In the dark days after World War II, when much of Europe lay in ruins and survivors scrabbled in the streets to feed their children, a ray of hope shone for witnesses of the Holocaust: More than 1,500 Torah scrolls were recovered in Prague, Czechoslovakia, after having been confiscated by the Third Reich from synagogues across the continent.
The systematic destruction of the Jewish people, along with Gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally ill and political rivals of the Nazi regime, decimated those synagogues’ congregations. But the members of Congregation Children of Israel on Walton Way found a way to keep those communities alive, said Rabbi Robert Klensin, by preserving one of those rescued Torahs.
“It’s sacred because of its history,” Klensin said. “At some points in the service we take out the Torah scroll and read from it. It takes a year to get through a Torah, reading from Genesis to Deuteronomy.”
Nathan Jolles is president of the congregation. He explained that the recovered religious writings have great meaning for congregants, who raised the money necessary to take on the perpetual care of the historic artifact.
“Something like this Holocaust Torah has an intrinsic value beyond the time and costs of having a scribe write out the Torah, because it is something that was saved from a very grave time for the Jewish people — not just the Jewish people, but all of the people who were living in Europe at the time,” Jolles said.
The call of this mission to the temple members was strong because the Jewish community is tied together in more than just symbolic and historic ways. The sections of the Torah are read straight through over the course of a year, so all congregations in the world read the same passages each Sabbath, and study the same verses during weekly Torah study.
“That’s part of the connection with this Holocaust Torah, the memory that this Torah was read by Jews on the Sabbath,” Klensin said. “That hundreds, if not thousands, of young men may have read from it at their bar mitzvah ceremonies.”
Once the scrolls were discovered, and after decades of dickering, the Czech government turned them over to Westminster Synagogue in London. There were far too many scrolls to display, and many were no longer kosher, which, despite ubiquitous secular use of the term, technically means is ritually proper.
The cost of a Torah ranges widely, but can cost tens of thousands of dollars. It takes about a year for a “sofer” (scribe) to hand-write a Torah, delicate constructions of parchment pages that are then hand-sewn together.
“It’s a very time-consuming process,” Jolles said. “Torahs are very expensive to have.”
But because these scrolls were not kosher, they could not be used in sacred ceremonies, and would not — in an Orthodox or conservative congregation — generally be read from at all. That means that the pricey scrolls could not be donated for use to a poor congregation in need.
Still, Westminster Synagogue worked for 25 years to sort and catalogue the Torahs. They worked to repair them as much as
was possible, and then contacted synagogues around the world that would agree to care for and preserve these orphaned scrolls.
Congregation Children of Israel took on the challenge and, in the 1970s, raised the needed funds to cover the cost. They have cared for it for 30 years, revering it alongside three other Torah scrolls all stored it in an elaborate ark. Above it hangs a perpetual light that represents the continuity of the faithful and an ever-present God. Occasionally, such as on days that commemorate the Holocaust, Klensin will remove the Holocaust Torah and read from it, despite the irreparable damage.
“There are all these sacred emotions tied up with it that make it holy, and made me go ahead and make the decision to read from it,” Klensin said.
And while the temple members know that their Torah was taken from the ancient Alt-Neu Synagogue in Prague — the Nazis were fastidious record-keepers — they’ll soon know even more.
“We’re going to have a scribe to examine the Torahs, and when he does, he’ll be able to tell us the approximate time and country in which they were created,” Klensin said.
The sofer will inspect their four scrolls for needed repairs, and examine the Holocaust Torah to determine its origins. The calligraphy style, the layout of the pages, the type of parchment and ink used and which words begin and end each column of text all indicate the place and time during which a single scholar labored to create it.
The Torah may be up to 150 years old, Klensin said, placing the time of its writing in the mid-to-late 1800s. The congregation that commissioned it may have used it for 80 years — up to four generations of families — before the Nazis slaughtered them.