All Torah Scrolls are special and have their own stories; of the communities that they serve, the Rabbis, scholars, members like you and I who have read from them, listened to them, learned from them and been touched by them in different ways. At ELELS we have one particular Scroll that has a very distinctive story to tell. It’s a Scroll that connects us to the darkest chapter of human history, but also to the future of Judaism as it links us to a network of Jewish communities throughout the world that reflect the rebirth, growth and endurance of our people. The Scroll is from the Czech town of Blatná, and this Shabbat, in our services, we will be focusing on this very special Torah Scroll and its legacy.
Blatná is a town in the South-West corner of Bohemia in what was Czechoslovakia. Although never a large Jewish community, it had 4 Torah Scrolls and a house of prayer prior to World War 2. On March 15, 1939, the areas of Bohemia and Moravia became a protectorate of Nazi Germany, after which the Jews living in the area were gradually deprived of their rights and properties. In 1942, the administrators of the Jewish museum contacted all Jewish communities in the country asking them to send their Torah Scrolls and other precious items to Prague, to the museum for safekeeping. Around 100,000 items were sent, including 2000 Torah Scrolls. Meanwhile, the people were rounded up and sent initially to the Terezín (Theresienstadt) ghetto before, mostly, being transported East to Auschwitz where they met their end. According to a census, 117,000 Jews had lived in Bohemia and Moravia in 1930. Although many emigrated, and 17,000 are thought to have survived, more than 78,000 perished during the Holocaust.
The Torah Scrolls remained in storage for years, largely forgotten about until the early 1960s when a London art dealer arranged for them to be purchased by a friend of his, Ralph Yablon. Mr Yablon paid what at the time was a princely sum of £30,000 for the Torah Scrolls to be brought to London on the condition that they would come to his community, Westminster Synagogue so that they could be restored and sent to synagogues around the world to once again be at the centre of Jewish life.
One rainy February morning in 1964, Westminster Synagogue took delivery of 1564 Torah Scrolls, hundreds of binders and other precious items from the Jewish communities of Czechoslovakia. Over the years, the Memorial Scrolls Trust based at WS has carried out the work envisaged by Mr Yablon. They have set up a museum where the story of the Scrolls is told and where approximately 150 of the Scrolls reside. However, they also organised the restoration of all Scrolls that could once again be made kosher, and today the Scrolls are with Jewish communities worldwide. More than 1000 of the Czech Torah scrolls are in the United States, including one in the Presidential Library (it was given to Jimmy Carter), but there are more than 50 in Israel, a number in South America, Europe, Australasia and in Africa. There are also more than 50 in the UK of which ELELS has one of the four Scrolls from the town of Blatná.
In order to receive a Scroll from the Trust, a community needs to make various commitments. The most important is that the Scroll is used again as it once was; read from, learned from and celebrated. Another is that the Scroll is used as an educational tool, in order to tell the story of the Czech Jews, teach the lessons of history and to promote peace and tolerance. A third pledge is that communities establish links with the Czech towns that the Scrolls came from, to help them to re-establish connections with their Jewish past (which they have generally shown a strong desire to do). The fourth commitment is that the Czech Jewish communities of origin are honoured and remembered. This is what we will be doing at tonight’s Erev Shabbat and tomorrow’s Family Shabbat Service as we do each year in November.
At both services we will talk about the story of the Scrolls remembering the lost Jewish community of Blatná that this Scroll once served. Tonight we will also read the names of members of the Jewish community; gone but not forgotten. Tomorrow morning we will be teaching our cheder children about the Scrolls.
We hope that you will be able to join us for one of our services. Both will be on Zoom, but tonight’s service, led by Rabbi Richard and myself, will also be streamed from 8pm on our Facebook and YouTube pages. By doing so, you help us to remain true to the commitment that we share with the many other Czech Scroll-holding communities throughout the world; that these Scrolls not only represent the past and our Jewish present, but that they will also be a part of the future of Judaism.
If you would like to find out more about the story of the Czech Scrolls, visit the Memorial Scrolls Trust website by clicking here. To find out more about our Czech Scroll and the Jewish community of Blatná including some members of the community around whom an exhibition was created in 2013/14, click on this page on our website.
If you would be interested in helping us to further our links with the town of Blatná and to develop our work around honouring the legacy of the Czech Scrolls and their story, I would be delighted to hear from you at the email address below.
Nick Young- ELELS Community Development Manager