Damaged scroll keeps memory alive: HUC-JIR service to tell the story and honor Memorial Scrolls Trust
A Torah scroll, once an integral part of the worship of Czech Jews and now among the treasures of the Cincinnati Skirball Museum, will once again be the center of a worship service at the Scheuer Chapel on the campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, 3101 Clifton Avenue, on Tuesday, February 25, at 10:45 a.m. The worship service commemorates the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Memorial Scrolls Trust, which brought the scroll to the Skirball, located on the campus of the College-Institute.
At the time of the Nazi invasion in 1939, this Torah’s home was the small town of Nevlekov in Bohemia near Prague (now in the Czech Republic). In 1940, the congregations around Prague were closed down or destroyed, and deportations of Jews began in 1941. In 1942, a group of members of Prague’s Jewish community devised a way to bring the religious treasures from the still extant synagogues to the comparative safety of Prague. The Nazis were persuaded to accept the plan and more than 10,000 artifacts were brought to the Central Jewish Museum in Prague, including about 1,800 Torah scrolls. It was the hope of the devoted curators that the Torah scrolls and other treasures might one day return to their original homes. All of the curators were eventually transported to Terezin and Auschwitz. Only two survived, and after the war the Czech Jewish community was too depleted to have need of the objects. Their legacy was the catalogue of the vast collection in the Museum, eventually to become the Jewish Museum of Prague.
After the war, the Torah scrolls were transferred to the abandoned synagogue at Michle in a suburb of Prague, an 18th century stone building that became a damp warehouse. Were these scrolls to be lost forever like the congregations that once treasured them? No, thanks to the efforts of Eric Estorick, an American art dealer living in London. He secured a benefactor by the name of Ralph Yablon and in February of 1964, 1,564 scrolls arrived at Westminster Synagogue in London and the Memorial Scrolls Trust was born.
After months of sorting, examining and cataloguing each scroll, the task of getting the scrolls back into the life of Jewish congregations across the world was undertaken. In 1993, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion was pleased to accept one of the scrolls, #398, written in 1900, thanks to the efforts of Rabbi Barry Tabachnikoff. The scroll is on long-term loan to the College-Institute and is housed in the Skirball.
Also, B’nai Tzedek was the first synagogue in Cincinnati to receive a Czech Torah, arriving in August, 1972, just in time for the High Holy Days services.
Used for decades, primarily for special events and holidays, B’nai Tzedek retired its Czech Torah in April, 2013, due to its fragility. It is now housed in a special display case in the synagogue sanctuary, together with a plethora of documents about its history, its original hometown of Trest, and its journey to Cincinnati.
Abby Schwartz, interim director of the museum, will speak about what the scroll means to the College-Institute during the worship service, and will dedicate a new text panel to be placed near the scroll in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Memorial Scrolls Trust.
“The Nevlekov Torah is a remnant of a Jewish community that was lost. Its presence here gives us the opportunity to cherish and appreciate its history,” says Schwartz.
The service is open to the public.