Holocaust Torah Scroll: A living breathing document

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This year, during the Erev Simchat Torah celebration, I had the honor of being the first person called to the bimah of Temple Emanu-El to cradle a rescued Czechoslovakian scroll and dance it around the main sanctuary during Hakafot. As someone who lost relatives during the Holocaust, I was grateful for the meaningful and emotional experience this connection to the past afforded me.

The scroll’s history goes back to Bohemia and Moravia, where Jews had lived for more than a thousand years. They developed a rich culture that was originally centered in Prague but later spread across a large number of communities in towns throughout the country. In 1939, the Nazis closed historical congregations, destroying their synagogues. In 1942, Prague’s Jews saved religious treasures from the city’s deserted communities. 

In February 1964, through a series of transactions and transfers, 1,564 Czechoslovakian Torahs arrived at Westminster Synagogue in London. There, the newly created Memorial Scrolls Trust lovingly repaired and restored them

Over the decades, the scrolls have been sent out on permanent loan to be restored to their proper place in Jewish life. After all, the Torah is a living, breathing document that, in order to be kept alive, must be seen and used. Today, three of the Czech scrolls reside in our community.

Temple Emanu-El, through the kindness of Prof. and Mrs. Burton Fischman, and honoring Harris Fischman (z”l), received its Memorial Scroll in late 1986. The community welcomed it during the Interfaith Commemoration of the Holocaust in the spring of 1987. Due to some damage, this scroll is not Kosher and cannot be used to chant from during services.

According to Rabbi Wayne Franklin, the scroll can still serve as a tool for teaching the Holocaust in the Religious School. Students enter the main sanctuary, remove it from the ark, and open the scroll. They learn where it came from, how it came to be in Emanu-El’s possession and what happened in Czechoslovakia during the Holocaust.

In 1967, the still young Temple Habonim in Barrington became the guardian of its first Torah. It brought in a Sofer to repair the scroll so that it could be used regularly. The process entailed five visits, over about a year and a half, to return the scroll to its Kosher status. The Sofer still comes every other year for maintenance.

According to Rabbi Andrew Klein, the scroll is used at various times throughout the year, including the High Holy Days and Simchat Torah. Habonim’s adults and Bar and Bat Mitzvah students who have a connection to the Holocaust chant from it. To keep the memory of the scroll’s origin alive, the story of its history is told whenever it is used.

As Klein observes, “When the Sofer wrote it, he had no idea what would eventually happen to it or to his community, but he would be delighted to know that, 250 years later, it was still being used. And, he would be shocked that, today, women are chanting from it.”

The Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center (SBHEC) in Providence received its Memorial Scroll in 1995, the same year as the Holocaust Education and Resource Center of Rhode Island opened. It came via Richard and Lynn Glick to honor the memory of Lynn’s grandparents, Max and Irma Huterer (z”l) who escaped Germany, immigrating to America after Kristallnacht.

Dr. Glick wanted SBHEC to house the scroll so that “there would be visual access to this learning tool.” The scroll is prominently displayed in SBHEC’s new location inside the Alliance’s Dwares Jewish Community Center. It is used to educate Rhode Island students  about the Holocaust.

The scrolls enable those who care for them to remember the past and to look ahead to the future, emphasizing that the terrible events that brought them to London can never be repeated. To those entrusted with the scrolls, they are a symbol of hope after a time of sorrow, and an intimate link with the synagogues and congregations that were destroyed by the Nazis. It is heartwarming to see how our community uses its scrolls to serve our people’s mission of Never Again.

LEV POPLOW is a communications and development consultant, writing on behalf of the Bornstein Holocaust Education Center. He can be reached at levpoplow@gmail.com.