Through the scrolls we wish to remember European Jewish life before the Holocaust as well as its tragic destruction, challenge those who interact with the scrolls to confront prejudice and hatred, and inspire them to action by committing to their Jewish lives and working to build bridges across communities.
The Memorial Scrolls Trust project intends to link over 1000 Torah Scroll holders to the Memorial Scroll Trust and to each other, ensuring their Torah scrolls are identified, their location known, and visitors to their site will learn about the special legacy of these survivors and witnesses of the Shoah. Most importantly, they will never be forgotten.
Torah Begins New Life, The Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh, July 18, 1991
Tag Number 74202
The Story of Beth El Congregation’s Holocaust Scroll
On February 7, 1964, two large trucks arrived at the Westminster Syagogue in London, England. Their cargo of 1564 Sifre Torah (handwritten scrolls containing the Five Books of Moses) from Czechoslovakia was unloaded and placed on racks in the Congregation’s Memorial Scrolls Centre.
These scrolls originally formed part of a larger collection of synagogue and personal religious articles that were confiscated by the Nazi “Protectorate” during World War II from the Jewish communities of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia. They were transferred with great care to seven synagogues and to over fifty warehouses in Prague where each item was meticulously cataloged and numbered with a brown tag by the Jewish residents of Prague prior to their deportation to the Nazi death campus. The original intent was to permanently display these object in the Jewish Quarter of Prague – a community whose homes and institutions ere deliberately left intact by Hitler’s occupation fore – as relics of a defunct culture.
At the end of the war, the surveying remnant of the Prague Jewish Community lacked the resources to maintain this vast collection, and it came under the control of Czech state authorities. (A number of these ritual articles toured various U.S. cities some years ago in an exhibition known as “The Precious Legacy”). The collection has been maintained conscientiously as a memorial to the vanished communities, but the 1564 Sifre Torah proved to be an embarrassment: they could not be displayed as part of a museum exhibition – one to two perhaps, but certainly the Czech authorities would have been at great pains to explain their acquisition of over 1500 of Judaism’s most sacred religious objects! Additionally, it was realized that the scrolls would eventually deteriorate if they remained rolled up and unused, much as our muscles atrophy if we do not exercise them.
Much to the relief of the Czech State and Museum authorities, a solution to their dilemma was proposed by a prominent British art dealer who arranged for the transfer of the scrolls to a responsible, non-commercial institution: the Westminster Synagogue. As trustees for these treasures, this congregation has placed well over 1,000 of the scrolls in synagogues and Jewish educational institutions throughout the world.
Beth El Congregation has acquired one of these scrolls – Number 658 – on permanent loan from the Scrolls Memorial Trust. Our Synagogue was able to do so through a fundraising project of our newly reconstituted Men’s Club in which Yom HaShoah Yahrzeit Candles (yellow memorial tumblers used to commemorate the observance of a day of mourning for all victims of the Holocaust) were made available to members of the Congregation. The outpouring of generosity from our members in response to this appeal was not only gratifying, but also made it an outstanding success.
We know relatively little about our Holocaust Torah and the town from which it came, Vlasim. The Scrolls Memorial Centre provided us with the information that this Torah was written in 1870, but exactly how that was determined is a matter for speculation. It is possible that the top handles, which have been removed, contained an engraved dedication that mentions the year in which this scroll was written. In all likelihood, these handles were made of gold or silver and remain as part of the collection of the State Museum in Prague. Papers accompanying the scrolls from Prague to London may have been the source of this information.
Aside form the missing handles, the Torah shows no evidence of damage. The faded lettering is due in part to age, but also to the fact that the Sifre Torah were stored in Prague in a warehouse situated near a river, and the moist and dampness contributed to its deterioration
Vlasim is a small town in southeatern Bohemia, not far from Prague. In 1893 there were 210 Jews, in 1910 only 121, and after 1921 their number fell to 87. The small and ever decreasing Jewish population, led the community to merge with two other nearby kehillot, Trhovy Stepanov and Naceradci.
We may imagine that, in time, the Jewish Community of Vlasim would have disappeared without the cruel, external assistance of the Nazis. By actively participating in its demise, they have unwittingly and inadvertently enabled the name of the Jews of Vlasim to be remembered.
A Final Thought
Our Synagogue has become the repository for the memorial plaques of several other small, and now defunct congregations in our area. We have accepted the responsibility of maintaining these memorials and of observing the yahrzeits of the men and women whose names are inscribed on them. We view the acquisition of this Czech Holocaust Torah from Vlasim as a logical extension of the role that Beth El Congregation of the South Hills has assumed in our community.
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