Our Holocaust Torah
How did it happen that a small Reform congregation on a barrier island off the coast of Southwest Florida, USA, acquired a Czechoslovakian Holocaust Torah?
The quest began in February, 1991, when 61 Sanibellians met at Sanibel Congregational UCC to develop plans and organize goals at what was the first congregational meeting. At the next meeting in March, 1991, under the skillful guidance of Leonard and Ann Arnoff, they set their goals and priorities and developed their mission statement. They voted for how they saw the congregation going forward. For the purposes of this article, three votes will be mentioned. There was a majority of votes for using their own Torah regularly at Shabbat services. They voted to hire a rabbi. They voted to affiliate with SCUCC and share the church building. One of the first decisions was to affiliate with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, linking us to more than 850 Reform congregations in the USA and Canada.
Mel Bleiberg became the first President. Rabbi Karen Soria became the first Rabbi, but acquiring a Torah took a little longer. Mel was aware of “Holocaust Torahs.” These were sacred scrolls which Westminster Synagogue in London had gathered from the disused Michle Synagogue in Prague, where 1,564 had lain in piles for more than 20 years. The Nazis had anticipated exhibiting them and other ceremonial objects as relics of a dead culture.
After the scrolls had been unpacked and numbered, a committee distributed them to synagogues around the world. They are on “permanent loan.” Each scroll bears a brass tablet with a number corresponding to the number on a certificate that describes the origin of the scroll and any known particulars.
Mel made six telephone calls to Westminster Holocaust Museum, to the offices of the Memorial Scrolls Trust, requesting a Torah, all to no avail. He was told the congregation was too small. But when Ingaborg Mauksch, a Holocaust survivor and a member of Bat Yam, visited London and told her story, Bat Yam was allocated a Czech Torah, which came from Boscovitz, a city 100 miles south of Prague.
Our Torah was written in the nineteenth century. This became very personal for Ann Arnoff, as her family roots were in Prague. She and Leonard sent $1,000 to transport the scroll from London to Miami. The Torah needed a cover, so Ann designed and needlepointed a special mantle for this special Torah.
Our Czech (Holocaust) Torah History
Our Czech (Holocaust) Torah (MST-405) is weekly taken out of the Ark and carried around the congregation at Shabbat services, but it is not just an object to be occasionally viewed out of respect for our religion and traditions. It also represents the strong physical, intellectual and emotional ties that bind us to the human beings who touched it over the years and the community from which it came. And on a deeper level, one can only wonder, whose hands touched it. If it had eyes, what did those eyes see through the years of its service in the synagogue and what did they see after the services ended? If it had ears, what voices did it hear? And if it had a mouth, what would it tell us?
The Torah was obtained by Bat Yam, Temple of the Islands, on Sanibel Island, Florida, from the Westminster Synagogue in London, England. Thereafter, the Memorial Scrolls Trust, a non-profit organization associated with the synagogue, was created to oversee the loan of Czech Torahs, collected from Jewish communities in Bohemia and Moravia during the Second World War by the Jewish Museum of Prague, to communities, organizations and synagogues around the world. The scrolls are never sold or donated.
The certificate received from the Trust, says of our Torah, “This scroll came from Boskovice and was written in the 19th century,” but a Hebrew tombstone from 1069 and a court document dated 1243 attest to the early presence of Jews in Boskovice. The Jewish cemetery has dates from the sixteenth century. A brief history of the Jewish presence in Boskovice helps tell us of the human heritage that gave birth to our Torah.
In 1454, following the expulsion of Jews from the nearby city of Brno, a city located about 130 miles southeast of Prague, Boskovice absorbed many of those who had been forced to flee. The community was home to 148 Jews in 1589 and 1,531 in 1727 (12 years earlier, several hundred Jews had died of the plague). Jews in Boskovice in the 17th century worked as butchers, tailors, barbers, purse makers, goldsmiths, tanners, leather workers, sword blade makers, cabinet makers, furriers and cap makers. In a real estate survey of 1677, Jews owned nearly 57 acres including arable land. Later, the Jews founded the textile industry, a woolen plant, and also started making alcohol and liquors. In 1727, however, Jews in Boskovice were confined to a separate quarter.
We know of at least three synagogues that were built in Boskovice. In 1639, work began on Boskovice’s one remaining synagogue now known as the Major Synagogue. Between 1657-1667, two Polish Jews, Mordecai of Cracow and Meir of Zulz decorated the synagogue in a traditional eastern European style with rich curling floral and plant ornamentation and painted architectural details along with Jewish symbols such as the menorah, the Temple in Jerusalem and other images from Jewish folklore and literature. In 1705, Jeshaya Maler and Loeb from Krakow painted the interior walls, arches, vaults, and fluted columns with both frescoes of Hebrew text spelling out prayers and names of congregants. Hebrew scripture, poems and dedications were interspersed throughout the synagogue’s walls and ceiling.
It was completed in the baroque style in 1698 and became a major center of Torah and Talmudic study. The Major Synagogue was followed by a second synagogue in the 1800s. A third synagogue, financed by the Löw-Beer family, was built in 1884. The latter two synagogues were later destroyed in WWII.
The Major Synagogue sat among the narrow lanes of the town’s Jewish ghetto, which, by the mid-nineteenth century when restrictive laws against Jews were largely repealed, had an estimated 2,000 inhabitants. However, with the onset of Zionism in the early 20th century, Boskovice’s Jewish population slowly began to dwindle.
