Half a year ago, I wrote about a very new scroll I was shown in Jerusalem, and I mused about our own scroll and its origin. The sofer (scribe) in Jerusalem told the story of an old scroll he was restoring. A scroll, he argued, is also its history.
On Sunday 4 February, I went to Westminster Synagogue for a celebration of the Czech Scrolls that arrived there 60 years ago. (See also https://www.westminstersynagogue.org/following-our-czech-scrolls-60th-celebration.html)
Throughout the Nazi Occupation, these scrolls had been collected from the different communities in Czechia. Some of these communities had disappeared before the war and others were destroyed during the occupation, yet their many artefacts were collected and stored in the Jewish Museum in Prague. Why such a large collection was saved is not entirely clear. After the war, the scrolls were kept, but not looked after very carefully. They were slowly deteriorating until they were rescued again, thanks to a very generous donation from a London businessman. On 7 February 1964, 1564 scrolls arrived at Westminster Synagogue.
Since then, many of them have been repaired and lent to smaller and new communities which were unable to afford a scroll. Others have gone to larger communities. These communities have been using their scroll for regular shabbats or on special occasions and they have started to research the city from which their scroll came. I was the co-chair of the Czech Scroll Group for Finchley Reform Synagogue for some years, and I am still involved in its annual Czech scroll service. The FRS scroll is long thought to be from Uhříněves and we have built a relationship with people in that suburb of Prague.
Hannah with Finchley Reform Synagogue’s Robert Stone at the Czech Scroll Service.
The most moving moment of the service at Westminster came at the start, when the different scrolls, big and small, were brought in by members of their respective communities. It was a painful moment, as Westminster’s Czech Rabbi Kamila Kopřivová observed. The towns in Czechia, their Jewish communities and synagogues destroyed, no longer had a need for them. And yet, it was also a moment of celebration. Not all is destruction. These scrolls are now part of new communities, which enriches their history further.
Our scroll is not one of the Czech Scrolls, as Byron Simmonds has written. It is likely that our scroll is one of five which Rabbi Andrew Goldstein purchased from a German dealer. It may have come from Slovakia. (See https://www.norwichljc.org.uk/our-torah-scroll/)
Jeffrey Ohrenstein, the chair of the Czech Scroll Memorial Trust, has been able to tell us a bit more about our scroll. I sent him the measurements of the scroll as well as pictures of the writing. He is in touch with soferim who were able to tell from that, that our scroll is likely to be Sephardi, written probably in Palestine between 1940 and 1950. It may still have travelled to us via Slovakia, but that is more difficult to ascertain.
As our scroll is part of our Community, and our history is part of the scroll, perhaps someone with the time and interest will pick up the thread… a living history and one in the making!