Torah mantle, designed and needlepointed by congregant Ellen Mack, reads in Hebrew, “Am Yisrael Chai,” the Jewish People Shall Live.
When I couldn’t locate the Czech village of Uhříněves in a world atlas, I thought no more of it. Uhříněves [YOU-rijz-NE-vesh], a word pronounced with soft, meshing consonants, is the home of Beth-El’s Holocaust Torah. I had tried to learn something about that village when researching our Temple’s centennial history in 2002, but hit a dead end because it was not on a map. Countless communities had disappeared during the Holocaust. Then, while planning a vacation to Prague in 2003, I leafed through Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Central & Eastern Europe by Ruth Ellen Gruber. There it was: Uhříněves, described as a farming village incorporated into Prague’s southern city limits. No wonder it wasn’t on a contemporary map. The capital city had absorbed it. Since I planned to be in Prague during the winter holidays with my husband, Bruce, we read further. The guidebook recommended visiting Uhříněves’ wooded cemetery, where more than 300 tombstones are inscribed with Hebrew letters and Jewish symbols. The oldest marked grave dates to 1719. More recent graves are from 1942, the year the Nazis deported the region’s 392 Jews. Fourteen of those Jews survived the Holocaust, but none returned to Uhříněves to live. No longer was there a minyan to fill its synagogue, a building with vaulted ceilings and arched windows erected in 1848. After World War II the synagogue was converted into commercial space, and a Laundromat moved in. In time, the laundry went out of business. The premises were slated for demolition until the Prague Historical Monuments Authority interceded. Because of its status as a Jewish landmark, the building was saved and refurbished. Today it is leased to a storm-window company.
The contact person for Jewish inquiries into Uhříněves is Mrs. Libuse Votavova, a retired teacher and a righteous gentile who cherishes her schoolgirl ties to dozens of Jewish neighbors. We arranged to meet on a blustery winter day outside the old synagogue where a bronze plaque above the door tells the history and sad fate of the Jewish community. After exchanging greetings in German—which she learned during the Nazi occupation and Bruce and I had learned during his military stint in Germany—Libuse ushered us inside the old synagogue and into a meeting room. From her purse, she pulled out a typewritten list of the Jews who had lived in Uhříněves when Hitler marched into Czechoslovakia. Then she reminisced. Moving her index finger down the roster, she recalled her 12-year-old friend Hana Polackova, who was called out of class one afternoon and never returned to school. She recounted the day a Jewish teacher, a beautiful woman named Helena Rezkova, was interrupted in the middle of a classroom lecture and deported to Terezin Concentration Camp. She spoke of the Kolbenova family and its members—Alfred, Elsa, Franziska and Klara. “That house is still named ‘the Kolbenova home,” she said, as tears welled in her eyes.
Libuse and I exchanged gifts. She gave me the list of deportees to take back to the Beth-El Archives in Fort Worth. I gave her Beth-El’s centennial book, which has a photo of the Holocaust Torah. She said she would place the book in the Uhříněves village museum. I also gave her a three-page written appraisal of our Holocaust scroll, a document prepared by the sofer who had refurbished it. The scribe had removed stains from the parchment, darkened fading letters, stitched and reinforced seams connecting several pages, and replaced the rotting, wooden rollers. It was hard for Libuse to imagine what the scribe had done, for she had never examined a Torah up close.
FAST FORWARD six years to the summer of 2009 in Texas. Out of the blue, I received an email from a grandchild of Libuse Votavova with the message that my Czech friend was en route to the United States. She and a host of Czech gymnastic fans would be in Fort Worth to attend the Sokol International Competition June 23-28. I could scarcely believe that a Czech woman nearing her eightieth birthday planned to visit Texas, much less during a summer heat wave. The day she arrived and checked into the Holiday Inn Express, I invited her to my home for Shabbat dinner and worship services at Beth-El, where I looked forward to showing her the Torah from her hometown. The evening arrived. Along with three other dinner guests conversant in German, we lit the Shabbos candles, chanted blessings over wine, sliced a fresh challah, and shared a meal of brisket, kugel, and salad. Then on to the synagogue, where I introduced Libuse during the service and explained her ties to our Torah. After services, as congregants filed out, we ascended the bimah, removed the Holocaust Torah from the ark, and unrolled a portion. I pointed out evidence of repairs and the care that had been taken to maintain the Torah and keep it in use. We compared this scroll with a newer Torah in the ark. On the more contemporary scroll, the parchment is bright white, in contrast to the dusky color of the Uhříněves. scroll, which spent decades in a drafty building exposed to moisture and bugs. Reverently, Libuse fingered the parchment, which feels thick and velvety. She helped me roll up the Torah and cover it with its mantle which was custom made and stitched by congregant Ellen Mack. On the front are needlepointed Hebrew words, “Am Yisrael Chai.” When the Czech woman realized that the words mean “the Jewish people shall live,” she broke into smiles. Warmth filled her face
Small metal plate affixed to the Torah’s wooden roller reads: “Number 281, Czech Memorial Scrolls, Westminster Synagogue, London, 1964 - 5724.” That is the year more than 1,500 Holocaust scrolls arrived in London and restoration began.
THAT COULD HAVE BEEN THE END
of the story, but our Czech Torah is brimming with tales. Nine years later, in 2012, an elderly descendant of one of Uhříněves’s Jewish families contacted Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger
at Beth-El. The man was George Beykovsky of Everett, Washington. He explained that he was born in Uhříněves to a family that had lived there for generations. His parents and siblings had fled in 1939, before the Nazis could deport them. While researching his roots, Beykovsky learned from the internet that one of Uhříněves’s seven Torahs had ended up in Fort Worth. He imagined that his grandfather and great-grandfather had “once held in their hands” that scroll. How had the Torah arrived in Fort Worth? Might he have photographs from my visit to Uhříněves? He planned to create a website in memory of that vanished Jewish community. I sent him snapshots from my visit and current photos of the scroll. Since his website was to be tri-lingual, he asked for assistance translating his words into Hebrew. No problem. Click here for his Website, which is posted on Jewish Gen's "kehillah links."
There you will find the rest of the story. Click here for more information on the Beth-El Holocuast Torah.
Uhříněves once had 7 Torahs. Besides Fort Worth, those Torahs have found new homes in
- Atlanta, Georgia, at Temple Sinai
- Czech Memorial Scrolls Museum, Knightsbridge, London
- Hertsmere, England, at Bushey & District Synagogue
- London, England, at Finchley Reform Synagogue
- Pembroke Pines, Florida, at Century Pines Jewish Center
- Sun City West, Arizona, at Beth Emeth Congregation
In 1970 a committee at Beth-El requested a Holocaust Torah in memory of our wartime rabbi, Samuel Soskin, who died earlier that year. Rabbi Soskin had preached warnings as Hitler rose to power. Holocaust scroll MST #281, which dates from the early 1800s, arrived in Fort Worth in 1971.