The tiny Jewish community diminished after WWII and the synagogue fell out of use. Of those Jews who chose to remain in the country, many settled in Brno. However, according to local records, in 1948 there were still 60 Jews registered in the community of Boskovice. An additional 27 Jews were not registered.
During the 1980s the Jewish Quarter, however, was still well-preserved.
An effort to restore the Boskovice synagogue was then initiated by the local government and continued by Brno’s Jewish community. The elaborate interior frescoes were discovered in 1988 during the restoration. Some, especially those around the upper balcony for women, were completely intact, and others were in good condition.
By 1994, structural concerns had been addressed and the majority of conservation work on the exterior was finished. Soaring above the main hall, the synagogue’s vaulted ceiling is supported by massive walls one meter thick. The two-story structure also features a women’s vestibule on the main floor while the upper floor includes three galleries.
Since 1993, Boskovice has commemorated the town’s lost Jewish life with annual festivals celebrating with music, theater performances, films, exhibitions, author readings and other events. The festival seeks to create an atmosphere of tolerance and respect to different cultures.
But back to our Czech Torah. Unfortunately, we do not know at which synagogue or synagogues, our Torah was read. But the story of how the Torah was brought to Bat Yam, Temple of the Islands, from the Memorial Scrolls Trust (formerly of the Westminster Synagogue in London, England) is a fascinating one.
A member of the congregation and second president, the late Ann Arnoff, related how after Bat Yam’s first Friday night service on March 8, 1991, she and her husband spoke about obtaining a Torah for the synagogue in memory of their daughter who had died on Yom Kippur at 13 years of age. After doing some additional research, our temple’s first president, Mel Bleiberg, discovered that the Westminster Synagogue (to which was later added the Czech Memorial Scrolls Museum which tells the story of the saved Torahs) had obtained over 1500 Torahs from the Jewish Museum of Prague after WWII. Although Mel was told by the Synagogue that Bat Yam was too small to receive one of the Torahs, Mel persisted, and the Westminster Synagogue finally consented to loaning one to Bat Yam. After negotiations were concluded, the Torah was on its way. A customs officer from Miami actually transported it to Bat Yam. Through the efforts of Ann, Mel and others, the Torah finally arrived. A special dedication service, written by Mel and Shirley Bleiberg, was held in December 1991 in the congregation sanctuary. Close to 300 people attended.
Ann recounted how “The Torah and its origin is part of my family tree. My father was born in Prague and we still had relatives living there when the country was occupied by Hitler. As a very young child, I remember my aunt coming from Prague to spend the summer with my family...We had [a] cottage near the lake and I was the luckiest girl in the world to have my aunt sleep in my bedroom because I was afraid of the night noises. That dear aunt insisted on returning to Prague much to my father’s dismay. My beloved Aunt and her daughter, with the same name as mine were sent to a concentration camp and gassed…The only survivor in the family was her son. He and his family visited us and I visited them, and so the Shoah has personal meaning to me.”
Ann designed the Torah cover, doing the needle point work. She described it as follows—“In the upper left hand corner is a barbed wire fence and behind the fence is a barren tree. But wait, one limb of this tree does have leaves on it. The tree is a symbol of the Holocaust and barren limbs the loss of lives, but the living limb gives this Torah new life. Bat Yam in Hebrew dominates the sky and the yellow hibiscus is the flowering tropics we live in…There is a broken limb lying on the sand denoting the death of a child. The Star of David lies boldly on the sand that I have used gold thread in to make it sparkle…There are four shells lying on our beach. The coquina, called the butterfly shell, for the one who flew away early, the alphabet shell for the learned one my husband, the junonia shell for my daughter Susan, and the pink scallop, a common shell, often found on the beach denotes me. The great American egret denotes man’s inhumanity to animals. [Because] during the early 1900s, the bird was killed for its mating feathers that women wore in their hats…And floating in the water I spelled out our name, Bat Yam The Daughter of the Sea. On the inside of the mantel in needlepoint is the dedication.” The Torah cover is shown below at the very end of this article.
But in the end, what is most important are the human ties we have with the Torah which honors the memory of those who perished and the place we believe it came from. As Ann Arnoff so fittingly wrote, “So when the Torah is carried through the Congregation on Friday night, remember it carries many generations of Jews and the memory of the Shoah.”
Memorial Scrolls Trust
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Yivo Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe
Jewish Museum in Prague
Austria - Czech Special Interest Group’s Gemeinde View Project (seeks to create a web-based encyclopedia commemorating all of the Jewish communities that once existed in the Bohemia-Moravia region. Gemeinde means, in theological usage, in German-speaking regions a local Christian or Jewish congregation)
The Ministry of Regional Development for Czech Tourism
The Town of Boskovice official website (featuring much information about the Jewish quarter in Boskovice) (Members of the “Friends of Boskovice” club prepared a trail called “Monuments of the Jewish Town in Boskovice” in 1999. 27 houses and monuments carry in- formation plates and there are several information boards on the route). (https://berans.files.wordpress.com/2010/10/boskovice-jewish-town-leaflet.pdf)
Museum of the Jewish People (located on the campus of Tel Aviv University)
World Monuments Fund (a private nonprofit organization founded in 1965 by individuals concerned about the accelerating destruction of important artistic treasures throughout the world.)
SYNAGOGUES 360 (a website that provides a visual record of Jewish culture, showing and preserving synagogues by means of interactive 360 degree panoramic photos).
Interviews with Ann Arnoff (including written accounts) and Mel Bleiberg