Tale of a Torah’s Journey to Freedom
During the Holocaust, the Nazis seized more than 1,500 Torahs from Czech synagogues and brought them to Prague where they were catalogued, numbered, then stored in the forest, inside a drafty wooden building. For the next 20 years, these parchment scrolls were exposed to dampness, dirt, bugs, and mold. Finally, the Czech government sold the scrolls to a benefactor from a London synagogue. Slowly, the Torahs were restored and placed in Jewish institutions around the world.
Beth-El is proud to have Czech Torah Scroll #281. Our Temple historian has visited the little town this 200-year-old Torah came from and the London synagogue where it was restored. Our scroll is a moving reminder of a vanished Jewish community.
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Uhříněves was a farming village located on the Southeast outskirts of Prague. The Jewish community of Uhříněves dates to the 17th century. It included Jews living in more than 30 surrounding villages.
The Uhříněves synagogue was built in 1848 on land that cost 30 guilders of silver. The house of worship had classical lines, with a vaulted ceiling, arched windows, and a women’s balcony. The Nazis shuttered the synagogue in 1939.
The Nazis listed 392 Jews living in and around Uhříněves. On Sept. 12, 1942 — the first day of Rosh Hashanah — most of those Jews were deported to Terezin (aka Theresienstadt). Most were ultimately sent to gas chambers in Auschwitz, Treblinka, and other death camps. Only 14 Jews from Uhříněves survived the Holocaust
A bronze historic marker at the former synagogue tells its history and the fate of the Jews of the Uhříněves congregation. The bronze marker was erected by London’s Finchley Reform Synagogue, which has one of the congregation’s Torahs.
Uhříněves once had 7 Torahs.
Today those Torahs have found new homes in
Atlanta, Georgia, at Temple Sinai
Hertsmere, England, at Bushey & District Synagogue
Knightsbridge, London, Memorial Scrolls Museum
London, England, at Finchley Reform Synagogue
Pembroke Pines, Florida, at Century Pines Jewish Center
Sun City West, Arizona, at Beth Emeth Congregation
Fort Worth, Texas, at Beth-El Congregation
Employees at the Jewish Museum in Prague persuaded the Nazis to bring all confiscated Jewish ritual treasures to Prague for safekeeping. Museum staff catalogued the Judaica before they, too, were sent to the death camps. The surviving Torahs—1,564 scrolls in all—were stored on shelves of a dilapidated, 19th century synagogue outside Prague.
In 1963, an American art dealer based in London learned about the scrolls. The Torahs were deteriorating due to exposure from humidity, dust, and insects. Some of the scrolls had partially burned when synagogues were torched. Some were blood stained. For a Torah to be properly preserved it needs to be unrolled from time to time so that air can circulate and prevent mold from attacking the parchment.
The Czech government needed cash and negotiated with parties in Israel and England to sell the scrolls. The asking price was $30,000. Israel would not pay the premium. A London benefactor did. The Torahs arrived at London’s Westminster Synagogue on Feb. 7, 1964. Over the next 40 years, the Torahs were restored. One by one they were placed on permanent loan to institutions around the world.
In 1970 a committee at Beth-El decided to request a Holocaust Torah in memory of our former rabbi, Samuel Soskin, who died in 1970. The Torah arrived in 1971.