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TBT hosts Four Holocaust-era Torahs thanks to Memorial Scrolls Trust (MST) Czech Collection

Updated: Apr 18

Sunday, April 14, 2024 TBT hosted more than 150 guests along with 20 Torahs from throughout Southern California in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Memorial Scrolls Trust. In a moving ceremony, dignitaries from the Trust, Westminster Synagogue (London), and the Consulate of the Czech Republic shared messages related to the historic power of the gathering. Click here to view the ceremony.

Temple Beth Tikvah (TBT) is unique in that it has multiple Holocaust era Torahs, three of which are from the Memorial Scrolls Trust (MST) Czech Collection, one from Hanover, Germany, and a rare Yemenite Torah. Additionally, the synagogue has several kosher Ashkenazi scrolls routinely used in Shabbat and holiday services which are read throughout the year. TBT makes it a point to use all of our Torahs at least once each year. Our tradition is that during the High Holy Days, when the Kol Nidre prayer is chanted, the current president and each of the past presidents of the synagogue are given a Torah to hold during this prayer so the ark is completely empty.

Temple Beth Tikvah’s Rabbi Emeritus, Haim Asa (z”l), was an internationally renowned Holocaust survivor who was born in Bulgaria in 1930. Because of the close relationship he had with the founders of the Memorial Scrolls Trust (MST) dating back almost sixty years, not only was he instrumental in helping a number of synagogues and a Jewish assisted-care living facility obtain a Czech collection Holocaust Torah, but he was also able to gain permission for TBT to retain three of these Czech Collection scrolls. Each certificate granting permission for TBT to hold a numbered MST scroll has been framed and is currently displayed on the wall in the “living room” of our office/classroom building, the Asa Center for Lifelong Jewish Learning.

The MST’s Czech collection of Torahs was the result of the Nazis’ desire to retain artifacts for a planned “museum of the extinct race.” After World War II, while many other artifacts (books, pictures, embroidered vestments, and gold and silver ceremonial objects) were transferred to the State Jewish Museum in Prague, these scrolls were gathered together in Prague from desolated synagogues in Bohemia and Moravia and retained in the unused Michle synagogue for over twenty years. On February 7, 1964, 1,564 of these scrolls were transferred to the Westminster Synagogue in London. A trust was established and over the years, many of these Torahs have been distributed for use around the world. Each scroll was catalogued by the MST and a bronze plate was attached to each, identifying it with a unique MST number.

In 1968, two years after he became the rabbi at TBT, Rabbi Asa facilitated MST’s permission, granting us permanent loan of Czech collection MST Scroll #1200 from Pisek-Strakonice. It is believed that this scroll dates from the beginning of the 19th century as the first records of a Jewish community in this area date back to the late 17th century. Its main Jewish industry, fez manufacturing, had been located there since 1811. It is believed that the Jewish population in that area peaked at just over 300. The first synagogue in that region was established in 1860 but that area, including the Jewish ghetto, was demolished during/after WWII and replaced by a modern housing area for sport and leisure time activities.

At TBT, this Torah has an interesting history. About thirty years or so ago, the etz chaim spindles for this Torah were coming apart. Rabbi Haim Asa asked his son, Rabbi Ariel Asa, who had just become a scribe and is currently primarily serving as a mohel in and around Atlanta, Georgia, to repair it during one of his family visits to Southern California. Instead, Rabbi Ariel Asa took the Torah back to Atlanta with him and several months later, had it returned to TBT with a note that stated that not only had he fixed the etz chiam problem, but since he found a few problems with the text, he went through the entire scroll from end to end and made sure it was kosher (i.e., fixing/assuring every letter of the text is clear, correct, and completely legible so it could be read during a service).

In 2007, the Union for Reform Judaism held its biennial convention in San Diego, California, and TBT assisted in some of the work being done behind the scenes for that gathering of over 5,000 URJ members. Not only was our portable ark transported the 90+ miles from Fullerton to San Diego, but MST Torah #1200 was loaned for the convention and read during the Shabbat service that weekend. What was most memorable about this event was that when he learned of the origin of the Torah, one of the attendees notified the URJ leadership that during WWII, his American army infantry unit had been part of the group that liberated Strakonice and in 1945, he had actually been at the location of the destroyed synagogue where the scroll had been used. Upon learning this, the URJ leadership at the convention granted him the honor of carrying it around the convention hall during the hakafot at the start of the Shabbat Torah service. This was the primary torah used by TBT in 2023.

