Czech Torahs reunite at Holocaust Museum

One day in 1965, Ruth Shaffer opened the front door of the Westminster Synagogue in London to find David Grand, an Orthodox Jew with a long beard and a tenuous grasp on the English language.
April 27, 2016

One day in 1965, Ruth Shaffer opened the front door of the Westminster Synagogue in London to find David Grand, an Orthodox Jew with a long beard and a tenuous grasp on the English language.

Es gibt Torot?” he asked in Yiddish. “Do you have Torahs?”

Grand was a soffer, a biblical scribe, lately arrived from Jerusalem in search of employment repairing Torah scrolls — and he was in luck. On a morning not long before, in February 1964, a pair of trucks had pulled up to the synagogue while members waited anxiously in the damp to unload more than 1,000 scrolls, a collection believed to be the largest ever gathered under one roof.

“One by one they were carried into the synagogue and placed on the chequered marble floor of the hall,” congregation trustee Philippa Bernard wrote in a 2005 book on the scrolls. “Higher and higher the pile rose, spreading out across the floor like shrouded bodies, treated with the reverence that such bodies deserved.”

The lot of 1,564 Torahs had lately been discovered in a rundown warehouse in Prague. In the early 1940s, the Nazi occupiers of former Czechoslovakia had forced Jewish archivists to bring together the scrolls from the districts of Bohemia and Moravia and catalogue them. At one point, they demanded a showing curated for SS officers. The Zentralmuseum der Juden was planned as an exhibit on an extinct race.

Many of the scrolls were partially burned or bloodstained and most were in dire need of care. The soffer spent much of the next 30 years repairing the scrolls, readying them to be shipped for ritual use or memorial display around the world, according to Bernard’s book, “Out of the Midst of the Fire.”

The majority of the Torahs followed European-Jewish émigrés across the Atlantic, finding new homes in the United States. Several scrolls ended up in Southern California, and in an exhibition continuing through May 9, dozens of those scrolls will be on display at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH).

The scrolls began to gather in the museum’s lobby area on April 15, the same Sunday morning more than 3,000 Angelenos marched through neighboring streets for the annual Walk to End Genocide. Several groups who came in to drop off their Torahs were still wearing team T-shirts from the walk.

Despite never before having seen one of the scrolls, or even hearing of them, museum volunteer Edith Umugiraneza, a devout Christian, regarded them with a sense of familiarity.

In common with the scrolls, she too had been through a holocaust: A Tutsi, she is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. In 1994, having lost most of her family when she was just 17, she immigrated to Los Angeles. She now worships at the West Angeles Church on Jefferson Boulevard

For Umugiraneza, the Torahs tell of “how God created us and what suffering the people of God went through when they were in Egypt and the roads they were given to follow.”

She is all too familiar with woe and redemption. Tutsis, she said, were seen by Hutu genocidaires as ethnically Ethiopian and, therefore, Israelites.

“They said they were going to exterminate all Tutsis like they did the Jews,” she said. “That was idea.”

Adam Siegel arrived at the museum that recent Sunday in shorts and a baseball cap; he came with a group of housemates from Beit T’Shuvah, the Jewish addiction treatment center where he serves as a chaplain. They came to drop off a Torah the house uses weekly for services. For this community, the scrolls speak to the many different ways of attaining holiness, Siegel said.

“As much as each Torah is identical with the same words and the same text, each one is also individual — it has an individual sacredness to it,” he said.

The Torahs are indeed a motley mix. The text in each is identical down to the proportions: Lines are no longer than three times the length of the longest word, l’mishpachotechem [to your family], according to Bernard’s book. Ten letters are written larger than the rest. But much like the members of Siegel’s community, each scroll has a perfectly unique set of blemishes and imperfections.

“We all share common struggles as humans,” he said, shortly before hopping into the driver’s seat of a large white van full of Beit T’Shuvah residents. “We each have an individualized sense of our holiness.”

