Those who frequented the Gershman Y over the past few decades may have noticed a Torah scroll in a glass case.
The scroll was on long-term loan to the Y from the Memorial Scrolls Trust, a London-based organization that lends Torahs from a collection of more than 1,000 that survived the Holocaust. This particular scroll, known as MST#1120, has led a perilous life.
It has outlived the Holocaust, communism and the ebbs and flows of changing Jewish life in the United States. It has traveled the world from the former Czechoslovakia, to England and finally to the Gershman Y. And after the community center’s closing at the end of November, MST#1120 has a new future at the Jewish Day School of the Lehigh Valley in Allentown.
“This became this Torah’s home,” Head of School Amy Golding said. “By virtue of making it feel like a family once it has left Czechoslovakia and [has] Pennsylvania as its new owner, we felt we wanted to keep that holy space for it.”
The scroll’s known history dates to 1942, when Jewish communities across Bohemia and Moravia, part of what was then Czechoslovakia, received a letter urging them to send everything they had — their Torah scrolls, gold and silver, even the mohel’s knife — to the Jewish Museum in Prague.
More than 100 Jewish communities in Bohemia and Moravia sent their possessions. One was Přerov, which sent MST#1120.
More than 212,000 items were sent to the museum, which expanded by 14 times. More than 40 warehouses were needed to store all of it. Nazis had Jews catalogue these treasures.
When they were finished with the work, Nazis sent the Jews to concentration camps, where most of them died.
But the vast collection survived, including about 1,800 Torah scrolls.
For decades, a myth pervaded that the Nazis had collected these items for an eventual museum to the Jewish race, but no proof has been unearthed. No one knows the true reason why the Nazis put the collection together. Memorial Scrolls Trustee Jeffrey Ohrenstein said his theory is that the Nazis wanted to know the value of the possessions and planned to take what they wanted from the collection.
“For me, the miracle is it survived,” Ohrenstein said. “The Jewish people who couldn’t save themselves were in no position to save valuables.”
In February of 1948, communists took over the region. They moved the Torah scrolls into a damp warehouse, which had once housed a synagogue.
The scrolls remained there for nearly 20 years.
In 1963, the government-controlled Artia company approached art dealer Eric Estorick about buying the collection of scrolls. He discussed it with a client, Ralph Yablon, who discussed it with Westminster Synagogue Rabbi Harold Reinhart.
In the end, they decided to buy the 1,564 scrolls that remained. They spent those first few months examining them and deciding which ones were kosher, which could be repaired and which could only be used as a memorial.
MST#1120 was labeled as “much repair needed.” Its card indicated that the upper right roller was broken and the ink was coming off, while the condition of the parchment was “generally good.”
In the summer of 1983, a letter arrived at Westminster Synagogue. Like the letter that had arrived from the Jewish Museum in Prague so many decades before, it marked a new chapter for MST#1120, but one that would be much brighter.
“Gentlemen,” it began, “we have recently learned that the Westminister [sic] Synagogue has acquired a number of Torahs that were saved from synagogues destroyed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. We understand that from time to time those Torahs have been contributed to numerous synagogues in need of them.”
The letter was from Albert L. Pollock, then the vice president of the Congregation of the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association, now known as the Gershman Y. In the letter, he made a request for a Torah.
Ruth Shaffer, the joint chairman and trustee, wrote back, telling him the trust no longer had any kosher Torahs. However, many organizations put the non-kosher Torahs in sanctuaries and “use it on specific commemorative occasions and give it life and purpose in this fashion.”
The deal was made. MST#1120 found a new home at the Gershman Y.
It remained there for more than 30 years, until the end of November.
With the impending closure of the Gershman Y, Ohrenstein reached out to Charles Ticho, a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor who has been involved in the organization. Ohrenstein asked him if he would pick up MST#1120.
Ticho’s family had connections to the Jewish day school, and he and his son Ron Ticho decided they would provide the support needed so the Torah would be moved to the school.
“These are tangible items that represent, not just the fact that there are Torah scrolls, but they are, in effect, a memorial to the Jews of that particular town from which they came,” Charles Ticho said.
It all happened quickly. In November, Golding learned the Torah was available, and submitted an application right away.
On Nov. 28, Ron Ticho, his daughter and friend Larry Lang went to the Gershman Y to pick up the Torah and make the drive to Allentown.
The day it arrived at the school, students were preparing for Chanukah. It was also just before the community’s 65th gala, when they would celebrate a family whose matriarch had, like MST#1120, survived the Holocaust in Czechoslovakia.
It was then that Golding received a text that the Torah was 10 minutes away.
“It felt like you were greeting a bride at a wedding,” she said. “We opened the gates to the parking lot. We had faculty ready to take this Torah in. It was just this holy moment of our responsibility from our past to what we were going to do with it for our future.”
The school is working to create an openable case for it so the Torah can both be put on display in the lobby and be taken out on Yom Hashoah and other occasions. In addition, the students will be working on different ongoing projects with the Torah.
“Every time our students enter the lobby, they will walk by this Holocaust Torah,” Golding said. “Now, this Holocaust Torah is in our children’s hands.”