Members of Old York Road Temple-Beth Am call it “The Little Torah From Svetlà” but it could just as easily be called “The Little Torah That Could.”
Members of Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington call it “The Little Torah From Svetlà” but it could just as easily be called “The Little Torah That Could,” given the nearly miraculous feat that came about as a result of its inspiration.
“It all started in 2013,” said Jane Hurwitz, when she and two other members of the congregation were given a research assignment: to learn about the towns the synagogue’s Torah scrolls came from.
The scrolls had been taken from former Jewish communities in Czechoslovakia during World War II, and made their way out of Nazi hands, into the Jewish Museum in Prague and then to Westminster Synagogue in London.
From there, they were given on permanent loan to Beth Am — along with the mandate that the scrolls be incorporated into the religious and educational life of the synagogue, and that a connection be made with the towns where the scrolls originated.
Those connections were made with the towns of Tábor and Louny, where two of the scrolls originated. As it happened, Tábor already had a plaque memorializing the place where the synagogue once stood; it had been converted into a warehouse by the Nazis and was torn down in 1977.
In 2013 congregants from Beth Am traveled to Louny for a visit and, in 2015, there was a memorial and plaque unveiling to honor the martyred Jews of that town. That left one more.
“Of the three Torahs, mine was the littlest, the plainest, this poor sister,” said Huntingdon Valley resident Hurwitz of the blue-and-gold-clad scroll, a little over a foot tall, that came from the town of Svetlà nad Sázavou. But it represented a rich history.
After extensive research, Hurwitz learned that Svetlà nad Sázavou — populated by Jews since the 18th century — had once had two synagogues and still had a Jewish cemetery, as well as a castle that was previously owned by the Jewish Morawetz family.
She reached out to Herbert Morawetz, a retired engineering professor who lives in New York, and learned that he said a blessing over Beth Am’s Little Torah in 1938, before his family fled Svetlà nad Sázavou.
“In 2014, we brought the little Torah to him,” she said. “When we handed it to him, he said the blessing without faltering.”
Hurwitz also discovered that 55 Jews from Svetlà nad Sázavou were taken to Theresienstadt on June 13, 1942, and perished there. Beth Am determined that the town should have a memorial to the 55, but getting town officials to go along with the plan was an uphill battle at first.
“The town itself really had erased its Jewish past,” Hurwitz said. “For almost two years, I got very little response.”
Still, Beth Am went ahead and had a memorial plaque made for the town. When they were ready to bring it to Svetlà nad Sázavou, Hurtwitz reached out again to the mayor, asking for a few specific things for the ceremony. She didn’t have enormous confidence that her requests would be granted.
“All of a sudden, a formal invitation came to all of us from the mayor with his official seal inviting us all to the ceremony,” Hurwitz said, “in which he planned all the things I’d asked for,” including the unveiling of the plaque, the opportunity to say kaddish in the old Jewish cemetery and a tour of the Morawetz castle.
Eight congregants from Beth Am made the trip to Svetlà nad Sázavou, along with Herbert Morawetz’s son, daughter and son-in-law. They were all blown away by their welcome.
“As we approached the town hall, a sea of men in black suits were waiting for us,” said Hurwitz, who was surprised to see the town decked out for the event, and the mayor wearing his official attire, including a large silver necklace.
There were dignitaries from all over the country, including a representative from the Louny mayor’s office; the chief rabbi of the Czech Republic; the director of the Jewish community of Prague; and all kinds of public figures from the town itself. There also was a woman in her 90s who was the only Svetlà nad Sázavou survivor from Theresienstadt.
“We were all told to sit down and a piano player struck up the chords to ‘Hatikva,’” Hurwitz said through tears, still moved by the memory of the town’s warm welcome and careful planning. “Instead of just accepting our presence, they embraced us.”
Hurwitz brought the mayor of Svetlà nad Sázavou a letter from Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, which she said was “the most magnificent, personal letter,” along with letters from Beth Am’s Rabbi Robert Leib and Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro. She made a speech, too.
“They were somber, serious, and they were truly, truly moved and ashamed of their past,” said Hurwitz of the townspeople and the officials. The memorial plaque was mounted not in some out-of-the-way location, but in the town hall, where its words, in Czech and English, would be seen often: “IN MEMORY OF THE JEWISH CITIZENS OF OUR CITY WHO PERISHED IN THE HOLOCAUST 1939-1945.”
After the unveiling ceremony, the group went to the Jewish cemetery and said kaddish, speaking aloud each name of the 55 dead. “The 10 of us, we all practiced our best Czech,” said Hurwitz. “There was not a dry eye.”
Beth Am member Carol Stein also remembered the tears — and noticed something about the weather, too.
“The weather in Prague was perfect — warm and sunny every day,” she said of the few days before the ceremony, which the group spent in the capital city. “But the morning of the ceremony the weather changed. It drizzled while we were inside the town hall during the ceremony and plaque unveiling. Then, as we drove to the Jewish cemetery to say kaddish, it began to rain again. I had no doubt that the skies were crying, matching our tears.”
The emotional trip closed a circle for the congregation, the Little Torah, and for the town itself. The Jewish residents of Svetlà nad Sázavou, and those who died in the Holocaust, “they were forgotten until we came,” Hurwitz said. “This was almost a miracle — an awakening in this little village that had no clue to its past.”