The Memorials Scroll Trust

Why is sefer Torah number 689 different from all other s’farim Torah used by Beth Shalom Reform Synagogue, Cambridge and why does that matter?

In 1942, the first night of Chanukah, fell on 4th December. Instead of celebrating, the people of Pardubice, a small town to the east of Prague, obeyed Nazi orders and gathered near the railway station, each with the allotted 50 kilogrammes of luggage. Two special trains took them to Bohušovice from where they had to drag their luggage the 4 kilometres to the ghetto turned concentration camp at Terezín, gateway to Auschwitz.

In December 2005, for the first time, Beth Shalom used this unique sefer Torah. In her sermon, Professor Melissa Lane spoke unforgettably of these events. The scroll had come from Pardubice. Before the Holocaust, 1256 Jews lived in the region where, following the expulsion from Spain in 1492, their ancestors had settled and thrived.

By the end of the War, only 39 of the deportees were still alive: just 24 from Pardubice itself.

Before Melissa had ended her sermon, I was inspired to visit Pardubice. Fortunately, documentary photographer, Marion Davies agreed to accompany me. We were warned that our search for survivors would prove fruitless. But within hours of our landing, just 2 names, Eliška and Jiri, scribbled in an old address book belonging to an elderly contact in Prague, led us the next day to Pardubice Station where they kindly met us. In turn, they introduced us to a handful of survivors who, over months, shared their unique stories with us. By Chanukah 1942, Eliška was 12. She and her parents  hadj joined the deportees. From Terezín, the family were sent to Auschwitz. She recalled her father, Erwin Weiss staggering from the train and saying: “Look at those chimneys, flames are coming out of them, there are definitely some factories and no one is even bombing them”. And then he was ordered to join the queue for the gas.

Eliška and her mother were moved on to Birkenau, Bergen Belsen and to a labour camp near Dessau where they caught typhoid. Then back to Terezín where, ironically, they slowly recovered.

Until 1942, s’farim Torah had not featured in any Czech Museum, but then the Nazi authority:  Zentralstelle für jüdische Auswanderung (the Central Office for Jewish Emigration)  in charge of  ‘the Jewish Question’, ordered the communities in Bohemia and Moravia to send all of  their liturgical items to a newly established Jüdisches Zentralmuseum in Prague. Anxious to protect the belongings of those who had been deported to concentration camps, members of the Prague Jewish community founded this museum. Some 1800 scrolls joined the collection.

While some of these were used after the War, under the Soviets when religious observance was again forbidden, many were subsequently returned. In the 1950s, the remarkable director of the Museum, Hana Volavkova, (aunt of Eva Clark) arranged for the scrolls to be housed in the Michle Syngogue. But Hana was force to leave the museum. While the Soviet government saw the scrolls as ideologically useful, as a source of ready cash, they were even more appealing. Consequently, in 1965, three English Jews concluded a deal and brought 1564 deteriorating s’farim Torah to the Westminster Synagogue in London.  By chance, sofer David Brand stopped by hoping for a week’s work. He spent the next 25 painstakingly restoring the reparable scrolls.

All those that could be used have been distributed across the world. And number 689 came to Cambridge.

Jane Liddell-King
Faces in the Void: Marion Davies and Jane Liddell-King
Published, Shaun Tyas, 2012

See the Memorials Trust website for information about the scrolls.