The Torah scroll of Boskovice finds a new home in Pennsylvania

In 1899, when the Torah scroll had already reached the venerable age of 85, it may have been read during the bar mitzvah of my father, Nathan Ticho.

THE BOSKOVICE Torah scroll resides today in Congregation Brith Sholom in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE BOSKOVICE Torah scroll resides today in Congregation Brith Sholom in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Few tourists these days visit the small town of Boskovice. It isn’t usually part of a tourist’s itinerary. As a matter of fact, while the capital of the Czech Republic, Prague, is today one of Europe’s major tourist attractions, all of Moravia is considered to be off the beaten path and is usually ignored by visitors.
After the First World War ended in 1918, Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia and Subcarpathian Russia were combined to form Czechoslovakia. Under the benevolent and liberal administration of the first president and founder of the republic, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, this mixture of Czechs, Germans, Hungarians, Roma, Poles, Russians and Jews thrived and lived in comparative harmony.
In the center of Moravia, which together with Bohemia forms today’s Czech Republic, is the town of Boskovice. Boskovice was probably founded in the 11th century and, at one time, had one of the largest Jewish communities in the country. Today it features the ruins of a 13th-century Gothic castle, St. Jacob’s Church, an Empire château, a large synagogue and the Jewish cemetery of Boskovice, which was established in the 17th century and is one of the largest in the Czech Republic.
BOSKOVICE’S CENTER, with the Jewish Quarter shown (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)BOSKOVICE’S CENTER, with the Jewish Quarter shown (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The first mention of a Jew in Boskovice was around 1343. By 1589, there were 148 Jews living in 25 family houses. At the turn of the 18th century, there was an active yeshiva and by the mid-19th century, the Jewish population comprised one-third of all Boskovice inhabitants.
The Synagogue Maior (Large Synagogue) was built in 1698. In 1705, it was upgraded with beautiful painted decorations and Hebrew liturgical texts on many of the interior walls. During the Holocaust, all the Jews of Boskovice, including many members of the Ticho family, were deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp and from there to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. The 14 Jews who survived the Holocaust did not return to Boskovice, and there are no more Jews there today. The Synagogue Maior survived, but two small synagogues were destroyed. From 1943 up to the 1990s, the Synagogue Maior was used as a storehouse. All the walls were painted white. In 1999, a restoration began and it was then when the old murals were discovered and restored.
Boskovice was known as a center of prominent Talmudist scholars. The most famous of these was Samuel ha-Levi Kolin, who is buried in the local Jewish cemetery. In 1851, Rabbi Placek of Boskovice was appointed chief rabbi of Moravia and served until 1884. In 1942, at the height of the Nazi power, a group of members of Prague’s Jewish community devised a way to bring the religious treasures from the deserted communities and destroyed synagogues to the comparative safety of Prague.
The plan was that, after the anticipated Nazi victory, a “Museum of an Extinct Race” would be established. The Nazis were persuaded to accept this plan, and they ordered all Jewish communities to send their ritual objects to Prague. More than 100,000 artifacts were brought to the Prague Museum. Among them were about 1,800 Torah scrolls, which were stored in the closed synagogue at Michle, a small town that became part of Prague, where they remained until they were discovered and were brought to London.
Today, Subcarpathian Russia has been absorbed by its neighbors, and the Slovaks have decided to go their own way. Typical of the non-confrontational nature of the Czechs, the parties split amicably, and Bohemia and Moravia now form what is today the Czech Republic. One could easily assume that the ethnic Czechs living in Moravia, surrounded as they were for the past millennium by militant countries such as Germany, Austria, Poland and Russia, might have been the victims of constant turmoil.
Actually the opposite was true. Moravia, located off the path of the Crusaders, away from the conflict between the Catholic Church and Protestant firebrands and of relatively little economic and political importance, was usually bypassed and ignored as power struggles made the rest of Central Europe a focus of many conflicts.
So it shouldn’t be a great surprise that even today, most of the visitors to Boskovice are not foreign citizens but rather Czech nationals. They climb the lovely wooded mountain to visit the fortress that once dominated the valley below or tour the castle at the bottom of the hill, which was, and still is, the seat of the Mensdorff-Pouilly family, the aristocrats placed there by the Austro-Hungarian Empire centuries ago to keep the Czechs under control and to “protect” the Jews.
It was the unique position of Moravia, away from the turmoil and turbulence that affected the rest of Europe, that created an unusual and fertile atmosphere for the Jews living in this region. While the kings in Prague and the emperors in Vienna formulated rules and edicts governing the lives of Jews, in Moravia these laws and regulations were often ignored or not enforced. As a result, Jewish life, with few exceptions, tended to be civilized and humane.
Visitors to Boskovice, as a result, can wander a few yards from the castle and visit the well-preserved section of the town that once constituted the Jewish ghetto. They can walk the few narrow streets, look for signs of the Jewish life that once thrived there or examine the tombstones of the well-preserved Jewish cemetery and, perhaps, visit the old synagogue. This synagogue was already a hundred years old, when a local scribe sat down to carefully and painstakingly start the creation of a perfect copy of our sacred scripture, the Torah.
By the time my grandfather was born in 1846 that Torah scroll had already served three generations of Jews as they gathered each day and on the Sabbath to practice the faith taught to them by their previous generations. In 1899, when it had already reached the venerable age of 85, it may have been used during the bar mitzvah of my father, Nathan Ticho. And when World War I started, the then-century-old Torah scroll continued to mark the passing of each year as it provided the sacred readings each time the congregation met to pray.
Then, on March 15, 1939 the Nazis marched into the country. The synagogue of Boskovice was ordered closed and all of the congregation’s possessions, including all Torah scrolls, were shipped to Prague. Today, after a millennium of Jewish life in Boskovice, there are no more Jews in this city. The only things that remain are the synagogue, the cemetery, the streets and houses of the former ghetto and the sacred articles collected by the Nazis now stored and cared for in Prague by the Jewish Museum, including the 200-year-old Torah scroll. It and 1,564 other Torah scrolls were discovered by a British art collector. He returned to London and found a generous philanthropist who financed the transfer of these holy scrolls to the Westminster Synagogue in London. There, for more than 40 years, they were stored, cared for, repaired, restored and made available to synagogues all over the world.
THE only photograph of a Boskovice family gathering their possessions before the deportation of all the town’s Jews to the Terezin concentration camp (known as Theresienstadt in German).  (Photo Credit: Courtesy)THE only photograph of a Boskovice family gathering their possessions before the deportation of all the town’s Jews to the Terezin concentration camp (known as Theresienstadt in German). (Photo Credit: Courtesy)
In honor of our grandson Nathan’s bar mitzvah, after decades of searching for a home, the Boskovice Torah scroll, a survivor of the Holocaust, crossed the Atlantic and became part of the celebrations. My wife, Jean, and I had the honor, in the tradition of mi’dor l’dor (from generation to generation), to present this sacred parchment to our son, Ron, who, in turn, passed it to his son Nathan who placed it into the hands of Rabbi Allen Juda, who placed it into the holy ark of the congregation.
Today, this sacred parchment, this honored and loved scroll, this Holocaust survivor, resides in the warm and friendly surroundings of Congregation Brith Sholom in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, passing on its power and inspiration from one generation to the next.