Czech Torah scroll

Sacred Survivor: Memorial Scrolls Trust Torah Scroll from Valmez

 In April 2018, a small crowd gathered at the Melbourne Holocaust Museum (MHM) to witness the handing over of a Torah scroll from the UK-based Memorial Scrolls Trust. The crowd included Czech survivors of the Holocaust, as well as a group of Melbourne rabbis. Dr Joseph Toltz, a Sydney academic who serves as a representative of this organization, formally handed the scroll MST#388 to the Melbourne Holocaust Museum.

Dr Toltz explained that this scroll was from Valasske Mezirici (known as Valmez), a town where 150 Jews lived in 1930. It was one of 1,564 Torah scrolls from the provinces of Moravia and Bohemia that were sent to Prague and cared for by a group of Jews during the war. These sacred scrolls were then saved from neglect after the war when Czechoslovakia was under Communist rule. The scroll had been used before the war in the synagogue of that small Jewish community that had existed since the middle of the 19th century.

Almost the entire Jewish population of this town was murdered during the Holocaust. Yet this Torah scroll miraculously survived and may be considered a symbol of the continuity of the Jewish people and faith.  The Melbourne Holocaust Museum proudly displays this significant and sacred Torah.

Dr Toltz said as he officially handed the Sefer Torah to the MHM, “As one of the premier institutions of Holocaust remembrance in Australia, I knew that you would be an excellent choice to tell the stories of the Jews of Valmez, the curators of the Jewish Museum of Prague, the second saving of the scrolls by the Westminster Synagogue, and the incredible circumstances that have led to this scroll’s arrival in Australia.”

Rabbi Ralph Genende, Senior Rabbi at Caulfield Synagogue, reminded us that all Jewish lives are intricately bound up with this one scroll of Jewish Law. He beckoned us to think of the eyes that have looked at the words and the ears that have heard them read, the bar mitzvah boys who have struggled to read from it, and the many people who have danced around it.

The history of Czech Jewry and the rescue of the scrolls.

The Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia occurred in March 1939.Jewish congregations were closed down and synagogues were destroyed or deserted. In 1930 there had been 117,551 Jews in Bohemia and Moravia.  By 1943 around 26,000 Jews had fled or migrated.  Around 81,000 Jews were deported to Terezin (Theresienstadt concentration camp) and other camps. Only 10,500 survived. In total, around 80,000 Jews from Bohemia and Moravia died during the Holocaust. Over 60 out of the country’s 350 synagogues had been destroyed.  The remaining buildings were abandoned and left to decay, with 80 synagogues demolished during the subsequent Communist era.

In 1942, Karel Stein of Prague’s Jewish community encouraged Jewish communities across Czechoslovakia to send their treasured sacred scrolls and objects from their closed synagogues to the Jewish Museum of Prague. The Nazis agreed with this plan on the basis that the items were valuable, and more than 100,000 artefacts were collected. 1,800 Torah scrolls were among this vast array of religious treasures. Each scroll was meticulously described and labelled by museum staff,

After the war, the scrolls were transferred to the ruined synagogue at Michle outside Prague, where they remained until they came to London. At the end of the war, around 50 congregations re-established themselves in the Czech Republic and were provided with religious items. But when hen the Communists took power in 1948, Jewish communal life was again stifled, and again, most synagogues closed. An initiative to keep the remaining 1,564 Torah scrolls safe was taken by London Jews. They purchased the scrolls from the Communist government and took them back into Jewish hands at Westminster Synagogue. The full story of how the scrolls came to London can be found in the book Out of the Midst of the Fire by Philippa Bernard. It is also detailed on the Memorial Scrolls Trust website.

The scroll at the MHM, numbered MST#388, was used in the 1970s in a synagogue in Brisbane until it was damaged, making it unusable for religious purposes. The synagogue then handed it to the Brisbane Museum, where it was stored for many years. The mission of the Memorial Scrolls Trust is for these scrolls to be visible to a wider public, so a transfer to the Melbourne Holocaust Museum in Melbourne was organized More than 22,000 school students and many adults visit each year to learn about the Holocaust and its wider implications for all of us, and this important Torah is a vital part of this history.