The mystery and mayhem of Cape Town’s Czech Torah

  • TorahScrolls
Every Torah scroll is a work of sacred artistry created by a sofer (scribe) whose work takes about a year to complete. With all this labour and expense, it’s not destined for a museum or library, but for a community, which is where it really finds its purpose.
by RABBI GREG ALEXANDER | Nov 19, 2020

What brings meaning to the work of the sofer isn’t the scroll being looked at or admired, but the fact that it’s read. You and I, the community that become the custodians of a Sefer Torah, give it life. Although every Torah scroll is far from an ordinary thing, there are certain scrolls that have a fascinating history that make them even more extraordinary. One of these sits in our ark in our Green Point, Cape Town, campus.

It originated in central Europe, and was rescued from the terror and destruction of the Shoah. It’s one of the more than 1 500 Czech Memorial Sifrei Torah which constituted part of the treasures looted by the Nazis from the desolated Jewish communities of Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia. They are, in most cases, the last remnants of the communities that lived there, in spite of the fact that Jews lived there for more than 1 000 years and developed a rich Jewish history and culture.

By 1800, Prague had become a major centre of learning and scholarship as well as Hebrew printing, and for 100 years before 1939, the Jews of the area were free and prosperous. According to the 1930 census, there were 117 551 Jews in Bohemia and Moravia, and 356 830 in all of Czechoslovakia. The Jewish community had become religiously and culturally diverse. Many were highly educated and cultured. Some of the greatest Jewish thinkers, artists, architects, poets, musicians, and composers of the time came from this region.

From 1938, there was systematic persecution of Jews in Czechoslovakia. Boycotting Jewish shops, segregating Jewish people from the rest of society, limits on their freedom and basic human rights were enforced. Eventually, violent terror and the destruction of Jewish culture began. Synagogues were burned together with Jewish books and books by Jewish authors. As time went on, Jews were ordered to leave their homes which had fallen under German authority, and were sent away. Most never returned.

About 81 000 Jews were deported to the Terezin Ghetto, and then onto death camps. About 10 500 survived. The number of children murdered was 15 000. In some towns, it’s hard to see any trace that a Jewish community once lived there. In other towns such as Prague, the old Jewish cemeteries, synagogues, and museum remain. The scrolls could tell us so much, couldn’t they? It really makes one stop and wonder. They could tell us what they witnessed, about the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, who brought them to Prague, and what happened next? But, for now, they are silent.

One of the greatest mysteries of these scrolls is how and why they survived the war at all, in spite of their synagogues being burned and communities destroyed. One theory is that the Nazis wanted to create some sort of museum of the Jews which would include an exhibition of their Judaica. Another is that the Nazis wanted to keep the population calm, and so invited a group of Czech Jews to gather Jewish objects from all over the area, implying that they would be restored after the war. Either way, more than 10 000 artefacts were brought to Prague including 1 800 Torah scrolls. Once in Prague, a team of expert Jewish curators received them, catalogued them, and labelled them with meticulous detail, precision, and loving care.

The scrolls were identified by the town they came from and, in many cases, the age of the scrolls, though the dates may have been based on educated guesses by the curators. The curators witnessed the tragic scene of their own families being deported, and then finally their turn came too. Most of these brave curators were eventually sent to Terezin, and died there or were taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau or another camp and murdered. The scrolls survived, yet they were devoid of the life of the community they served. After the war, they were transferred to the ruined synagogue at Michle, three to four kilometres south of Prague, where they remained untouched until they were brought to London 20 years later. How did that transpire?

In 1963, Eric Estorick, a London art dealer, was informed that there were 1 564 Torah scrolls stored by the museum for sale. He contacted a client, Ralph Yablon, who in turn approached Harold Reinhart, the rabbi of Westminster Progressive Synagogue in London. Together, they asked Chimen Abramsky, a Hebrew scholar, to go to Prague and examine the scrolls. Yablon’s generosity made the purchase of the scrolls possible, and they were transported to the synagogue in London.

They arrived on 7 February 1964, many damaged without beautiful covers (although they each would probably have had one once), and with no adornment of any sort. Some had beautiful binders that held each scroll together, others were wrapped as if in haste with a tallit, a belt, or an odd material. The ink was crumbling in many cases, and they were particularly fragile to handle. They were a tragic but eloquent monument to a brutal past.

The new custodians embarked on the job of restoration. One day – out of the blue – there came a knock on the front door of the synagogue. Ruth Shaffer, the head of the restoration committee, opened the door to David Brand, a sofer, who asked in Yiddish, “Do you have any Torahs to repair?” She replied, “We have 1 564 – come in!” Nearly thirty years later, he was still working there, bringing the scrolls back to perfection so they could “relive” and be used in synagogue services. Rabbi Thomas Salamon, then rabbi of the Westminster Synagogue, visited sofer Brand in Jerusalem in December 2013. Brand was then 95 years old. When asked how he felt as an Orthodox sofer, working on damaged Torah scrolls in a progressive synagogue, his reply was, “I was doing holy work.”

The vast majority of scrolls are now loaned out to communities throughout the world, and that’s how Temple Israel in Cape Town came to be the steward of Czech scroll number 128. We know precious little about this Sefer Torah except that it came from the small town of Golčův Jenikov near Caslav in the Central Bohemian Region of today’s Czech Republic. It had a significant Jewish quarter of about fifty homes to the south of the town’s central square. The Jewish congregation was founded there in 1870, and it numbered about 300. There is a synagogue building from 1899 still standing, and a Jewish section (since 1884) in the municipal cemetery, but there’s no functional Jewish community there today. The Memorial Scrolls Trust estimates that our Torah was written in 1870 at the time of the community’s founding.

Today, it sits proudly in the Aron haKodesh (ark) in Green Point, and is brought out at Bnei Mitzvah and every Simchat Torah. But what happened to the Czech people who loved and cherished the scroll? Where are they? Where are their children and grandchildren now? Every time we read from that scroll or dance with it around our shul, we honour their memory. Am Yisrael Chai (the Jewish people lives).

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