UK’s key role in pre­serv­ing a frag­ment of Czech Jewish life

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS - BY LIANNE KOLIRIN

BASED AT West­min­ster Syn­a­gogue, the Me­mo­rial Scrolls Trust (MST) has been ‘home’ to the res­cued scrolls for more than 50 years.

Un­like in other oc­cu­pied parts of Europe, the sym­bols of the Czech Jewish com­mu­nity were left rel­a­tively un­scathed. Syn­a­gogues were gen­er­ally not de­stroyed, but handed over to the church.

In 1941, Jewish com­mu­ni­ties re­ceived a let­ter from Prague’s Jewish Mu­seum re­quest­ing, un­der the agree­ment and in­struc­tion of the Nazis, that all Ju­daica be trans­ferred there.

In the fol­low­ing months, 100,000 items — in­clud­ing To­rah scrolls, sil­ver­ware, books, fur­ni­ture and more — ar­rived in Prague. They were housed in 30 ware­houses in the city cen­tre.

No­body knows ex­actly why or how th­ese items were al­lowed to sur­vive, but we have much to be grate­ful for, ac­cord­ing to Jef­frey Ohren­stein, chair­man of the MST.

“The Nazis wanted it in one place for their own rea­sons.” he said. “There is nowhere else in the world where any­thing of this na­ture sur­vived like this. Ev­ery­thing else was taken or de­stroyed.”

Be­fore the Nazi in­va­sion, the then Cze­choslo­vakia was home to around 120,000 Jews. Of those just 8,000 sur­vived the Holo­caust.

There was lit­tle chance of a re­vival in the post-war era, once the Com­mu­nists took over. With no in­ter­est in re­li­gion, they closed down many re­main­ing syn­a­gogues and sought to make use of the cen­trally lo­cated ware­houses which housed the ju­daica.

The con­tents were sent to the Michle Syn­a­gogue, which started life in the 16th cen­tury, but was by now lit­tle more than a damp ware­house on the edge of Prague.

By the 1960s, the Czech gov­ern­ment was des­per­ate for for­eign ex­change, so in 1963 it tried to sell the ne­glected re­li­gious texts.

En­ter Eric Es­torick, the Amer­i­can son of Rus­sian-Jewish emi­gres who reg­u­larly dealt in art be­hind the Iron Cur­tain. He con­tacted a so­lic­i­tor and phi­lan­thropist called Ralph Yablon, who paid for the scrolls to be shipped to Bri­tain and housed in the West­min­ster Syn­a­gogue.

“Ralph Yablon is the hero of the story. He was a very gen­er­ous man,” said Mr Ohren­stein.

Mr Yablon, whose son to­day sits on MST’s com­mit­tee, is said to have laid out around £30,000 — more than a mil­lion pounds in to­day’s money.

The scrolls ar­rived at the Knights­bridge-based shul on the back of two Prague’s Jewish Mu­seum where Ju­daica was kept un­der Nazi or­ders

open-sided trucks.

“They were laid out in plas­tic body bags. Each one rep­re­sented a com­mu­nity,” said Mr Ohren­stein.

An­other mir­a­cle ar­rived in the form of sofer David Brand, ac­cord­ing to the trust.

“A few months later there was a knock on the door of the syn­a­gogue,” said Mr Ohren­stein.

“A sofer from Is­rael [Mr Brand] went to the Is­raeli em­bassy in Lon­don look­ing for work to re­pair scrolls and they told him they thought our shul had one. When he ar­rived at the shul, Ruth Schaf­fer, who was the per­son car­ing for the scrolls, told him: ‘I haven’t got one, I’ve got 1,564’.”

The scrolls were in var­i­ous states of dis­re­pair, dam­aged by the el­e­ments and the rav­ages of time. Only a small pro­por­tion were found to be kosher, ac­cord­ing to the thou­sands of ha­lachic rules. Mr Brand spent three decades restor­ing them, to the best of his abil­ity and later de­scribed it as “God’s work”.

To­day the trust’s mu­seum houses be­tween 130 and 150 scrolls. The re­main­der have been dis­trib­uted around the world on longterm loan. More than 1,000 are in the United States, with oth­ers scat­tered as far afield as Chile and New Zealand, as well as here in the UK.

“We never sold the scrolls. They are on per­ma­nent loan,” said Mr Ohren­stein.

“We ask that when a com­mu­nity closes or merges with an­other one that has a scroll, that it is re­turned to us to be re­al­lo­cated.

“We are not try­ing to be a Holo­caust char­ity. We want the scrolls to be alive and used in a pos­i­tive way and not just for a mu­seum.”

While trust rules dic­tate that the scrolls must not be loaned to in­di­vid­u­als, the Queen has one in her li­brary at Wind­sor Cas­tle.

A num­ber have been mis­laid, ac­cord­ing to the Mr Ohren­stein, who de­scribes his vol­un­tary role as sim­i­lar to that of a pri­vate de­tec­tive.

“We dis­cov­ered scrolls miss­ing all over the place. There are peo­ple who didn’t know they had them, while some have been lost through fire and even theft,” he said

The trust hopes to cre­ate a dig­i­tal repos­i­tory of in­for­ma­tion re­lat­ing to all the scrolls, to pre­serve them for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

“Some are hun­dreds of years old. Some are blood-stained. Each one rep­re­sents a com­mu­nity lost,” he said. “The To­rah is the one thing that binds all Jews to­gether and we hope that our scrolls are used to re­mind peo­ple of what they have in com­mon rather than what di­vides them.”

De­tails of how to ar­range a visit to the trust’s mu­seum are at www. memo­ri­alscroll­strust.org

PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COM­MONS

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