An article by Roman Gronsky who orchestrated the return of the scroll to Olomouc from Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. (Translation from the Czech by Google Translate.)
In my search for the family roots and fate of our family members, in 2015, I found that two scrolls of the Olomouc Torah survived the burning of the Nazi synagogue in Olomouc 15 March 1939 and the following difficult period.
In 1700 Prague had the largest Jewish the population in Europe that was at that time, 11, 000 people, while at the same time. thousands of Jews in London and even less in New York. In the middle of the 19th century already the Czech-Moravian territory lived 115,000 Jews in 340 communities, but many of them were very small. Many were concentrated in bigger cities and just before World War II in 1939 was already in our country only 200 communities. After the border was blocked both building and other monuments in this area, just like in Germany, almost all destroyed.
After the Nazi occupation the rest of the republic was controlled by the Germans. Jewish property including religious items in particular the Torah Scrolls, their ornaments and also books and textiles that were gathered in the Prague Jewish Museum.
The Jewish Museum workers were forced to catalog these objects until their deportation. 40 warehouses had to be expanded about another 14!
In 1950 the Czechoslovak State took over the Jewish museum including 2000 scrolls into the 18th century synagogue in Prague Michle.
Hard currency and saving scrolls
Due to its need for hard (western) currency, there was a sale of Czechoslovak scrolls by the State to Artia. In 1963, Artia contacted a Prague American art dealer, Eric Estoric, who lived in London, to find the buyer. He found a member The London Reform Synagogue, Philanthropist, Ralph Yablon who provided experts of Judaic and Hebrew Manuscripts who came to the storehouse in the Michel Synagogue. For twelve days he examined about 500 Torah scrolls there and then a purchase agreement was concluded. Consequently, 1564 Czech and Moravian scrolls we sent by two trucks to the Great
In the following years thanks to the care of a new owner in Westminster Synagogue in London, most of the scrolls were repaired and rehabilitated. David Brand, Orthodox Sofer came to Westminster Synagogue in London in search of a job. For more than 30 years he worked on the restoration of the Torahs from the Czech Republic and so saved them for the next generation.
It was agreed that scrolls from Czechoslovakia would be distributed as long-term loans
to Jewish communities around the world.
To date, there have been 1400 scrolls sent from the Czech Republic to the Jewish
communities, and other organizations all over the world from Australia, New Zealand,
South Africa, South America, and Israel. More than a thousand are in the US.
Although London’s Westminster Synagogue is not an Orthodox community, it gives preferred status to communities that Kasher their Torah scrolls and use them for religious purposes, and so were the Torahs are lent to the USA.
At the Westminster Synagogue a foundation was established (The Memorial Scrolls Trust) ,MST, which “manages”, long-term loans of the scrolls.
If the Jewish community (loaned the scroll) ceases to operate (a few cases a year) they must be returned. The MST created a museum in Westminster Synagogue to display 130 scrolls. The Torahs, includes over 400 covers is one of the largest collections in the world.
As far as silver vestments are concerned, some are borrowed from the Jewish Museum in Prague by the in cooperation with the Westminster synagogue. Thanks to US sponsors
now all materials are digitized, to capture the over fifty years of these loans. There is also another is an attempt to map the history of the MST Scrolls and establish a closer connection between the MST and the borrowers.
The Torah scroll is not only understood as a religious object, but it is also seen as a witness surviving the Shoah. These scrolls link the past and the present and are links the the communities (that have the scrolls) and the Czech communities that were destroyed in the Shoah.
The Olomouc Torah’s return home
It was by impulse that I decided to find out whether there is a possibility to have at least one of these scrolls returned to Olomouc. On December 21, 2015, I had partial success. Rabbi Thomas Salomon of the Westminster Synagogue and Jeffrey
Ohrenstein, Chief of the MST returned my email. I already knew one scroll was in New Jersey and the other in California. That’s what started my intense written contact that culminated by agreeing a personal meeting in London in March, 2016. After negotiations in London I visited with the President of Prague Jewish community, Petr Papoušk, to update him, and an official correspondence between ŽOO (The Olomouc Jewish Community) and MST. Because I was traveling regularly to London, I stayed in touch with Jeffrey and made a written and personal contact. I met him again in November, 2016, in New York, on the observance of the anniversary of Krystalnacht on November 9, 1938, at the Calvary Hospital in the Bronx.
