Memorial Torah Scroll #658
This page discusses the history of Memorial Torah Scroll #658, a scroll that was stolen and displaced during the Holocaust and is currently housed at the Beth El Congregation in the South Hills of Pittsburgh.
Memorial Scroll Torah #658 was originally created in Vlašim, Bohemia, and was stolen from this town by Nazis during World War II. At the end of the war it ended up in the Prague State Museum. It had been severely damaged by water, which rendered it unusable for synagogue ritual but still significant for commemorative purposes. After being acquired by the Prague State Museum, the Torah was purchased by members of the Westminster Synagogue and sent to London. The Westminster synagogue collected a total of 1,564 Torah scrolls that were stolen by Nazis during the holocaust, and then distributed them all around the world to communities that would cherish them as symbols of Jewish survival. The Westminster Synagogue gave this torah scroll the number 658, and sent it to the Beth El Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 1991.
This torah is important for many reasons. Not only does it does it commemorate a tragic era in Jewish history, but it symbolizes the determination of Jews to preserve their culture after the holocaust.
Journey of Scroll #658 from Prague to London
Before the Second World War, very few Torah scrolls or Torah binders appeared in museum collections in Bohemia and Moravia. This situation drastically changed during World War II when the Central Jewish Museum in Prague managed to rescue a large number of Jewish objects during the Nazi takeover, including almost 1,800 Torah scrolls whose owners had been deported to concentration camps.
While it is commonly thought that Nazis collected these scrolls to stock a so-called “Museum of an Extinct Race,” there is no evidence that this was the case. Rather, Jews preserved these scrolls themselves. In 1942, a group of Jews in Prague persuaded the Nazis to send them religious artifacts from destroyed communities and synagogues. Over 100,000 artifacts were brought to Prague and about 1,800 were included in the museum’s holdings. Each scroll was recorded by the staff at the Jewish Museum in Prague and was noted with a description of the scroll and where it had originated.
In 1963 a London art dealer named Eric Estorick was given the opportunity to purchase 1,564 of the torah scrolls which were stored by the Jewish Museum in Prague. One of Estorick’s clients, Ralph Yablon, purchased the scrolls and donated them to the Westminster Synagogue. Once they were in London, the scrolls were cared for, repaired, and put into storage. Rabbi Reinhart of the Westminster Synagogue made records of the condition of the parchment paper, the state of the calligraphy, the age of the scroll and the its place of origin. Scrolls fell into categories such as “those without serious defect, readily usable, beyond satisfactory, or only suitable for commemorative use.” Rabbi Reinhart directed the inspection and classification of the scrolls until his death in 1969. Once he passed away the task was taken over by Ruth Shaffer, the synagogue’s administrative assistant who was the daughter of the renowned Yiddish novelist Sholem Asch . Reinhart and Shaffer worked alongside David Brand, a sofer (ritual scribe) who was the sole caregiver and repairer for the torahs in the Trust.
Once the scrolls were repaired, the Memorial Scrolls Trust sent them to synagogues all over the world. Some synagogue received their scrolls because of family connections to the synagogues they originated from, while other synagogues received the scrolls through purchase or donation. The rules for the distribution of the scrolls were clear: they were to be provided on permanent loan, not to private individuals, but to congregations that were in need of them. Requests were dealt with on an individual basis and many were rejected. While institutions in the United States received most of the scrolls, many are also in Israel and in almost every country where there is a flourishing Jewish community. There are also memorial scrolls at Yad Vashem, Westminster Abbey and in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle.
The arrival of religious treasures in Prague
History of the Jews in Vlašim and Bohemia
Scroll #658, which is currently on permanent loan at Beth El Congregation in the South Hills, originally came from the town of Vlašim. The town of Vlašim is located in the Czech Republic about 40 miles south of Prague. The first record of Jews inhabiting Vlašim dates back to 1570, but by the 1720s there was a small permanent Jewish community. Many of the Jews who lived in the town worked as beer distillers and inn keepers.
After the emancipation of the Jews by Austrian authorities, however, many Jews from small towns like Vlašim moved to the city centers of the Austrian empire in order to take advantage of economic opportunities. This caused the Jewish population to decline. In the late 1890s, 210 Jews lived in Vlašim, and in the 1920s the population had dropped to 87. In order to maintain their infrastructure, the Jewish community merged with the Jewish communities in Trhový Štěpánov and Načeradec, two small towns nearby. By 1930, the Jewish population had shrunk again to 67.
On December 11, 1943, the 63 remaining Jews of Vlašim were deported to Tereźin and from there many were sent to death camps in Poland. Only 4 Jews from Vlašim survived the war.
Although Vlašim was home to a relatively small Jewish population, the town was part of the region of Bohemia which had a significant Jewish population, particularly in the city of Prague. The Jews of that region had long faced many challenges. The first Jews in Bohemia date back to the early 9th century in the year 1090. Among the challenges they faced were the Crusades in 1096, when many Jews were massacred and forcibly converted to Christianity. Centuries later, 1744, Bohemian Jews were expelled from Prague but were allowed to return in 1748.
By the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, the situation had improved. Bohemian Jews were active in the industrialization of the country and the development of trade in Prague. In the 19th and 20th centuries the Jews of Prague adapted to the wider culture, though the smaller Jewish communities in Bohemia held fast to their traditional way of life and were more resistant to acculturation. By 1880, around half of the Jewish citizens of Bohemia were living in larger towns and many moved to Prague.
