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CZECH SCROLLS: How two ancient manuscripts came to Radlett

 Published on: 18th February 2024   |   By: Sophia Sheera   |   Category: Uncategorized

On the first Sabbath of February, not one but two Torah scrolls were carefully carried out from the Ark at Radlett Reform Synagogue and readied for service.

Last month marked 60 years since the Memorial Scrolls Trust was established, so to celebrate, a special reading from one of the synagogue’s two Czech scrolls was performed on the Sabbath.

Radlett Reform Synagogue is rare in that it cares for not one, but two Czech scrolls. These ancient rolls of parchment record the Torah it its entirety, inked in calligraphic Hebrew. Some 1,550 of them were transported to Westminster Synagogue from a derelict synagogue in Czechoslovakia 60 years ago.

The story of these scrolls is sobering; they testify to Jewish bravery under Nazi occupation, ineffably connecting Jewish people today to the generations that have gone before.

In 1930, there were 117,551 Jewish people living in the Bohemia and Moravia regions of Czechoslovakia, Eastern Europe. Occupying forces marched into the country in 1938. In 1942, the Nazis ordered Jewish communities in Bohemia and Moravia to pack up their Torahs and ship them to the Jewish Museum in Prague, where they would be catalogued for purposes unknown. A total of 40 warehouses were filled with Torahs, which were meticulously indexed by scholars who were later sent to concentration camps when the Nazis felt the job was done.

Three years after Czechoslovakia was liberated from the Nazi regime, there was a communist coup. Amongst other things, the communists transferred some 1,800 Torah scrolls to a derelict synagogue. There they languished until the communists, short on funds, decided to sell them. A total of 1,564 scrolls were bought by a British lawyer and philanthropist, who donated them to the Westminster Synagogue in London.

A team of scribes was assembled to examine the scrolls, which arrived in a sorry and unkosher state. One sofer (a scribe and scholar able to restore holy scrolls) called David Brand worked on the project for 26 years.

Upon the arrival of the scrolls, Westminster Synagogue founded the Memorial Scrolls Trust. They offered synagogues around the world the chance to provide a new home for each of the Czech scrolls to keep alive the Czech communities that perished in the war. Rather than treating the scrolls as artefacts behind glass walls, the scrolls are used in services across the Jewish world to bring congregations closer to their faith and heritage.

The two scrolls at Radlett Reform Synagogue come from the towns of České Budějovice and Vlašim. In 1930s Budějovice, the neo-Gothic Budweis Synagogue was at the centre of Jewish life, its congregation cared for by Rabbi Rudolph Ferda. The town, which lies less than 150km from Prague, was invaded by the Nazis on March 15, 1939. The 909 Jewish people who had not escaped by 1942 were deported to the concentration camp of Theresienstadt. Their synagogue was blown up on July 5, 1942.

Less is known about the smaller of the two scrolls from Vlašim. After coming to London, it was rehomed at the Queenshill Synagogue, an Orthodox synagogue in Leeds. In 2010, it was loaned to the German Hygiene Museum for an exhibition about various faiths, constituting a gesture of reconciliation between the Jewish community and Germany. It was then loaned to Radlett Reform Synagogue, where it has found a loving home ever since.

Photo Credit: Radlett Reform Synagogue 

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1 Comment

  1. Steven Lipman February 19th, 2024, 6:39 pm

    Nice. You know that Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City, CA also has a scroll from Ceske Budejovice. Our second Czech Scroll was returned in 2017 to its home community in Olomouc

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