The Torah housed at Beit T’Shuvah is logged as “Scroll No. 773” in the records of the Memorial Scrolls Trust, an organization that grew out of the Westminster Synagogue to care for and distribute the scrolls. It comes from the Strašnice area of Prague and was written in 1850. That information is recorded on audio guides available for public use while viewing the scrolls, which are displayed on stands in the museum lobby.

Not many other details exist about the Strašnice Torah, though the trust is raising funds to digitize its records and make available what information it has.

Although the scrolls were saved, miraculously and ironically, by the Czech Nazi administration, they were collected under fraught circumstances from the Czech countryside and Prague’s many synagogues while the war raged around them. Sorted and logged by a Jewish staff subject to close Nazi supervision and continually being thinned out by deportation, they were sometimes labeled haphazardly or in bulk, which means identifying information is hard to come by. In some cases, the ID tag fell off entirely, rendering those Torahs anonymous, or so-called “orphan” scrolls.

One of these orphans ended up in the care Rabbi Stan Levy, founding rabbi of the B’nai Horin congregation in Los Angeles. In 1991, Shaffer sent a Torah from London to Southern California aboard Air New Zealand, shipping it express freight in response to Levy’s request on behalf of his young congregation. He said Shaffer, who died in 2006, told him it was the first scroll she’d sent out knowing it was meant for regular ritual use.

The scroll arrived the morning of the last day of the Jewish year.

“We had it at High Holy Days that evening,” Levy said. “And of course the congregation went ballistic that we got it for erev Rosh Hashanah.”

B’nai Horin’s orphan scroll is among those on display at LAMOTH.

Rabbi Stan Levy of B’nai Horin with his congregation’s Torah scroll rescued from Czechoslovakia during World War II.

When the soffer showed up at Westminster Synagogue, the idea that one day someone would be gathering tattered scrolls for a museum exhibition must have seemed inconceivable.

In the early 1960s, the synagogue had gotten wind of the scrolls via a member who collected art in Europe. Congregation elders sent a biblical scholar, Chimen Abramsky, to Prague to investigate. Arriving at the dank and broken hull of the Michle Synagogue in a Prague suburb, he found a “heartrending” sight, Bernard wrote in her book.

“On wooden shelves from floor to ceiling were hundreds upon hundreds of Sifre Torah, untouched for twenty years, still in their wrappings as the Jewish workers had tenderly laid them. He was not ashamed to weep.”

The scrolls, she wrote, were in various states of disarray. Some were tied shut with prayer shawls, and two were secured with women’s corsets. Seven had been buried at some point. When the soffers who initially worked on the project began examining the Torahs back in London, a note fell out of one that read, “Please God help us in these troubled times.”

The synagogue took ownership of the entire lot of them from the cash-strapped government of the Czech Republic in exchange for just $30,000. As the massive restoration effort got underway, it turned out that acquiring the scrolls had been the easy part.

In London, the multiple soffers didn’t seem to be able to get along, and the repairs went along haltingly until Grand arrived. Shaffer later called him “the answer to all our prayers,” according to the book.

But in the meantime, the demand for Torahs was dizzying from congregations of European Jews who had settled around the world.

“They needed scrolls — they didn’t have them,” said Jeffrey Ohrenstein, chairman of the Memorial Scrolls Trust.

Since 1964, all but 130 scrolls have found new homes with congregations, schools, museums and other Jewish organizations, most of them in the United States, with the balance being housed in a small museum in London.

One is in the care of Queen Elizabeth II in the Royal Library. Others have been sent to Mexico, the Channel Islands, Brazil, Crete and Ireland. Fifty went to Israel. Trust records show that California received 103 scrolls, 81 of them in Southern California.

The spiritual practice around the Torah varies as widely as the congregations where they are housed.

