Traveling in Time: One Synagogue’s Journey with a Czech Memorial Scroll
From lamentation to praise. From sadness to joy.
This is the trajectory of our prayers. This is the story of our journey.
In February, 30 individuals and one Torah scroll from Temple Israel of Boston traveled to Prague and London to commemorate the ingathering of Czech Sifrei Torah as part of the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Memorial Scrolls Trust. These scrolls – all that remain of 153 Czechoslovakian Jewish communities destroyed by the Nazis – are on permanent loan from the Memorial Scrolls Trust and the Westminster Synagogue to synagogues across the world.
Our scroll – Blatna scroll #877 – originally belonged to the Jewish community of Blatna, which once might have included as many as 100 people. By the mid-1930s, thanks to migration – both across the Atlantic and to larger towns in the region – Blatna numbered only eight Jewish families. When the Nazis rounded up the town's Jews in November 1942, those families were sent to Terezin. We know the names of 26 of those who perished.
Despite its small size, the Blatna community possessed four cherished Torah scrolls, all left behind in the synagogue when the Nazis deported the Jews. As the Nazis decimated the Jews in Blatna and villages across the country, synagogues all over Czechoslovakia were abandoned, their sacred scrolls, Torah crowns, pointers, siddurim, spice boxes, and other ritual objects left prey to looters. In occupied Prague, courageous staff at the Jewish Museum persuaded the Nazis to bring thousands of these treasures – including the Blatna scrolls – to the capital to be catalogued. In total, 1,564 Torah scrolls were warehoused in Prague synagogues for the duration of the war and remained there for nearly 20 years more. In 1964, Eric Estorick, an Anglo-American art dealer, negotiated their purchase from a cash-strapped Communist government. He arranged for their move to London, under the agency of the Westminster Synagogue and the Memorial Scrolls Trust, which repaired and distributed the scrolls on permanent loan to synagogues around the world.
If you don't believe traveling with a Torah scroll is complicated, just ask our rabbis. Temple Israel's Rabbi Ronne Friedman negotiated with British Air for months, finally purchasing a separate seat so the Torah could make the trip, first to the place where it had been scribed in 1840, and then to London to celebrate its survival – and our own. Rabbi Elaine Zecher lovingly shepherded the Torah, swaddled in bubble wrap and secured in a rolling duffle, throughout the many legs of the journey, pulling it along airport corridors, answering questions from security personnel, and securing it in the airline seat beside her.
In Prague, we stood silently in the Pinchas Synagogue, unable to process the reality as we studied the walls covered floor to ceiling with names of the 80,000 Czech Jews murdered in the Holocaust. We said Kaddish at Terezin, once at the cemetery near the small fortress and again at the memorial for those who died a natural death there (if death by starvation, disease, or freezing is natural) before their ashes were dumped in the river. We spoke that night at dinner of how intensely grateful we all are for our American lives, for the freedom we enjoy and take for granted.
Then there was the ceremony in London. At the rear of the Westminster Synagogue, leaders of congregations from throughout the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada cradled the 54 precious sifrei Torah that had come on the journey – each one a part of the Czech Torah diaspora. One by one, the leaders marched solemnly down the center aisle, as the doleful strains of Mahler's Fifth Symphony filled the sanctuary.
We stood, lips compressed and tears flowing, the sacred moment reflected on every face.
As Temple Israel President Kathy Weinman stepped forward, proudly holding our Blatna scroll, and, together with four past presidents, marched forth from the past to the future, I thought of the thousands of hands that had touched the scroll in the past, and of the hands that would touch it in the years to come. Although Temple Israel owns seven scrolls, our Blatna scroll is the one that is opened and read each week by our b'nai mitzvah students. "We use the scroll for these youngsters," says Rabbi Zecher, "and we lift up the idea that they are bringing memory to life, that they are able to celebrate and honor the memories of those who perished."
On our last night in Prague, we were honored by a dinner invitation from US Ambassador Norman Eisen, a charming and articulate modern Orthodox Jew who maintains a kosher kitchen at the embassy. His family story encapsulates the experience of our journey. Telling it, he quoted his Czech-born mother who survived Auschwitz: "I left Czechoslovakia in a cattle car," she said, "and my son returned on Air Force One."
Susan Ebert is the founding director of the Boston Jewish Community Women's Fund. She is a board member of Temple Israel of Boston, where her three daughters celebrated their b'not mitzvah reading from the Blatna Torah.
In the featured photo, Temple Israel President Kathy Weinman holds the Blatna Torah, with past temple presidents Dean Richlin, Carol Michael, Fran Putnoi, and Barry Weisman. Photo taken by Russell Kushner.