Holocaust Torah scrolls call Chicago home

The stories of several Torahs rescued from the Holocaust that have made their way to Chicago.

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Alex Schapiro practices for his bar mitzvah using a memorial scroll at Camp Ramah. Photo courtesy of Camp Ramah.

While the Nazis stormed through the Czech Republic in World War II, they collected thousands of Jewish artifacts to create a "museum of an extinct race." However, historians believe it was actually the Jewish curators in Bohemia and Moravia who planted the idea of a museum, and cataloged thousands of gold and silver treasures, liturgical books, and historic archives. They hoped these collections would survive, when they knew they would not.

After the war, more than a thousand Torah scrolls were found in a damp warehouse that had once been the Michle Synagogue in Prague. Most of the scrolls were burned, broken, and blood-stained. Somewhere wrapped in tallitot (prayer shawls). British philanthropist Ralph Yablon agreed to purchase the collection for shipment to London. 

In 1964, 1,564 scrolls, representing hundreds of Jewish communities that had been destroyed, traveled across Europe in trucks. From there, they were loaded onto a ferry at Dover and reverently transferred to their temporary home in Westminster Synagogue.  

Since then, the Memorial Scrolls Trust has been distributing scrolls on permanent loan to religious institutions throughout the world as well as to Yad Vashem , Westminster Abbey, and Windsor Castle.  There are more than 50 honored scrolls at synagogues, schools, and camps in Chicago, which continue to educate and inspire.

A teaching tool-Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center

The Skokie museum has two Torah scrolls and a portion of a Torah scroll saved after Kristallnacht. "Torah Scroll #1253 from Ivancice 1860 is on display in the Karkomi Holocaust Exhibition," said Arielle Weininger, chief curator of Collections and Exhibitions. "Docents point it out and tell its story on museum tours. The scroll is also a stop on our new audio guide." Many of their visitors have never seen a Torah scroll before.

The second scroll came from Rabbi Morris Fishman, rabbi of the now-closed Am Chai Synagogue in Roselle. Rabbi Fishman carried it out of Poland at the end of World War II from Holocaust survivors who had hidden it.

Congregation B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim goes a step beyond 

Congregation BJBE in Deerfield has two scrolls in their collection to inspire youth groups and connect b'nai mitzvah families to their living tradition.

Scroll #1484 is from Kolin, about 45 minutes outside of Prague. Though a synagogue building still proudly stands in the city, it's now a community center and museum. "At BJBE, this scroll is one of the seven in the synagogue. B'nai mitzvah celebrants read from it on Shabbat and we dance with it on Simchat Torah," said Missy Bell, director of education. 

Since 1998, the BJBE Senior Youth Group has journeyed to the Czech Republic every three years to visit the synagogue and also to help restore the Jewish cemetery. "In June 2018, we took 22 high school students to the Czech Republic for three days," Bell said. "We visited Theresienstadt, Prague's Jewish Museum, and held a memorial service at the synagogue. It was a very meaningful experience."

Camp Ramah celebrates with its scroll

Scroll #790 at Camp Ramah in Conover, Wisc. has been a part of the camp since 1971. "We are honored to have this scroll and it is kept in our most beautiful ark at camp," said Linda Hoffenberg, director of Institutional Advancement. The oldest campers read from this scroll during the week and on Shabbat. "The Torah is regularly repaired by a sofer (Torah scribe) to ensure [that] it's [kosher], funded partially by campers making contributions in honor of their b'nai mitzvah celebrations," added Hoffenberg.

North Suburban Synagogue Beth El displays the Torah from Prostejov

Torah Scroll #44 has been one of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park's most treasured artifacts since 1980, when it was hand-carried to Beth El by Judith and Roger Leff. Written in the 1800s, the scroll came from the second largest Jewish community in Moravia. Beth El is currently building a new display case for the scroll, which will be opened to Parsha Ki-Teze in Devarim (Deuteronomy): "Remember what Amalek has done to you...do not forget..." Having endured torn parchment and smeared script, their scroll serves as a reminder to always remember.  

"I felt like I was carrying history in my hands," said Harold Hymen when bringing a Scroll to Temple Beth Shalom, Sarasota. "It's my duty to assure it will teach that the lessons within are not only good, but everlasting."

For more information on the Memorial Scrolls Trust, visit memorialscrollstrust.org .

Mira Temkin is a Highland Park-based journalist who writes primarily about travel and theater. Follow her at miratemkintravel.com  .

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