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Celebrating the Rescue of Czech Torahs

by Beverly Karp

Celebrating the rescue of Czech Torahs"

(The following are excerpts from a Feb.11, 2005 Shabbat service lecture by Beverly Karp, of the Ritual Committee of Temple Shomer Emunim, Sylvania, Ohio.)

Nazi death camps were liberated 60 years ago, starting with Auschwitz on January 27. The final camp was Mauthausen, liberated May 5, 1945 by Americans under the command of Col. Richard Seibel of Defiance, Ohio.

Another liberation happened 20 years later. It involved 1,564 Torah scrolls of Bohemia and Moravia that were collected and warehoused by the Nazis.

One of those Torahs is the Austerlitz scroll at Temple Shomer Emunim, used for bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies since 1973. (Ten Torah scrolls and 1 Haftorah scroll from Austerlitz have survived. Most are in the United States and England.)

It is likely that Austerlitz Jews were using that scroll 200 years ago when Napoleon lived in the castle above the town, while he fought the battle that established his power: The Battle of Austerlitz.

This is the story of how that scroll, and 1,563 others, survived the Holocaust.

An American led the liberation of the 1,564 Torah scrolls. His name was Eric Estorick. Born in Brooklyn, he was a writer and sociology professor at New York University in the early 1940s.

Professor Estorick also purchased art by great masters. It took a few years, but eventually he became a gallery owner in London.

His new career became the key that led him to Torahs Hitler had confiscated. Just as important to the rescue of the scrolls were contacts he developed with leaders of the London Jewish community.

The rescue story began to unfold in 1963. Estorick was on a routine art buying trip to Eastern Europe.

In Prague, he met with officials from Artia, the state corporation responsible for art and cultural properties. Prague was part of communist Czechoslavkia at that time.

The officials surprised Estorick with news about an old synagogue just outside Prague. Inside, he was told, were Torahs that Nazis had confiscated from two provinces of Bohemia and Moravia. The synagogue became their warehouse.

The officials took Estorick to see the scrolls. When they opened the door at Michele synagogue, he was stunned. Torahs were stacked, floor to ceiling. It was obvious, even from the doorway, that the scrolls were damaged.

The Czechs told Estoreck that they would like to sell the scrolls. They emphasized that the buyer must be willing to purchase the entire collection.

Jews in London agreed to help Estorick. A prominent philanthropist supplied funds and donated the scrolls to Westminster Synagogue, where the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust was created to care for the Czech Torahs.

Next, Estorick sent for Dr. Chimen Abramsky of London University, a well known expert of Hebraica. Dr. Abramsky decided to examine a sample of 250 of the scrolls to determine their condition and how they would have to be handled, packaged and shipped.

In the course of his examinations, a note suddenly fell out of one of the scrolls. It had been hidden by a Torah scribe in 1940. The prayerful message asked: What would happen to the Jews trying to survive those troubling times? Dr. Abramsky burst into tears.

Several weeks later, in 1964, the scrolls were sealed into five railroad cars and shipped to London.

For nine months, three Orthodox scribes and three of their student scribes worked in Westminster Synagogue. They examined and classified every scroll. There were 5 categories, ranging from least, to most, damaged.

Like the one at Temple Shomer Emunim, many scrolls had drops of blood on them. (A friend tells me that the Czech scroll in her Kansas City synagogue has bayonet holes and human blood.)

It was decided that human blood would be left on scrolls, so that they could be witnesses to the horrors of the Holocaust.

Several notes were found inside scrolls. Nearly all were rescue pleas. Some were prayerful pleas. Others pleaded with any human who might happen to read the note. Several members of Westminster Synagogue say that the shortest message was just two words: "Save Us!"

In 1965, the first scrolls--the least damaged ones--were released to congregations. It was time for more labor intensive restorations. But there was one problem. Westminster Synagogue lacked a scribe.

Then one morning, there was a knock on the synagogue door. Mrs. Ruth Shaffer, who took charge of the day-to-day running of the Scrolls Trust, opened the door.

A Hasidic Jew introduced himself as an Israeli scribe visiting London. By any chance, he asked, could Westminster Synagogue use the services of a Torah scribe?

Mrs. Shaffer asked him to please come in and sit down. Then she broke the news to him about the 1,564 scrolls.

