Czech Torahs Recovered After Holocaust to Reunite
On Thursday, Feb. 6, Paula Farbman boarded a plane to London with a treasure sitting on her lap. Inside a zipped clothing travel bag and encased in bubble wrap was a Torah scroll that dated to the 1700s and was used in a small Czech town that was decimated by the Holocaust.
The scroll is one of 1,564 Torahs that make up the Memorial Scrolls Trust, which is based at the Westminster Synagogue in London. On Sunday, the trust will commemorate its 50th anniversary in a celebration that will reunite many of these scrolls, which have been loaned to congregations around the world.
“Even though the Nazis tried to destroy the Jewish people, they failed, and this is a living testament to the vitality and vibrancy of the Jewish people,” said Temple Oheb Shalom’s Rabbi Steven Fink, whose painted portrait features the Torah in the background.
While synagogues throughout industrial and commercial towns in the Sudetenland — the German-speaking areas of Czechoslovakia — were mostly destroyed, others in the country, including in Prague, were not. After mass deportations removed most of the Czech Jewish population by early 1943, those remaining, which included half-Jews and those from mixed marriages, were tasked with liquidating Jewish property in those towns. The scrolls and many other artifacts were sent to Prague, and the remaining Jews were eventually deported in 1943 and 1944. Few survived.
Many of the synagogue’s scrolls wound up at the Michle Synagogue in Prague and were stored in damp conditions. An American art dealer, Eric Estorick, who was living in London and traveled to Prague frequently in the early 1960s, saw the scrolls and was upset by their condition. He contacted a rabbi at the Westminster Synagogue, and a congregant named Ralph Yablon later bought the scrolls for the equivalent of $30,000. The scrolls arrived at the Westminster Synagogue on Feb. 7, 1964.
The trust was established to refurbish the Torahs and loan them to congregations throughout the world. More than 1,000 scrolls were loaned to American congregations, with Baltimore City being home to at least 10 scrolls at one point.
Farbman and her late husband, Leonard, acquired one of the Torahs for Oheb Shalom in 1990.
“We were fortunate enough not to have to live through those times in those places, but I had many of my relatives die,” said Farbman. “It’s just the fact that this was available, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
According to a letter written to Oheb Shalom in 1988 by the late Frank Steiner, a Holocaust survivor who lived in Florida and helped original trust chair Ruth Shaffer, Farbman’s Torah is from a small community named Divisov, which is located in the Czech province of Bohemia about 32 miles southwest of Prague. According to the letter, Jews lived in Divisov before 1685. The Jewish community established a cemetery in 1776, and it had a synagogue with a religious school and a mikvah. After 1893, the congregation could no longer afford a rabbi and joined the Jewish community in the nearby city of Benesov; it only used the Divisov building on High Holy Days. At the time of the writing, the building was a barber shop, Steiner wrote.
Farbman, whose grandchildren comprise the fifth generation of Oheb Shalom membership, is flying to London with her four children and their spouses. She said neighbors and friends have been moved to tears upon hearing the story.
“This is such a wonderful thing; everyone I’ve spoken to, their eyes fill up,” she said, noting that a non-Jewish neighbor cried when Farbman explained to her the Torah’s significance.
Fink said Oheb Shalom uses the Torah on Erev Yom Kippur, and one of Farbman’s sons holds the Torah at the service.
Rabbi emeritus Donald Berlin was at the congregation when the Torah was acquired. He was familiar with the Czech scrolls since he was rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Roanoke, Va., in the 1960s, when it acquired one of the Torahs.
“This is a way of maintaining an aliveness of both Torah and Judaism and of those people [from Divisov] all at once,” he said.
Baltimore’s connection to Jews from Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia goes deeper than these scrolls, said Berlin. As a thriving entry port to the United States for German Jews in the 1800s and then again for Jews fleeing Europe in the 1930s, Baltimore had a large German-Jewish community.
“Oheb Shalom was one of the congregations where many of them identified,” explained Berlin. “But almost all of the people had relatives that were murdered in the war.”
Oheb Shalom even had its own survival story: Two sisters were reunited when one came to Baltimore after surviving the Holocaust, joining her sister who fled before the war.
These connections are exactly what the Memorial Scrolls Trust hopes to foster. With the scrolls distributed around the world, those from the trust want them to be recognized for the treasures that they are.
“Now, we’re trying to stimulate conversations to use these scrolls to tell the story of the Holocaust,” said Susan Boyer, the U.S. director of the trust. “This mission has changed, and now it’s to make that connection [within the congregations] and to not let these scrolls become forgotten survivors.”
Boyer said many congregations have made connections with the villages their scrolls are from, and she has even attended a bat mitzvah in Moravia, where a scroll was brought back to the village that it came from.
Part of Boyer’s job, a volunteer position, is to keep track of the scrolls, quite a task in recent years with a number of American congregations closing and merging with others.
“They’re very, very precious and very important, and their importance grows with each year,” she said.
Evelyn Friedlander, chair of the Memorial Scrolls Trust, said that a couple hundred scrolls have been lost.
“We’re constantly doing detective work,” she said.
Friedlander planned the commemoration, which she expects to bring more than 200 people to the Westminster Synagogue. Guests are bringing more than 40 Torahs with them.
“What’s so special about [the scrolls] is the fact that they’re alive; they’re used,” said Friedlander said. “Congregations that these Torahs came from are no more. Very few Jews survived from all of these small towns. Only scrolls are such a potent memorial to these people.”