Shul keeps alive memory of Czech Jewry


CHICAGO, March 28 (JTA) – Two U.S. Jewish congregations that share a name now have something else in common: Torah scrolls from the same Jewish community in Czechoslovakia.

Conservative Congregation Beth Am in San Diego has had its Torah since 1985, while Reform Congregation Beth Am in suburban Chicago received its Torah this year.

Both scrolls pay testament to one of the dozens of Czech Jewish communities that perished in World War II.

Arnold Schultz, the cantor of Beth Am in Morton Grove, Ill., flew to London earlier this year to bring back one of the scrolls from Roudnice.

The Torah was discovered recently in a London nursing home that was preparing to close. A small plaque on top of its rollers identified the scroll as a Holocaust Torah belonging to the London-based Westminster Synagogue’s Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust.

The finials on the top and bottom of the wood rollers are fashioned of sterling silver, which is unusual, Schultz said.

The Roudnice scroll is not the first Holocaust Torah at Beth Am. Their first one came from Kojetine, also in Czechoslovakia, but it is heavier and more difficult to read, said Schultz, who marveled at the simplicity of the script in the new Torah.

“Our Bar and Bat Mitzvah students will be able to read this so easily, and it’s not too heavy for them to carry,” he said. In so doing, they will continue to forge links in the chain that now exists between Buffalo Grove and Roudnice.

Like the 1,564 other Czech Torah scrolls found after World War II that are kept by the Westminster Trust – administered by Ruth Shaffer, the 92-year-old daughter of famed Yiddish author Sholem Asch – the one from Roudnice is a legacy of a lost community.

The Nazis collected the scrolls and other Jewish artifacts in Prague in hope of putting them in a “museum of an extinguished people.”

In the mid-1850s, more Jews lived in the area of Roudnice than in any other country in the world, according to a Chicago-area historian and Beth Am member, Leslye Hess.

The Jewish presence in Roudnice dates to 1541. A year later there were 14 documented Jewish families, and by 1595 the community had 16 houses and a charter, establishing the first Jewish ghetto.

Just before the Roudnice scroll now in Illinois was handwritten in 1870, many Jews began to move to larger cities like Prague. On the eve of the Holocaust in 1940, there were 110 Jews in Roudnice.

In early 1942, most of the town’s remaining Jews were deported to concentration camps. Many died in the Terezin Ghetto, and the few who survived were sent to Nazi death camps at Auschwitz, Sobibor and Belzec, where they too died.

Since 1945, few Jews have lived in Roudnice.

The Roudnice Torah at Beth Am in San Diego recently needed repair. The ink seemed to be fading from the parchment, so rabbis Arthur Zuckerman and David Kornberg sent the scroll to a scribe, Rabbi Albert Attia, who has been rewriting the letters.

“Bacteria was eating away the vegetable-dyed ink,” Attia said. “But I’ve been able to follow the original letters and expect to have the scroll completely restored in the coming months.

“Another congregation brought one to me to restore,” he added. “When I had them side by side, I could tell that the same scribe had written both of them. I got goose bumps.”

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