University Synagogue in Los Angeles uses a 19th-century scroll from Boskovice for a traditional Reform service called confirmation, wherein teenagers receive the legacy of the Five Books, according to its rabbi, Morley Feinstein. Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills only uses its scroll during bar and bat mitzvahs of those descended from Holocaust survivors; the Torah sits on rollers still tagged with an archive number from the Zentralmuseum. The congregation hired local soffer Ron Siegel for a repair job that finished in 1996.

Even after years of restoration, the Torahs remain in varying conditions. Some were sent by the trust more or less ready for ritual use, while others are meant only for memorial purposes. Others, though technically possul, or non-kosher, are nevertheless used by less-observant congregations.

Unrolling a scroll he was lending to LAMOTH for the show — Scroll No. 1255, from the village of Dobris — Cantor Richard Bessman of Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica, a Reform congregation, unrolled the Torah and scrutinized the intricate letters, turned reddish-brown by years of oxidation.

He remarked on the clarity of the writing, but pointed to a letter that was unintelligible, rendering the entire Torah technically unfit for ritual use.

“It doesn’t negate any of the wonderfulness of it,” he quickly added.

Some local synagogues have undertaken projects to restore the scrolls on their own, hiring soffers and involving the community in their efforts.

Levy oversaw the restoration of the B’nai Horin Torah. Some of the bindings where individual pieces of parchment are woven together had come loose, so the congregation hired a scribe who “carefully brushed it and tightened all the pages.”

The congregation fashioned a yad, or pointer, using quartz crystals found on top of Mount Sinai by a member on a camping trip, and built a portable Holy Ark — the B’nai Horin congregation eschews a permanent facility to save on dues for members. Now, the scroll is used only for bar and bat mitzvahs for which the reading is in or near Deuteronomy to prevent wear and tear on the 225-year-old scroll.

“Think of all the lives they’re impacting,” LAMOTH Director Samara Hutman said, standing in front of the museum’s own Czech Torah, rolled open and encased in glass.

Like human survivors of the Holocaust, the scrolls represent for her “all the people who came before them and all the people who come from them.”

Inspired originally by her daughter’s bat mitzvah, in which she chanted using B’nai Horin’s orphan Torah, Hutman conceived of the idea for the exhibition and contacted Ohrenstein, who helped put her in touch with the Torahs’ current homes.

In honor of its 24th annual Yom HaShoah celebration, the museum is using videos and “the visual stories and oral stories of the people and communities who steward these scrolls and their mournful and remarkable histories,” she said.

Following the exhibition of 18 scrolls this year — the Jewish number representing life — Hutman intends for the museum to gather an additional 18 scrolls every year from California and the neighboring area, and to illuminate each of their histories.

For his part, Ohrenstein, Westminster Synagogue’s chairman, spends a lot of time these days getting in touch with “scroll-holders” who may not be familiar with their Torah’s history.

In addition, he’s become “a bit of a detective,” tracking down scrolls that go missing when a synagogue shuts its doors or merges with another one. He’s also encouraging synagogues that have Czech Torahs to create webpages with information about them so that he can assemble the links into a single, centralized database to keep from losing track of any more scrolls.

When he visits the United States, Ohrenstein, a bald man with a white beard who is also Westminster Synagogue’s trust chairman, looks out for displaced Torahs and sometimes gives them a ride home.

Recently, while in St. Louis for a bar mitzvah, he found a rabbi who had come into possession of a scroll but didn’t need it. Ohrenstein agreed to bring it back to London in a metal golf case provided by the rabbi.

“It fit in perfectly,” he said. “I’ve got the golf case in the museum — we need to use it again.”

After carefully packing the Torah and wrapping the package in duct tape, he put it in the underbelly of a plane. When it arrived on the luggage conveyer belt in the United Kingdom, it was covered in stickers where American customs officers had cut it open.

Ohrenstein chuckled, “They must have had a shock when they looked inside.”

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

wildpixel/Getty Images

Politically Homeless

Although I used to just call myself a moderate, that’s never actually been accurate.

The Good German

Christian brothers and sisters, do your Jewish friends think of you as a person who will stand by them?

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.