Earlier this month, Temple Israel participated in a gathering of Holocaust Torah scrolls rescued from what is now the Czech Republic. The 72 scrolls gathered together that evening at Manhattan’s Temple Emanu-el at the invitation of the Memorial Scrolls Trust, represented the largest reunion of the Czech Holocaust scrolls since their distribution to congregations around the world began in the mid-1960’s. The gathering was organized by the Memorial Scrolls Trust, the trust formed in London to repair, distribute and maintain the Czech scrolls, to mark the opening of a new and related exhibit of yadim, Torah pointers from past and present, presented by Temple Emanu-el’s Bernard Museum of Judaica. The beautiful exhibit of Torah pointers, however, took a back seat on the opening night of the exhibition to the dozens of scrolls brought from all across the northeast and from as far away as Washington State. Some, like ours, were covered in beautiful mantles and others were displayed in colors and designs meant to invoke their history as artifacts of a world of Jewish life and observance destroyed by Nazi terror in the middle of the last century.
Of the 6 dozen scrolls gathered at Temple Emanu-el that evening, Temple Israel’s scroll appeared to be the oldest by at least a generation. According to the Trust, the scroll was written in the year 1764 for the Jewish community of Nachod, located in the historic land of Bohemia in what was then part of the Hapsburg dominions. We have told the story of Nachod’s destruction many times in our sanctuary but we have not, as far as I can determine, offered anything other than a short summary of the history of Nachod’s Jewish community before the Shoah. Seeing all the Czech scrolls gathered together, however, inspired me to research the history of Nachod before 1939. This history reminds us that our Czech Torah scroll was used in services by the Jews of Nachod for over 150 years before the Shoah came and that its story is not complete by only focusing on why it left Nachod.
Evidence for a Jewish presence in Bohemia goes back to the 10 th century although the Jewish settlement there may extend back to the days of the Roman Empire. The first written evidence of a Jewish community in Nachod dates to the middle of the 15 th century. By 1570, Nachod recorded 11 Jewish families living on the single Jewish street in the small rural town near the border with Poland. By this time, almost half of all Jews in Bohemia lived in Prague but Nachod was one of 4 historic cities in the Bohemian countryside with a significant Jewish presence. The Jewish residents of the town were almost certainly traders, catering to the local landowners who desired goods not easily available in the markets of small towns and villages.
In the generation just before the writing of our scroll in 1764, Nachod had 60 Jewish families, still struggling to keep Jewish traditions alive after a devastating fire burned the synagogue and the entire Jewish “quarter” to the ground in 1663. Our scroll would have finally been installed in the ark of a rebuilt Nachod synagogue in 1777. During this time, Bohemia was the home to some of Europe’s leading rabbis, who establish Prague as the most prestigious Jewish community in Central Europe.
The fortunes of Jewish community of Nachod reach new heights in 1848 with the emancipation of the Jewish population of Bohemia in that year and the founding of several textile companies by members of the congregation in that same year. The Jews of Nachod prospered as the industrial revolution spread into central Europe, so much, in fact, that the Jews of Nachod, began to leave the countryside for the hustle and bustle of cities like Prague and Berlin where transplanted Jews could legally live for the first time.
By the times the Nazis absorbed Bohemia and Moravia in 1939, less than 300 Jews remained in Nachod. In June of that year, the Nazis looted the Nachod synagogue and stole its ritual objects, including our Torah scroll in the hope they might one day prove valuable. In 1942, the still remaining members of Prague’s Jewish community convinced the Nazis to send the religious artifacts seized from the synagogues of Bohemia and Moravia, including our scroll and more than 1,500 others, to the Prague Museum. Our scroll was tagged and identified by the Museum’s Jewish workers, only one of whom survived the war. 1,564 Torah scrolls were sitting in a synagogue in a Prague suburb until 1964 when Ralph Yablon, an American born solicitor then living in the UK, agreed to fund their purchase and bring them to London.
Once in London, the scrolls were inspected and classified, in some cases restored, by a trust endowed and established for their preservation and then lent the world over for congregations to use as both Torah scrolls and educational tools. Our scroll, number 66 of 1,564 scrolls, reminds us to never forget the murderous depths which antisemitism reached in the 20 th century. Our scroll also prompts us to remember the vibrant life of the Jewish community of Nachod, who surely danced with and treasured their scroll as much, if not more, than we do. May we never forget either lesson!
Rabbi Michael D. Howald