Czech Torah scroll

Precious arrival to Melbourne: a Torah scroll that survived the Holocaust

On Sunday 15 April 2018, a small crowd which included Czech survivors of the Holocaust as well as a number of Melbourne rabbis, gathered at the Jewish Holocaust Centre (JHC) to witness the handing over of a Torah scroll from the UK-based Memorial Scrolls Trust. Dr Joseph Toltz, a Sydney academic who serves as a representative of this organisation, formally handed the scroll MST#388 to the Jewish Holocaust Centre.

Dr Toltz explained that this scroll, from Valasske Mezirici, was one of 1,564 Torah scrolls from the provinces of Moravia and Bohemia, which were rescued in Prague by a group of Jews during the war, then later saved from neglect when Czechoslovakia was under communist rule. The scroll had been used before the war in the synagogue of that small Jewish community which had existed since the middle of the 19th century. In 1930 there were 150 Jews living in Valmez, as it is known colloquially.

Almost the entire Jewish population of this town was murdered during the Holocaust. Yet this Torah scroll miraculously survived and the Jewish Holocaust Centre now has the opportunity to make this scroll stand tall as a symbol of the survival and continuity of Jewish life in the face of the attempted annihilation of Jewry from Europe.

In handing this sefer torah to the JHC, Dr Toltz said, “As one of the premier institutions of Holocaust remembrance in Australia, I knew that you would be an excellent choice to tell the stories of the Jews of Valmez, the curators of the Jewish Museum of Prague, the second saving of the scrolls by the Westminster Synagogue, and the incredible circumstances that have led to this scroll’s arrival in Australia.”

Rabbi Ralph Genende, Senior Rabbi at Caulfield Shul, reminded us of all the Jewish lives intricately bound up with this one scroll, which appears before us today as simply parchment and ink. He beckoned us to think of the eyes that have looked at the words and the ears that have heard them read, the barmitzvah boys who have struggled to read from it and the many people who have danced around it.

The history of Czech Jewry and the rescue of the scrolls

The story of the rescue of the scroll begins with the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939, when Jewish congregations were closed down and their synagogues destroyed or deserted. In 1930 there were 117,551 Jews in Bohemia and Moravia.  By 1943 some 26,000 had managed to migrate.  Around 81,000 Jews were deported to Terezin and other camps, of whom about 10,500 survived. In total around 80,000 Jews from Bohemia and Moravia died during the Holocaust. Over 60 of the 350 synagogues had been destroyed.  The remaining 300 were abandoned and left to decay. When the Communists came to power 80 of these were demolished.

In 1942, members of Prague’s Jewish community devised a way to bring the religious treasures from the deserted communities and destroyed synagogues to the comparative safety of Prague. The Nazis were persuaded to accept the plan and more than 100,000 artefacts were brought to the Prague Jewish Museum. Among them were about 1,800 Torah scrolls. Each was meticulously recorded, labelled and entered on a card index by the museum’s staff with a description of the scroll and the place it had come from.

After the war, the scrolls were transferred to the ruined synagogue at Michle outside Prague where they remained until they came to London. Some 50 congregations re-established themselves in the Czech Republic and were provided with religious artefacts. When the Communists took over in 1948, Jewish communal life was again stifled and most synagogues closed. The initiative to keep the remaining 1,564 Torah scrolls safe was taken by London Jews who purchased them from the Communist government and took them back into Jewish hands at Westminster Synagogue. The full story of how the scrolls came to London can be found in the book Out of the Midst of the Fire by Philippa Bernard. It is also detailed on the Memorial Scrolls Trust website.

This particular scroll MST#388 had been used in the 1970s in a synagogue in Brisbane until it was damaged, making it unusable for religious purposes. The synagogue then handed it to the Brisbane Museum, where it was stored for many years. The mission of the Memorial Scrolls Trust is for these scrolls to be visible to a wider public, hence the transfer to the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Melbourne, where more than 22,000 school students and many adult visitors come each year to learn about the Holocaust and its wider implications for all of us.