Scroll #297 is from Domazice and was acquired by Rabbi Asa from the MST, and it arrived at TBT in March, 1971. Information available at that time suggested that this scroll dates from probably between 1860 and 1870 as a religious society was known to have a prayer room in operation in that region at that time. Before 1850, there were at most three Jewish families in the area. In 1873, an independent congregation was established with 180 paying members, and it is likely that this Torah was in use by them at that time. It is believed that the synagogue was destroyed by the Nazis in 1940. Currently this scroll cannot be read during a service as many words and lines in multiple columns of many panels are illegible.

Scroll #1008 is from Klatovy and was acquired by Rabbi Asa in 1985 and donated to TBT in honor of his 25th wedding anniversary with his wife Elaine. Information obtained at that time suggested that this Torah dates from some time on or before the year 1857. The earliest known Jewish community in Klatovy was in 1867. Chief Rabbi of Bohemia and Moravia Gustav Sicher (1880-1960), painter and writer Karel Fleischmann (1987-1944) poet Frantisek Gottleib (1903-1974), and Lewis Weiner, organizer of the Society for the History of Czechoslovak Jews and editor of “The Jews of Czechoslovakia” (b.1910) were born there. The Klatovy synagogue dates back to 1879 but the property has since been converted to residential and industrial purposes. As with scroll #297, this Torah also cannot be read during a service as many words and lines in multiple panels are illegible.

Often referred to as “the Baby Torah” or “the Little Red Torah” this Torah is a complete parchment scroll measuring only nine inches high that was saved from the Holocaust on Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass), November 9-10, 1938. Aenna and Leopold Gruenbaum lived above the sanctuary in Hanover, Germany, where he served as the shamash (caretaker). After the riots ceased, Leopold went down to the synagogue to see what he could salvage. He brought the Torah upstairs to his home and made a red mantle for it using one of his wife’s broaches for decoration. The Gruenbaum family brought it to America in the 1970’s. One day, former TBT executive director and now Rabbi Miriam Van Raalte (Aenna and Leopold’s great niece) was visiting and Aenna remarked, “I have something that might be of interest to you.” She brought out the “Little Red Torah” and requested that it be brought to TBT which would become its permanent home. What is truly amazing about this Torah is the extremely fine small print hand lettered by an obviously gifted scribe. When a service or ceremony is held and a person is to be honored by holding or carrying a Torah but cannot handle one of our larger, kosher scrolls, this is the Torah they are given to hold instead.

The wimple to this Torah is quite unique in that it is a piece of cloth measuring approximately ten inches wide by nearly thirty feet long. It is colorfully and ornately painted and contains multiple prayers and blessings, not the least of which is that it explains that the Torah had been commissioned to honor the birth of a son to an obviously wealthy member of the congregation. Among other things, it wishes that the boy be married under a chupah, and do many good deeds. At the bottom corner of the wimple in the type of ink that would be used to write the Torah, is a note in the fine hand of the scribe who created it stating that he had been commissioned to copy the Torah in 1857 and that it first saw use at a Rosh Hashanah service in 1859. It is believed that its diminutive size can be attributed to the fact that it is the perfect size to fit into the saddle bag of a 19th century traveling merchant. One of the small caricatures painted on the wimple is that of a merchant in a long coat and vest smoking a curved pipe. Unfortunately, this Torah too cannot be read during a service since it was obviously water damaged probably during Kristallnacht as text is missing and obviously washed off (given to the various shades of gray in the ink and some completely blank blotches) in multiple lines of many columns in three adjacent panels.

After TBT completed construction of its new school and office building in 2010, Rabbi Asa suggested that we ought to have a Torah on display in what was then our library (an area which has since been converted into an open area living room). The Torah that was selected from his collection turned out to be a unique Yemenite Torah. There are many features that make this Torah different from routinely available Ashkenazi and Sephardic scrolls. First, it has 51 lines per column versus traditional scrolls which have 42 lines per column. This results in a Torah with 226 columns versus the Ashkenazi standard of 264 columns. In traditional scrolls, sentences often continue from one column to the next but in the Yemenite scroll, verses are never broken between columns. This formula carries through the entire Torah except for six specifically designated places. The Torah material itself is made from the skin of a 2-year-old goat and is tanned with a substance derived from the leaves of the salam-tree. The parchment is “sized” with a paste of Tragacanth gum and the side to be written on has been treated with a fine application of castor oil. This gives the parchment a shiny, reddish-brown appearance. The ink used to inscribe the Torah is also unique in that it is usually made from a concoction of copper sulphate, Litharge of alum, ground pomegranate rind, and soot from burned sugar. Then too, over 400 specific irregular characters appear with certain letters such as a sloping lamed (ל) and 154 pe’s (פ) overlapping the next letter.

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