Synagogue To Unveil, Dedicate Czech Torah Scrolls from Holocaust

A three-dimensional display shows a group pf people across a makeshift torah scroll. Underneath is a Czech town, flanked by two ornate and dressed wooden Torah scrolls.
Murrie Gayman’s mural to honor the Czech Torah scrolls on display at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am | Courtesy of Robert Lieb

Old York Road Temple-Beth Am will display and rededicate its three Torah scrolls salvaged from Czechoslovakia during the Holocaust on June 3, coinciding with the Abington synagogue’s 75th-year jubilee.

The event also marks the 50th anniversary of the scrolls’ recovery and restoration and the 80th anniversary of the deportation of Jews in the area.

The synagogue will unveil a permanent exhibit in the main lobby of the synagogue featuring a three-dimensional, multimedia mural by local artist Murrie Gayman, which will house replicas of two scrolls. The third, smallest scroll will be displayed in the center of the mural.

The scrolls are on permanent loan from the Memorial Scrolls Trust in London, where they, along with 1,561 other Torah scrolls were rescued from Nazi possession and restored at Westminster Synagogue in London. All of the 1,564 scrolls salvaged by the Memorial Scrolls Trust is marked with a little metal tag, each with its own number.

“The whole idea, symbolically, philosophically, is to breathe new life into these Torah scrolls that, God forbid, would have been destroyed,” Old York Road Temple-Beth Am Rabbi Robert Lieb said.

The synagogue acquired the scrolls in 1982 and 2004, though the scrolls are likely 150 years old. The synagogue’s former Rabbi Harold Waintrup secured two of the scrolls from the Memorial Scrolls Trust, and the third was acquired when Reform congregation Temple Beth Torah, the scroll’s previous owner, merged with Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in 2004. 

The scrolls are originally from the Czech towns of Louny, Svetla nad Sazavou and Tabor, which were, during World War II, part of Moravia and Bohemia, Czech protectorates partially annexed by Nazis.

Before the war, the Jewish presence in the area was “precarious,” according to the Memorial Scrolls Trust. Various restrictions and expulsions meant the Jewish population fluctuated over the centuries, but by the mid-1800s, Jews lived comfortably in the area.

A white man with short grey hair wearing a dress pants and button-up shirt is holding a Torah adorned in blue and gold dressings.
Rabbi Robert Lieb holds the Svetla Torah rescued and restored by the Memorial Scrolls Trust in London. | Courtesy of Carol and Barry Stein

After the Munich Agreement on Sept. 29, 1938, Sudetenland, which included Moravia and Bohemia, was absorbed into Germany. By the end of the year, many synagogues and Jewish spaces were destroyed in pogroms. Jewish businesses and homes that were spared were destroyed in Nazi pillages in March 1939.

The initial survival of Jewish religious objects was a result of irony: In 1942, Czech Jews — by Nazi order — cataloged salvaged scrolls and objects to be sent to the Jewish Museum in Prague, which was founded in 1906. The museum’s inventory increased 14-fold as a result of the influx of objects during the war, the Memorial Scrolls Trust wrote on its website.

Nazis tasked Jews with cataloging the materials until they finished the work, at which point they were sent to die in concentration camps. Though there is no evidence to prove it, some speculate that Nazis were planning to keep these materials to create “a museum of an extinct race” following the Holocaust.

In 1948, the objects were transferred to a different warehouse following a Communist coup in Czechoslovakia. During the war, more than 60 Czech synagogues were destroyed. Seventy-eight thousand of the area’s 117,000 Jews were murdered.

Old York Road Temple-Beth Am members were able to see firsthand the modern efforts to honor the Czech Jewish community when they sent synagogue delegations to Louny and Svetla in 2013 and 2016, respectively.

“When we visited … they were so taken by the fact that we had brought back a Jewish presence to their town,” synagogue member Carol Stein said of her time in Louny.

In 2016, the Svetla mayor unveiled a plaque honoring the Jewish victims of the town that the synagogue had helped to fund. Other towns honored the synagogue and Jewish population of the area with similar plaques and ceremonies.

“They were so moved that they surprised us with ‘Hatikvah’ [sung by a choir],” congregant Jane Hurwitz said of the trip to Svetla.

Old York Road Temple-Beth Am will similarly honor its Torahs, though instead of an onyx plaque inscribed in English, Hebrew and Czech, they will display the mural by Gayman, who is also Stein’s brother. The synagogue had a similar dedication event in 2014.

On three shelves, wrapped Torah scrolls are laid on their side and labelled.
Salvaged Torahs rescued from Czechoslovakia during the Holocaust at Westminster Synagogue in London | Courtesy of Carol and Barry Stein

The commissioned work took 500 hours to make over three months. Gayman used paint on burlap, woodwork on weathered barnwood and wood and canvas sculptures of the Torah replicas.

The mural shows a congregation celebrating Simchat Torah with the small center Torah. It also depicts a representation of the townspeople lost to Nazi pillages during the war. 

Gayman has done commissioned work for other synagogues but said this piece is unique in its connection to a specific Jewish history.

“It has a very emotional background,” he said. “The story of the Sefer Torahs is very moving.”


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