Honor Our Holocaust Torah

JEWISH JOURNAL

Prague to Pembroke Pines: Journey of a Holocaust Torah

By Rebecca and Steve Reinstein

Special to the Jewish Journal

Jul 06, 2022 at 1:41 pm

Torah Picture.jpg

The three-story brick building, trimmed in white marble stretches down the private street resembling many other striking edifices in London. However, when we walked through the door of Kent House at Rutland Gardens on the morning of June 6, 2022, we entered another world – the lost world of Pre-Holocaust Bohemia and Moravia.

Kent House is home to Westminster Synagogue and the Memorial Scrolls Trust, MST, which has preserved or restored 1564 Torah scrolls and other artifacts. The story of the journey of these scrolls from Czechoslovakia to London to the Pembroke Pines Jewish Center is truly amazing. Our guide was Jeffrey Ohrenstein, Trustee Chairman of MST, who spent several hours telling us the history and lore of this unique museum and showing us all the treasures. [See the history and collection at https://memorialscrollstrust.org]

Before World War II, there was a thriving Jewish Community in the areas of Bohemia and Moravia in what is today part of the Czech Republic. According to the 1930 Census these two areas were home to 117,551 Jews and 350 synagogues. There were 356,830 Jews in all of Czechoslovakia. 26,000 managed to emigrate, 7000 were murdered in the country, and 71,000 of the 82,309 sent to the camps were murdered.

Prague was home to the Jewish Museum founded in 1909. When the Nazis invaded in March 1939, they began the systematic takeover of the Jewish Community. Unlike the Sudetenland, which they had invaded the previous year, they did not destroy synagogues, artifacts, and expel the Jews immediately. They needed the country’s armament industry to support their war effort.

Dr. Stein of the Jὓdische Kiltusgemeinde (Jewish Religious Community) in Prague sent an order for all synagogues in Bohemia and Moravia to send their Sifrei Torahs plus all their silver and gold filials, books, textiles, and other valuables to the museum. These 212,000 treasures and 1800 Torahs filled 14 warehouses. The staff was forced to meticulously catalogue every item, describing it in detail and the town of its origin.

A myth grew up around the collection saying Hitler wanted to create a museum of an extinct race after he was victorious in the war. There is absolutely no evidence of this, and we know how meticulous the Nazis were in their documentation. Instead, they looted anything of monetary value. The staff, once they had served their purpose, were deported to the camps, where most did not survive.

After the war, fifty Jewish communities opened throughout Czechoslovakia and received Torahs from Prague’s reestablished Jewish Museum. This revival was short lived when, Communists seized power in 1948, closing houses of worship. In 1958, the 18th century Michle Synagogue became the warehouse which housed hundreds of Torah Scrolls from the large Prague Jewish community and what was left from the smaller communities of Bohemia and Moravia. Unfortunately, the scrolls were placed in the basement where they were attacked by mold, insects, and mice.

This story might have ended here had it not been for a fortuitous occurrence. In 1963, the Communist government needed cash. Through their puppet company, Artia, they approached Eric Estorick, a London art dealer who often bought paintings in the country to buy the scrolls. Estorick turned to his client, Ralph Yablon, who talked the idea over with Rabbi Harold Reinhart at the Westminster Synagogue. They contacted a university scholar to examine the scrolls to determine their authenticity, current condition, and conformance to the religious rules for such scrolls. Yablon purchased 1564 Torahs meeting the criteria for $30,000 and brought them to London the following year.

The synagogue established the Memorial Scrolls Trust as an independent nonprofit organization and gave the effort two floors in its facility. As they raised money, they brought in sofrim, scribes, to restore the Torahs. Ruth Shaffer arrived as administrator to organize the work and resources. Restoration proceeded slowly because MST had to raise money to support each team of scribes. One day, David Brand, a professional sofer, showed up and volunteered to take over the important restoration and repair work. For the next thirty years, Brand labored over the Torahs, preserving them for posterity.

As word spread, requests came in from around the world for the Torahs. MST decided to maintain ownership of the scrolls and loan them to Congregations who agreed to use them for education, religious purposes, and to promote interfaith work.

Edward Weinberg and Lorraine Brod, members of Century Pines Jewish Center, on the campus of Century Village of Pembroke Pines, wanted to honor their spouses. In 1998, they went to London, to obtain a Torah for the synagogue. Brod’s husband, Morris, survived imprisonment in five different camps. She told the Jewish Journal, “He survived because he was determined to live. It’s a memorial to him and that we should never forget [the Holocaust].”

On November 4, 2001, the congregation welcomed Czech Torah #1194. Local officials and a state representative joined in the celebration presided over by Rabbi Leon Fink. Synagogue president Ralph Cohen said, “It is a constant, living remembrance of the Holocaust…a token of the suffering and the catastrophe of the extermination of 6 million Jews.”

Century Pines, a conservative congregation merged with Village Reform Congregation in 2019 to form Pembroke Pines Jewish Center, a traditional congregation. As current president, Merv Levin led the observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day, he encouraged people to honor the Torah with donations to further the required work. Our Torah is thought to be 200 years old from Uhrineves, near Prague. We have researched the history of the Jewish community there which began in the 16th century and grew until Rosh Hashanah, September 12, 1939, when the Nazis closed the synagogue and deported the members to the Terezin Concentrations Camp and on to the gas chambers. Only fourteen members survived.

The Memorial Scrolls Trust reminds us, “The Czech scrolls are survivors and silent witnesses. They represent not only the lost communities of Bohemia and Moravia, but all those who perished in the Shoah. The MST encourages all their scroll-holders to use their scrolls for inter and intra-faith work, as well as for ritual and education.”

Pembroke Pines Jewish Center is actively working to fulfill this obligation. We have begun communication and cooperation with other congregations in Florida and elsewhere to share our ideas for educational and other projects. MST has asked scroll holders to create a webpage and ours will launch soon.

If you want to know more about our Torah, contact us through our website https://www.PembrokePinesJewishCenter.com/contact