David Brand, the scribe, moved his family from Israel to London, and he spent the next 27 years working at Westminster Synagogue.

In 1969, Westminister Synagogue's Rabbi Reinhart died. The new rabbi selected in 1970 was Dr. Albert Friedlander. He happened to be a rabbinical school classmate and friend of Toledo's Rabbi Alan Sokobin.

Rabbi Sokobin contacted Rabbi Friedlander and explained that his congregation was building a new synagogue in Sylvania. He asked if it would be possible for Temple Shomer Emunim to become guardian of one of the rescued Torahs. In the letter, Rabbi Sokobin said that it was his hope to have that scroll arrive about the time that the congregation moved into its new home.

Rabbi Friedlander instructed the staff of the scrolls trust to select and ship a scroll to Rabbi Sokobin. In addition, the staff was told to make an extra effort to find a "special scroll" for Temple Shomer Emunim.

Thus, it was decided to send a scroll from the historically important town of Austerlitz--a town with a known Jewish history back to the 1200s.

The Nazi inventory numbers, in white pigment, still are visible atop one of the rollers. Traces of red paint from another Nazi inventory number also are visible on one of the spindles.The scroll has the brass plaque, identifying it as scroll number 186 of the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust collection from Westminster Synagogue. It is one of several that have survived from the village of Austerlitz, now re-named Slavkov.

Today, about 150 of the most damaged scrolls remain in the Scrolls Trust room of Westminster Synagogue. Many are only scroll fragments.

The vast majority of the 1,564 Torahs have come back to a life of Jewish worship. The scrolls have been shipped around the world to synagogues, schools and museums. More than 1,000 of the scrolls are in the United States.

Even some of the fragments have come back to a life of Jewish worship. A synagogue in Ft. Wayne, Indiana hired a famous scribe, Dr. Eric Ray, to write 80 percent of a new scroll, and insert the fragment they had for the remainder of their scroll.

Incidentally, Dr. Ray put his own life at risk several times during World War II to rescue other Torahs in other parts of Nazi controlled Europe--reportedly even riding on the underside of trains, holding on to rescued Torahs, as he brought them back to the Jewish world.

Neil Yerman, a New York scribe who was hired to assess the condition of all seven scrolls in our congregation, studied under Dr. Ray. When Neil realized that Dr. Ray had not told me about those dramatic train rescues, Neil told me the stories, so I could share the information with you tonight.

This past October, I was one of five Americans at Westminster Synagogue for the 40th Anniversary Celebration of the Rescue of the Czech Scrolls.

Susan Boyer of Los Angeles--who runs the Czech Torah website--and I went a week early to do work in the archives.

In the evenings, we had dinners with people who had connections to important moments in Jewish history.

There was the group of Czech genealogy experts who were especially knowledgeable about what happened to Kindertransport children from Bohemia and Moravia who wound up in England.....There was Michael Heppner, who decided his business trips behind the Iron Curtain were an opportunity he wasn't going to miss to research Jewish history. His wife told Susan and me that eventually a Communist man warned her that Michael was taking too many chances and was in more danger than he realized.......And there was Evelyn Friedlander, who became Rabbi Friedlander's widow last spring. She is a great woman, traveling back and forth to Germany, tackling projects many of us could not emotionally handle.

Our final day in London was the Sunday of the celebration. There were lectures all day, followed by the 6pm Holocaust memorial service.

You have never seen a memorial service like the one we attended. The front row seats were filled by the guests of honor: 20 of the scrolls! Eighteen were brought back to Westminster Synagogue for that occasion; the other two were from the ark in Westminster Synagogue's sanctuary.

27 British synagogues with Czech Memorial Scrolls sent representatives. Judge David Lipman, president of the Nottingham congregation (which also has one of the 10 Austerlitz scrolls), was there with his wife. Neil Pike and his children also were there.

That evening, as people wrapped the scrolls for their journeys home, Judge Lipman pulled me over to where the Nottingham congregation's large scroll was being packed. He showed me the travel bag, and asked if I had any idea what it was. When I couldn't guess, he explained that it was a bag for cricket equipment!

"Perfect for transporting Torahs," he said.

In a film that NBC and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America jointly made a few years ago ("Odyssey of the Torah Scrolls"), Rabbi Friedlander explained why these scrolls matter so much to the Jewish people.

I leave you with his words:

"We carry the Torah, and the Torah carries us."

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