In 1938, Bohemia fell under the control of the Nazis when Germany took over the “Sudetenland,” the areas of Czechoslovakia that bordered Germany. In November 1941, Reinhard Heydrich ordered the creation of a camp-ghetto at Theresienstadt (Tereźin), which was located 37.5 miles north of Prague. Between 1941 and late 1944, the German authorities, assisted by local authorities, deported thousands Jews from Prague, Brno, Ostrava, Olomouc, and other towns to Theresienstadt. Today, the names of 77,297 Jewish victims of the Holocaust from Bohemia and Moravia are inscribed on the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague.
Synagogue in Vlašim
The History of the Westminster Synagogue and Jewish Life in London
London’s Westminster Synagogue, the synagogue that catalogued and repaired memorial scroll #658, was founded in 1957 by its first rabbi, Harold Reinhart, and 80 other founding members. Originally the synagogue held its services in Caxton Hill, Westminster. In 1960, however, the congregation acquired the Kent House opposite Hyde Park in Knightsbridge, which remains its current home.
While the Westminster Synagogue is best known for its involvement with the Czech Memorial Scrolls, it is also a working congregation. It operates as a liberal Jewish congregation, though it is not officially affiliated with the Movement for Reform Judaism.
The Westminster Synagogue is a prominent Jewish institution in the vibrant Jewish community of England. Great Britain has one of the largest Jewish communities outside of the State of Israel. Like the Jewish community in America, the level of British Jewry’s observance runs the gamut. All together, about 300,000 Jews live in England. The municipality of London itself and the surrounding suburbs house two-thirds of Britain’s Jewish population. The Jews who live in London run the gamut of observance. In addition to a thriving orthodox population, London is also home to one of the oldest Reform Jewish congregations on the European continent, the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain, which was founded in 1840.
From London to Congregation Beth El
Sam Balk was the representative of Congregation Beth El who went to London with his wife to pick up the Holocaust Torah and bring it to Pittsburgh. Sam Balk traveled throughout Europe in the 1990s because he had children who had settled in London. During one of his visits, he went to the Westminster Synagogue and witnessed the top floor of the synagogue where all the Torahs were stored. Moved by the sight, they became determined to house one of these scrolls in their home synagogue in the South Hills.
After months of arrangements, Beth El was scheduled to receive scroll #658. The Balks traveled to London to pick up the scroll, which they would not out of their sight for even a minute. They had to go through customs with it and explain the significance of their precious cargo to all the agents. They carried it with them on the plane, where it traveled in the coat closet since it would not fit in an overhead compartment. When the Balks finally arrived in Pittsburgh, congregants of Beth El, along with Rabbi Kenneth Stern, surprised them at the gate to greet them and the scroll.
Rabbi Kenneth Stern played a large role in the acquisition of scroll #658. It was Stern, for instance, who suggested that the congregation ought to request a damaged, non-kosher scroll, even if it could not be used for ritual purposes. Displaying a damaged scroll, he believed, would be a better symbol of the tragedy of the Holocaust than a scroll that was in better repair. The scroll could then begin its second life in Pittsburgh as a treasured, commemorative artifact in a vibrant congregation.
- Top Left – Scroll #658
- Top Middle – Letter from Ruth Shaffer to Beth El authenticating their torah
- Top Right – History of the Torah from Beth El point of view
- Bottom Left – Sam and Hannah Balk at the Pittsburgh Airport with the torah, greeted by Beth El congregants
- Bottom Middle – Pittsburgh Free Press article about Scroll #658
- Bottom Right – Jewish Chronicle article about Scroll #658 and the Balk family
*All photographs taken by Alyssa Berman courtesy of Beth El Synagogue
*Many thanks to Sam Balk and Steve Hecht for their knowledge and assistance with this project
Phone Interview with Susan Boyer, February 6, 2017
Email correspondence with Rabbi Ariel Friedlander, February 15, 2017
(www.nux.cz), Nux S.r.o., and Židovské Muzeum v Praze. “The second life of Czech Torah scrolls | Židovské muzeum v Praze.” Navštivte nás. http://www.jewishmuseum.cz/en/program-and-education/temporary-exhibits/traveling-exhibitions/257/the-second-life-of-czech-torah-scrolls/
Website of Westminster Synagogue. https://westminstersynagogue.org/content/czech-memorial-scrolls-museum
“Welcome to the Memorial Scrolls Trust’s official website.” Memorial Scrolls Trust. http://www.memorialscrollstrust.org/about-memorial-scrolls-trust/
“Czech Scrolls at the Memorial Scrolls Trust.” Memorial Scrolls Trust. http://www.memorialscrollstrust.org/czech-scrolls/.
The Jews and Jewish Communities of Bohemia in the past and present, http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/bohemia/boh699.html
“In Memory of the Jews of VLAŠIM.” Mishkan Torah. http://www.mishkantorah.org/in-memory-of-the-jews-of-vlasim.
Jan Herman and Meir Lamed, “Bohemia,” Encyclopedia Judaica, Berenbaum and Skolnik, eds., 37-41.
Joel Roteman, “Torah begins new life,” The Jewish Chronicle, July 18, 1991
“Home.” Website of Beth El Congregation, http://bethelcong.org/.