A historical artefact in routine use at SPS
Our small Czech Memorial Torah Scroll #365
– Its past, genuine provenance, and previous misconception
The background story
In 1938, the ‘Sudetenland’ - Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia - was annexed to Nazi Germany, and during the Second World War (1939 – 1945) the Nazis desolated the Jewish communities throughout this area and looted their treasures, amongst which were 1,564 Torah Scrolls.
After the annexation, members of the Jewish community in Bohemia and Moravia acted to bring a variety of artefacts, including the Torah scrolls, to what later became the Central Jewish Museum in Prague. This group worked hard to preserve what was saved from the hands of both the Nazis and local vandals. Among the artefacts were the Torah Scrolls, gathered form Synagogues and communities in the region. The hope was for these treasures to be protected so that one day they might be returned to their original homes.
Only two survivors remained of the Central Jewish Museum curators, who were eventually murdered at Terezin and Auschwitz death camps. These curators tagged and catalogued all the Torah Scrolls, so it was possible to trace most of them back to their original Synagogues or homes. Our Czech Memorial Scroll at SPS is tagged with number 365, indicated by a small plaque on one of its wooden handles. The plaque on our incredibly special small scroll reads:
‘NUMBER 365, CZECH MEMORIAL SCROLLS, WESTMINSTER SYNAGOGUE LONDON 1964 / 5724’
Sadly, some of the scrolls lost their label somewhere along their subsequent journey. These became known as the Czech ‘Orphan Scrolls.’
The framed MST Certificate now accompanying our scroll, which is placed on the Southern wall of the sanctuary, states:
‘The Sefer Torah number 365, which this certificate accompanies, is one of the 1,564 Czech Memorial Sifrei Torah which formed part of the Jewish treasures saved in Prague during the Nazi occupation of 1939-45. They came from the desolate Jewish communities of Bohemia and Moravia and were for some time under the control of the Czechoslovak Government. The Scrolls were housed a derelict synagogue by curators of the Jewish Museum in Prague, acquired with the help of good friends and brought to Westminster Synagogue in 1964.
A part of the collection remains in a memorial museum at the Synagogue as a permanent remembrance of the Jewish communities from which they came, telling the story of their journey. Many have been distributed throughout the world so that the Jewish tragedy can never be forgotten, and their light can shine as a beacon to the brotherhood of all peoples, to bear an everlasting witness to the holy Name.
This Scroll came from Ivančice and was written in the 19th century.
Southgate Progressive Synagogue
To read about the town of Ivančice and its Jewish community click here
The 51-year misconception from mid-1972 to mid-2023
From the time this scroll was received at SPS by the late Rabbi Harry Jacobi z’l on Tuesday 25th July 1972 until the summer of 2023, when Jeffrey Ohrenstein, the Chairman of the Trustees of the Memorial Scrolls Trust, informed us of its origins, as above, we had thought our small Czech Memorial Scroll was one of the ‘Orphan Scrolls’ as the MST Certificate we received with it in 1972 stated:
‘The Sefer Torah number 365, which this certificate accompanies, is one of the 1,564 Czech Memorial Sifrei Torah which constituted part of the treasures looted by the Nazis during the 1939-45 war from the desolated Jewish communities of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia, and which had been cared for by the Czechoslovak Government for many years, and which were acquired, with the goodwill of the Czechoslovak Government, by good friends from Artia (the state Cultural Agency) for Westminster Synagogue, where they arrived on the 7th February 1964.
Some of the collection remains at Westminster Synagogue, a permanent memorial to the martyrs from whose synagogues they came; many of them are distributed throughout the world, to be memorials everywhere to the Jewish tragedy, and to spread light as harbingers of future brotherhood on Earth; and all of them bear witness to the glory of the Holy Name.’
There is also another framed plaque that gives some further brief information about the dedication of our ‘orphan scroll’ on Friday 11th December 2009:
‘In commemoration of the dedication of the orphan Czech scroll Sefer Torah number 365 to the lost community of Karlsbad. Southgate Progressive Synagogue 24 Kislev 5770.’
To read about the town of Karlsbad and its Jewish community click here
The Torah Scrolls at SPS
There are four Torah scrolls in the Ark at SPS, three large (or ‘full size’) and one small. All have precisely the same content – The Torah or ‘Five Books of Moses.’ However, each have their own characteristics; they differ in size, clarity, writing style, thickness of vellum parchment; and therefore weight; and what material the Etz Chayim (handles) are crafted from.
For example, one of our three large Torah Scrolls has Etz Chayim made from ivory, whilst the others are wooden, another is scribed on a red skin; much thicker than the fine vellum parchment of the others; making it extremely heavy – that scroll is no longer kosher as a lot of the letters (brown ink on red skin) have now disappeared because it is no longer being regularly oiled.
The ivory handled scroll is the easiest to read as the letters are clear and a decent size, resulting in it becoming known as the ‘Bar Mitzvah scroll,’ for obvious reasons.
The small Czech Memorial Scroll is the lightest to lift and carry, and although the writing is quite small, and a little faded in some places, it has nevertheless become the most popular with Rabbis and lay service leaders alike. It thus sees daylight much more than the other three scrolls - which is particularly appreciated by the scroll elevators (‘Magbiah’ [lifter] who performs ‘Hagbaha’ [lifting] of the Torah) and carriers who re-dress the Torah Scroll after the Parasha has been read (‘Golel’ [roller] who performs ‘Gelila’ [rolling] of the Torah Scroll) - tasks that even a child could readily perform with this scroll. Hence parents of our B’nei Mitzvah students use it to bless their children, and it is extensively used - not only for children, family, and youth services - but is also the mainstay of our weekly Shabbat services.
The motto of the Memorial Scrolls Trust is:
‘Each Memorial Scroll is a memory of the past and a messenger for the future’
We hope to continue to use this scroll for many years to come, and we will continue to cherish it even after it can no longer be used as a scroll for Torah services. It will always reside in our Ark as a constant reminder of the devastation caused by hatred of ‘the other’ and as a constant reminder that when we love of our fellow human beings, and through that love for the stranger within our gates, we fulfil God’s instructions in the Torah.
Links: [Ctrl + Click to follow links]
- The Memorial Scrolls Trust
- Ivancice - Wikipedia
- Karlovy Vary - Wikipedia
- The Vivo Encyclopaedia of Jews in eastern Europe
The Torah Scrolls at SPS
We have four Torah scrolls in our Ark at SPS, three large (or ‘full size’) and one small. All four have exactly the same content – The Torah or ‘Five Books of Moses.’ However, each has their own characteristics, they differ in size, clarity, writing style, thickness of vellum parchment; and therefore weight; and what the Etz Chayim (handles) are crafted from.
For example, one of our three large Torah Scrolls has Etz Chayim made from ivory, whilst the others are wooden, another is made of a red skin, much thicker than the fine vellum parchment of the others, making it extremely heavy – that scroll is no longer kosher as a lot of the letters (brown ink on red skin) have now disappeared because it is no longer being regularly oiled.
The ivory handled scroll is the easiest to read as the letters are clear and a decent size, resulting in it becoming known as the ‘Bar Mitzvah scroll’, for obvious reasons.
The small Czech scroll is the lightest to lift and carry, and although the writing is quite small, and a little faded in some places, it has nevertheless become the most popular with Rabbis and lay service leaders. It thus sees daylight more than the other scrolls, which is particularly appreciated by the scroll carriers and elevators, tasks that even a child could readily perform with this scroll. Hence parents of our B’nei Mitzvah students use it to bless their children, and it is extensively used for children, family, and youth services.