RESCUED TORAH SCROLL GOES HOME
MST #740 is a survivor — a Holocaust survivor.
But instead of a tattoo, this survivor has a paper tag bearing its handwritten identity hung around its body.
MST #740 is one of 1,564 Czech Torah scrolls that survived the Shoah and were brought to Britain, from where they were mostly distributed to blossoming Jewish communities around the world.
But now, more than 75 years after it was last used in its original synagogue, MST #740 is making the journey back to its “birthplace” — the city of Olomouc in the Czech Republic.
It is the only one of the so-called Czech “memorial scrolls” to be restored to its former home — so many Czech Jewish communities were destroyed by the Nazi that the synagogues that housed the vast majority of the scrolls no longer exist.
Next month a delegation from the Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City, California, will travel to Olomouc to accompany the Torah they first received in 1970 back to its original community. There they will meet Jeffrey Ohrenstein, chairman of the London-based Memorial Scrolls Trust, which has been instrumental in bringing about this fairy tale ending.
There are no precise records for the scroll, but Mr Ohrenstein says a sofer — a Torah scribe — dated it circa 1880.
He said: “I was approached about 18 months ago by one of the members of the Olomouc community. He knew the scroll had come to London and asked if there was any way it could come back.”
A search of the records led to MST #740. Mr Ohrenstein said: “Only two scrolls are recorded as being from this town. One is with a community that had just spent the last two years restoring it.
“The other, MST #740, was at the Peninsula Sinai Congregation. They agreed to return the scroll to us so we can allocate it to Olomouc.”
He added: “This has never happened before and is unlikely to ever happen again. There’s no question in my mind that had the scrolls not come to England at that time there would be nothing left. A miracle saved them and now one is going back to the community. It’s a very special situation.”
Not only was the Californian community happy to help, but they also wished to restore the scroll to its former glory. More than $11,000 was raised to render it kosher for use in an Orthodox synagogue like Olomouc. Community members were asked for donations to fund a word, a verse, a chapter, a bar- or batmitzvah portion — or even an entire book of the Torah.
Rabbi Moshe Druin, a Florida sofer, spent five months restoring the Torah. When he delivered it back to Peninsula Sinai he told the congregation: “It’s about to be reunited with the same town it came from. The
Jeffrey Ohrenstein Torah will not just be happy to be home, but it will be happy that it’s healthy.”
Olomouc’s first Jewish residents settled there in the 11th century and numbered around 2,500 before the Second World War. Only one tenth returned post-Holocaust, and many left once the country became Communist. Just a few dozen Jews remained in the area during this period and the community became a satellite branch of another, an hour away.
The synagogue was torched by fascists in March 1939. Although the building was not entirely destroyed, it was later demolished by the Nazis and during the Communist-era statues of Stalin and Lenin stood in its place. Once the Iron Curtain fell, a local resident called Miloš Dobrý became executive director of the Jewish community. His plans for a revival started with acquiring the land where the shul had stood. Today his grandson Petr Papoušek is the president of the community. He told the JC: “Our main goal was to bring back Jews to Olomouc.” Now the third largest community in the Czech Republic after Prague and Brno, it has 162 members. There are regular Shabbat and festival services in a kehila, which also has a kosher kitchen and a community centre.
On October 22, they will host an extra special dedication ceremony to welcome back the Torah.
An excited Mr Papoušek said: “Now we can establish a connection with our ancestors who read from that Torah before the war and show that there is a future for Jewish life in Olomouc and that the Nazis didn’t destroy us. We are very thrilled to reconnect to our past and secure our future.”
A group from Peninsula Sinai, led by its rabbi, Corey Helfand, will attend. Rabbi Helfand told the Jewish News of Northern California: “Restoring the scroll and returning it to its home means the Holocaust is not just a memory, but that there is new life. It’s like rekindling the light, in a way, to know Jewish life didn’t end there.”
Clockwise from main picture: an 1895 image of Olomouc Synagogue; the Olomouc scroll viewed by Peninsula Sinai member Steve Lipman (left), and Rabbi Moshe Druin; the shul’s congregants before the war; scrolls at the Memorial Trust’s London museum