They have Torah No. 515, written in 1880 from Domazlice and is
from 1880. MST loaned it to them in November, 1987 at the request of the cantor of Naobut Grosse. In November, 2015, they undertook a costly repair of this scroll by Rabbi and Levi Selwyn, thanks to the financial support of Charles R. and Wini-
fred R. Weber Foundation. In this case, I arranged a personal meeting.
Jeffrey Ohrenstein and a member of our ZOO Paul Rausnitz, who was at that time
also in NYC and later significantly contributed financial support for the repair of the Olomouc Torah.
Since then, the whole affair has progressed slowly but surely ahead. When I get back with Jeffrey and personally met in his London office on May 26, 2017, he had already spoken to the Californian Jewish community, Peninsula Sinai in Foster City which had agreed to return Olomouc Torah No. 740 from (written in 1880 and loaned to the Congregation in 1970) to Olomouc. It was agreed that the Scroll with be returned Kosher and that part of the cost of its repair would be shared together with the MST. At the same time it was agreeded that a solemn return would take place within the Days of Jewish Culture in October, 2017, in the presence of members of this community.
The good thing happened after two years negotiations, and an 8000 km airplane journey from San Francisco, across the Atlantic Ocean to Prague. The Peninsula Sinai delegation came to Olomouc on October 19 on the train from Prague where I met them at the Train Station. First came Rabbi Corey Helfand with the Torah scroll and then with the other members of the delegation.
All we knew about the scroll was (two-dimensional?). We did not know what it really looked like. Few knew that is needed to be transported in a golf bag. This scroll had its own ticket (on United Airlines) and had its own airplane his seat, and was transported in Economy Plus class.
Finally, the festive day …
On Sunday, October 22, after more than two hours of festivities, we completed the scroll with Sofer Rabbi Moshe Druin, who had worked on this Torah scroll for months). We all had the opportunity to write a letter in the Torah scroll. Then it was handed over from Jeffrey Ohrenstein, Chief Memorial Scrolls Trust in London, to of the chairman of the Jewish Community of Olomouc, Petr Papoušk. Additionally, members of our community and the Ambassador to the Czech Republic from Israel, Daniel Meron, and Rabbi Efraim Sidon, (chief Rabbi of the Czech Republic) members of the United States congregation of Foster City headed by Rabbi Corey Helfand, Cantor Doron Shapira and Steve Lipman and (and Ron and Liz Mester, Andrea and Andy Hawksley and Dr, Linda Oberstein also were in attendance) but also representatives Moravian Jewish communities.
From London also came Peter Briess, who was the only one who still remembered this this scroll from the the original synagogue in 1938, when he was 7 years old.
It is also interesting that the Olomouc Scroll was not completely detached from the Olomouc Jewish Community. Cantor Doron Shapira’s wife is Jocelyn Pascoe-Shapiro, daughter of Otty Karpfen, whose grandmother Lisl (nee) Grüner, was an important Jewish Jew in Olomouc. She was a sportswoman, an excellent tennis player, and one
of the first Czechoslovak pilots and member pre-war Olomouc Hanácký aero club, She managed in good time before the war to emigrate to the US).
This restoration of Olomouc Torah scroll to kosher status is historically the first time that a Torah scroll from the collection sold by Czechoslovakia in 1964 had returned to its original community. I am very glad that from my efforts have contributed to the continuation of traditions from the legacy of our ancestors and that it is not only Olomouc, but also the whole Czech Jewish community that has benefited from this.
text / photo by R. Gronský (additional photos by Steve Lipman)