if he would care to procure the Torah scrolls which had been warehoused in Prague’s Jewish Museum, he consulted with Ralph Yablon, a founder of the Westminster Synagogue in Knightsbridge. Yablon agreed to purchase the 1564 Torah scrolls and he subsequently donated them to the shul. On a rainy Sunday afternoon in February of 1964, two truckloads containing 1564 grey bags arrived in Knightsbridge. When opened, revealed were horrendously kept sacred scrolls in various states of disrepair. Some were ripped, some burnt, others blood-stained, and others riddled with bullets. A poignant note was enclosed: “God, take care of us and remember us – The Jews.”

The Czech Torah which ICCJ hosts originated in the town of Dobris, in the region of Bohemia. Estimates place its age at roughly 150 years, its origins dating back to the 19th century, and like some Holocaust survivors, it bears a number, 896. Its journey to the doors of the then Israel Center of Hillcrest Manor began in the early 1990s, with a hand written letter penned by Sam Millman requesting a Torah scroll for the congregation to display as a tribute to the faith and to those lost in the Shoah. Ruth Shaffer of the Memorial Scrolls Trust was skeptical and responded to Sam by asking for a typewritten letter on synagogue stationery. Sam sent a second letter, also handwritten, on Men’s Club imprinted paper. Again, Sam’s message was deemed unacceptable and that is when Herman Haller intervened. As chairman of the ICHM Holocaust Committee, he adhered to Ms. Shaffer’s protocols and scribed an eloquent letter which swayed the final decision and started our Czech guest’s journey to its new home in Flushing. David and Helen Fels donated the abode in which our visitor now resides, outside the Wasserman chapel.

On Thursday, February 9th, 2023, ICCJ’s Rabbi Hillel Lavery-Yisraëli unrolled the entire scroll, Beresheit through Devarim (Genesis to Deuteronomy) so that those in attendance could bear witness to the beauty of the script, the fragility of the document, and despite it being pasul (not kosher), its testament to the history of our most horrific age in Jewish humanity and the miracle of its survival. On the stave, at Devarim’s conclusion, is the number 896, one of 1564 treasures which God chose to preserve for posterity.

For over 30 years, the Torah was open to Parshat Shemini, which contains the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, who were incinerated by God for offering “strange fire”. Indeed, in the Holocaust the Jews of Europe were consumed in a flame of hatred which destroyed 2/3 of our brethren of that continent. Perhaps that is the message from those who asked that they be remembered, that we must guard against our people ever being so consumed again.

Click to enlarge

The final column of the Torah, being displayed by Rabbi Hillel Lavery-Yisraëli. Note the decorations on many of the letters.

March 2023