Synagogues Use Rescued Scrolls As Legacy of Lost Czech Communities

During World War II, the Nazis destroyed Jewish communities across Czechoslovakia and brought Jewish objects to Prague for a planned “museum of an extinct race.”

But as a recent conference in Chicago showed, some of these objects are being used for a Jewish people that is, indeed, alive and well.

The conference, which was attended by Jews from across the United States and Britain, focused on 1,564 Czech Torah scrolls that were rescued nearly 40 years ago from an abandoned synagogue in Prague.

Most of the scrolls, part of a massive collection of Jewish ceremonial objects accumulated in Prague under the Nazis, are on permanent loan to Jewish institutions and synagogues across the world courtesy of their rescuers, the London-based Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust at the Westminster Synagogue.

All but 100 or so of the 1,564 scrolls originally brought to Westminster have been distributed — as far afield as Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, Puerto Rico and South Africa. More than 1,000 are held by synagogues and Jewish institutions in the United States.

The Chicago event was attended by 50 scroll-holding representatives under the auspices of the U.S.-based Czech Torah Network, a group dedicated to showing congregations how they can explore the legacy of their Czech Memorial Scroll.

The conference, sponsored by the Chicago-based congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim, included a workshop on the scrolls conducted by Michael Heppner of London’s Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue.

“It was very emotional,” he said. “We have a Kolin scroll that is very important to us. When we received it 35 years ago, it was the last glowing ember of a 600-year-old congregation. We blew on it, and thank goodness it didn’t go out.”

Heppner, who chairs Northwood & Pinner Synagogue’s “Czech Connection,” which has built bonds with the town and its lost Kolin congregation, said the conference was particularly important because many holders of the scrolls may be unaware of the “deeply symbolic” link between them and the destroyed congregations.

Others were equally moved by the conference, which covered a range of issues, including how to trace the original scroll-holding communities, and how to encourage congregations to get more involved and interested in their scrolls.

Larry Glickman, senior youth group adviser at B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim, called the conference “wildly successful.”

“People got what they came for,” he told JTA. “They left our conference enthused and excited about connecting with their `Torah town.’ I think you are going to be hearing about a lot more people traveling to the Czech Republic to visit these Jewish communities which, until now, have been largely forgotten about and ignored.”

Glickman, whose congregation also holds a Kolin scroll, believes the scrolls represent much more than just ceremonial objects.

“For our congregation, the Kolin Torah puts a human face on the Holocaust,” he said. “We have 480 people, names and dates to connect with — not the unimaginable 6 million.

“The scrolls remind our congregation of the Jewish people of Kolin. The Jews of Kolin have no one to carry their memories, they have no one to say Kaddish for them. We see ourselves as the inheritors of their Jewish tradition. We say their names, we clean their graves, we pray in their synagogue. We remember.”

The gathering was made possible by the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust, which not only rescued the scrolls from gradual decay in an abandoned synagogue but also restored as many of them as possible.

The Czech Torah Network plans to hold more workshops throughout the United States over the next few years.

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