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