The fact that a few of the 1,564 Czech Memorial Scrolls were all in one place at the same time, was almost a miracle. It took detailed planning and the cooperation of many institutions to bring these historical documents to New York City’s Temple Emanu-El for one-evening. It is only through the efforts of the Herbert & Eileen Bernard Museum and the auspices of the Memorial Scrolls Trust of London that this first-time phenomenon took place in New York.
Scholars have determined that it would be difficult to identify examples of Jewish culture and religion more suitable than the Torah scrolls. The reading from a parchment manuscript, containing the Hebrew text of the Five Books of Moses, the Divine Teaching handed over to the people of Israel, is the cornerstone to the Jewish synagogue ritual.
More Than Parchment
The Torah scroll is a strip of parchment, prepared from the skin of a kosher animal. Many inches in length, it is supported by two wooden rollers (atzei hayyim, “trees of life”) at each end. Considered to be holy, the text and the scroll hold an exceptional position in Judaism. If the scroll is appropriate for reading in the synagogue, the Torah scroll must be written in Hebrew square script with permanent ink by a professional scribe (sofer). The scroll cannot have textual errors and the letters must be legible. While certain errors and imperfections may be corrected by the scribe, if the damage is wide-ranging, the parchment cannot be used.
The fact that the Torah Scrolls exist at all is a marvel. They were saved from the Czechoslovakian regions of Bohemia and Moravia during WWII, surviving the planned destruction of everything Jewish and the horrors of the communist regime that controlled the country in 1948.
It is thought that the artifacts survived because Prague, although badly damaged, was not leveled during the fighting. The scrolls were stored in a synagogue in a Prague suburb and they remained (decomposing) in this building until 1963, when the Czech government sought a buyer for the treasures. Eric Estorick, a British art dealer, introduced the opportunity to Ralph Yablon, a founding member of London’s Westminster Synagogue. Yablon purchased the scrolls and donated them to his synagogue.
On February 7, 1964, 1,564 scrolls were delivered to London. According to Jeffrey Ohrenstein, “They were in plastic bags, like body bags.” Many of the scrolls were in disrepair. Fortunately, Rabbi David Brand, a sofer, was looking for work, and presumed that the synagogue would have at least one scroll in need of repair; he was shown an entire floor of scrolls in need of his attention. He worked in the synagogue for nearly 30 years, repairing all the scrolls – personally.
Shortly after their arrival in London, a trust was created to care for the scrolls and repairs were initiated. Over the next 30 years, over 1,400 scrolls were sent to synagogues around the world. Now the Trust focuses on raising awareness of the responsibility attached to the housing of these historic documents. Synagogues and institutions are asked to devote one Shabbat during the year to the Memorial Congregation to coincide with the anniversary of the deportation of that community and to memorialize the many murdered Jews by remembering their names on that Shabbat and Yom HaShoah and Yum Kippur.
With more than 75 scrolls from over 10 different states and countries on view, hundreds of people crowded the auditorium at Temple Emanu-El. The scrolls are identified by number and no longer have their original mantles. The current scroll covers range from sumptuous velvet to tartan plaid with an outstanding cover designed in the stripes of a concentration camp prison uniform. The Torahs were carried by Temple members as well as representatives from nearby synagogues and Houses of Worship. The scroll procession was accompanied by a violin playing Etz Hayim (A tree of life) from Proverbs.
In his emotionally moving words to the audience, Jeffrey Ohrenstein said: “The Torah is the one thing that binds all Jews together. We would like our scroll holders to use the scrolls in a way that reminds people of what we have in common rather than what divides us.”
For additional information, go to memorialscrollstrust.org.