Ghostly parchments from the vanished Jews of Mitteleuropa
David Brand at work on a scroll: he spent nearly three decades repairing the parchments and redrawing the lettering
Jenni Frazer reports on the improbable survival of a precious hoard of 1,500 Torah scrolls
Just over half a century ago two lorries turned into a side road near the Knightsbridge barracks in central London, and a ghostly cargo was unloaded.
Fifteen hundred and sixty four sacred Torah scrolls, collected and catalogued from the war-torn Jewish communities of Bohemia and Moravia, had arrived in London on a dank February morning in 1964, an extraordinary testament to the Czech Jews to whom they had once belonged.
The story of the Czech scrolls is both heartbreaking and uplifting. Collated in near impossible conditions in 1942 by the curators of the Jewish Museum of Prague, the scrolls survived, unlike their cataloguers, few of whom lived through the Nazi Holocaust.
And after the defeat of the Nazis, the scrolls lay forgotten in the disused Michle Synagogue, near Prague, until the communists, desperate for hard currency and looking for goods to sell, stumbled across them.
The scrolls were not the Czech state’s to sell, though this appears hardly to have mattered. The postwar Jewish Museum fought tooth and nail against the sale, but lost. At least 50 scrolls from the Prague collection were sent to the young state of Israel in 1964, although present-day religious authorities in Israel deny all knowledge of them.
At any rate, the Czech communists still wanted to sell the rest: and they did not want to sell them off piecemeal, but only as a complete collection. A London art dealer, Eric Estorick, had been going to Czechoslovakia regularly since the end of the war and became aware of this extraordinary cache of Torah scrolls.
He approached a lawyer and philanthropist, Ralph Yablon, who had helped to acquire Kent House, the Knightsbridge building that became the premises of the Westminster Synagogue.
Yablon spoke to the Westminister Synagogue’s rabbi, Harold Reinhart. The scholar Chimen Abramsky was dispatched to Prague to evaluate the scrolls; and for an undisclosed sum — some say £30,000, some say £80,000 — a deal was done anthe Torah scrolls were sent to London.
Quite why the scrolls were collected and catalogued in Prague in the first place remains a point of contention. For many years it was believed that the Nazis were collecting Judaica in order to establish a Museum of an Extinct Race. But now, according to Evelyn Friedlander, the curator of the present-day collection at Westminster, this idea has been discredited.
“It seems to have been the inspiration of the Jewish community in Prague,” she says. “The city’s Jewish Museum had been established in 1906 and the curators were academics and professionals in their forties and fifties, in the prime of their careers.” One, the librarian, Tobias Jakobovits, was the uncle of Immanuel Jakobovits, the long-serving Chief Rabbi of Britain until 1991.
As the war progressed rural Jews began gravitating towards the bigger cities in Czechoslovakia. So when, in 1942, a letter went out from the Jewish community of Prague asking the far-flung congregations to send their Torah scrolls and other synagogue Judaica to the capital, the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia responded quickly. “Everything,” says Evelyn Friedlander, “was catalogued meticulously. We know where every scroll came from: they were labelled in Czech and German, giving the name of the community or congregation.” Czech, of course: but German, too, because this extraordinary task was carried out under Nazi supervision.
“The curators thought they were saving Judaism by saving the scrolls,” says Mrs Friedlander. Many of the scrolls that arrived in London were tied with a separate cloth binder, some dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 100 volumes of catalogue still in the Prague Jewish Museum, there are also details of where the binders originated, some exquisitely embroidered, some examples of local folk art, some honouring members of the congregation or marking special events such as births, barmitzvahs or weddings.
All the binders were flung in with the Torah scrolls unloaded from the first of the London lorries. On the second lorry, says Mrs Friedlander, “there is a story that there were messages in among the scrolls, scraps of paper saying ‘please help us.’ But no one knows what became of them.”
A team of nine scribes — experts in the parchment on which a Torah scroll is written and the actual inscription of the scroll — was assembled at Westminster Synagogue, to examine every single scroll and recatalogue them. But when that task had finished, it was still necessary to have someone work on the scrolls so that they would be fit to send out on loan to congregations. Minute repairs and meticulous redrawing of the Hebrew lettering can only be carried out by a qualified scribe.
At this point, laughs Friedlander, “a sort of miracle happened”. A man knocked on the door of the synagogue, dressed in full strictly Orthodox clothing, and announced himself as a travelling scribe who wondered if there was any work for him. Did the synagogue, perhaps, have a scroll or two for him to look at?
One can only imagine David Brand’s face when he was ushered in to take stock of 1,564 scrolls. Brand, who now lives in a retirement home in Israel, stayed for 27 years, carefully working on the collection and using the same sort of ancient inks and quills used for centuries by Jewish scribes.
And why was it so important for the scrolls to be restored? Because once they were in the West, hundreds of communities all over the world wanted to use a rescued Czech scroll in their synagogue services. The Westminster curators decided to send out as many as they could on long-term loan. There are thought to be about 1,000 scrolls now in use in North America, and about 100 in the UK. Communities as far apart as Alaska, Puerto Rico and Hawaii have asked for the loan of these iconic Torah scrolls.
On February 9, in Westminster Synagogue, a special service will be held to mark the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Czech Torah scrolls in London. Many of the congregations which have borrowed a Czech scroll will attend — and will bring their scroll with them, to walk in procession around the synagogue. It will be an impressive and almost certainly emotional sight.
And among the congregation, it is hoped, will be Shlomo Fischl, who now lives in Israel. He comes from Horazdovice, in Bohemia, the congregation whose Torah scroll is now used by Westminster Synagogue.