London shul receives Torah saved from Nazis

More than 200 people attended the ceremony, which recalled the combination of tragedy and amazing circumstances surrounding Czech Torahs.

torah scroll 88 248 (photo credit: courtesy)
torah scroll 88 248
(photo credit: courtesy)
A south London synagogue held a ceremony Sunday to commemorate receiving a Torah scroll saved from the Nazis. In the presence of Czech Ambassador Jan Winkler, Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames Mayor Mary Reid, Holocaust survivors, diplomats, civic officials and religious leaders, Kingston Surbiton and District Synagogue received a Torah that was once in the Czech town of Moravska Ostrava, today known as Ostrava, Czech Republic. More than 200 people attended the ceremony, which recalled the combination of tragedy and amazing circumstances surrounding Czech Torahs that survived the war. Some Holocaust survivors from the Ostrava area, including one who escaped with his mother in 1939 to neighboring Poland and then to England, lit six memorial candles to commemorate the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. The synagogue's rabbi led the service along with south London's Rabbi Philip Ginsbury, who represented British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. The memorial prayer El Rachamim and Kaddish were recited and the Torah was read from. Representatives from the synagogue youth also took part and 'Hatikva' concluded the service. In March 1939, six months before the World War II broke out, German troops invaded Czechoslovakia, destroying its 80,000-strong Jewish community. By the end of June 1939, almost all the synagogues in Bohemia and Moravia had been destroyed. Incredibly, many Torahs and other artifacts were saved and hidden. They eventually reached the Jewish Museum in Prague, where they were examined and catalogued by a team of specially recruited archivists who were shipped to the death camps once their work was done. Between 1963 and 1964, following the examination of 1,564 Torahs discovered at the Michle Synagogue that belonged to the Prague Jewish Museum, the Communist authorities agreed to their sale to British philanthropist Ralph Yablon. He arranged for their transportation to the Westminster Synagogue in central London. The Torahs would otherwise had gradually rotted. The London community established the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust in 1964 and undertook careful examination and repair of the Torahs. They then arranged for them to be permanently loaned to Jewish communities throughout the world, including the one received by Kingston Surbiton and District Synagogue. Approximately 10,000 Jews lived in the Ostrava area before the war. It was a center of coal-mining and steel-making and had a highly cultured society with Czech and German theaters and music halls. It was also a key center for Zionist activity. Following the invasion and destruction of the synagogues, the Nazis ordered the razing of the sites, at the expense of the Jewish community. In October 1939, Adolf Eichmann pioneered the mass deportation of Jews from Ostrava to eastern Poland. Very few survived the war. In 1942, the remainder of Ostrava's Jewish community, which had been subjected to increasingly harsh discrimination, was deported to the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp and then on to Nazi death camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka. The Kingston community researched the history of the Ostrava Jewish community and established links with the present community, which has some 100 people, mainly elderly Jews who live in and around Ostrava. "This occasion has captivated a broad cross-section of the wider community, including the Three Faiths Forum, The Council of Christians and Jews, as well as the Office of the Chief Rabbi," said David Prager, the organizer of the event and a member of Kingston Surbiton and District Synagogue. "Most importantly, it has provided a platform for the youth of the community to participate in an educational journey into European Jewish history, as demonstrated by the active involvement of the synagogue's heder and the local branches of the Association of Jewish Sixth Formers [a 12th-grade high school student group], as well as the Jewish Lads and Girls Brigade in the ceremony," he told The Jerusalem Post. "Some often tend to forget the dynamism of the south London communities, but this high-profile event shows the empowered south Londoners once again punching above their weight," Prager added.