Our Torah Scroll on permanent loan to us from the Memorial Scroll Trust has been restored and we are delighted to be able to use it as a Torah is meant to be used for the first time since it was ripped from the hands of the Jews in Klatovy, Czekoslovakia during the Holocaust.
We are excited to have it back and to see it evolve from museum piece to klei kodesh, part of our collection of sacred ritual items used by our congregation.
Our Torah's Story
During the Second World War, as all of Europe plunged into darkness, a story of determination and survival began.
Our Czech Memorial Scroll is at least 155 years old (a wimple for this Torah – the binder tied around the two halves of the scroll – was dedicated in 1855) and was part of the ritual life of a synagogue in the town of Klatovy, Czechoslovakia (now called the Czech Republic). In 1939, when Germany annexed areas of Moravia and Bohemia, the Jewish community had only hours to gather up their belongings and flee to the “relative” safety of Prague in the country’s interior.
In the period that followed, hundreds of synagogues remained empty and exposed to theft and destruction, with all of their precious klei kodesh (sacred ritual items) still inside. Fearful that all of these items would be lost or destroyed, a small group of Jews in Prague petitioned the German occupiers for permission to retrieve, catalogue and store all that remained in the abandoned synagogues across the country. Over the next 18 months, they saved hundreds of thousands of religious items including more than 1500 Sefer Torah Scrolls.
As the War continued, one by one, those Jews involved in the effort were sent to Theresienstadt and then were murdered at Auschwitz. Only two of them survived.
After the war, the collection of ritual items including the Torah scrolls lay forgotten for nearly 20 years in an abandoned synagogue in Prague. In 1963, an American art dealer who was living in London, was approached by the Czech Communist Government asking if he might be interested in purchasing some “Jewish Scrolls.” He traveled to Prague and was taken to the basement of Michle synagogue where he was stunned to see 1564 Torahs Scrolls stacked floor to ceiling. He immediately returned to London and approached the leaders of the Westminster Synagogue, secured funding, and made the transaction. In February 1964, all 1564 Torah Scrolls arrived at the door of Westminster Synagogue in London. One by one, saved from destruction, they were taken from the truck and through the synagogue door to begin a new life.
Each scroll was given a number and the scroll from Klatovy, on permanent loan to Bet Shalom, is Memorial Scroll #3. The Memorial Scrolls Trust was created, to organize and dispatch these Scrolls around the world to serve as witness to the Holocaust and memorials to those whose lives were lost. In this way, Bet Shalom is forever connected to those who celebrated life, with this Torah, in the town of Klatovy.
For many years, in the Hopkins Bet Shalom building and then in the Minnetonka building, our Memorial Scroll, encased in glass, has served as a sacred symbol of our responsibility to the past, present and future of Jewish life. Our scroll has witnessed thousands of lifecycle events in the Bet Shalom community, thus affirming that Hitler did not win. We are still here, and we are thriving. Yet even as our scroll was a witness to the horrors of the past, the beauty of the present, and the promise of the future, it remained unusable, like a piece in a museum collection. It was too fragile, its condition too deteriorated, to be used as we use our other sacred Torah Scrolls.
In the Fall of 2019, in memory of Tom and Rhoda Lewin, Dr. Scott, Kate, and Rachel Shamblott had the vision to restore this torah for use in the lives of our congregation. As a result of their generosity, Soferet Alexandra Casser was able to restore this 200 year old scroll for the next 200 years. We re-dedicated the Torah and returned it to our sanctuary in February 2020.
Over the years, a story emerged that suggested these Scrolls were actually collected by the Nazis because they had planned to create a “Museum to an Extinct Race” after they had completed their goal of murdering all the Jews of Europe. While aspects of this story seem plausible, it is not known from where this myth originates as there has never been any documentation. Regardless, the myth eclipsed the real story of the Jews in Prague who bravely saved the 1564 Memorial Trust Scrolls. We give thanks to them, and honor their memory, as we include this Torah scroll in the life of our sacred community here in Minnesota.