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Holocaust Sefer Torah

At Temple Adat Shalom we remember and honor our past, and we are especially mindful of our responsibility to remember, honor, and bring life to the victims of the Holocaust. In 1978, our congregation received a Torah that was once used by the Jews in a small town in Czechoslovakia. Those Jews lost their lives in the Holocaust, but their spirit, embodied in that Torah scroll, lives on in our congregation. Until 2010, when Temple Adat Shalom wrote its own Torah as part of our 36th Anniversary celebration, every Bar or Bat mitzvah student in our congregation read from that Torah scroll as a way of affirming that our People remain strong and our faith is alive and vibrant. Now our Bar and Bat Mitzvah students read from our congregational 36th Anniversary Torah, but our Holocaust Torah retains a place of honor--it is the scroll that is physically passed down through the generations at all of our Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies. Congregant Maud Pincus, who served as our TAS Archivist for many years, presented the following talk at our Yom Hashoah service in 2006. 

 

Talk presented by Maud Pincus, TAS Archivist, April 21, 2006

We know why we are here this Erev Shabbat. Together we commemorate the Shoah, the Holocaust. Together we remember the 6 million innocent Jewish souls who perished for who they were. 

But we are also here together this Erev Shabbat to strike back at death by offering up new life. Therein lies the heart of the story of our Holocaust Torah. It came to us as a symbol of tragedy, but its life with us is one of rebirth and new life. Before talking about the specifics of our Holocaust Torah #279, we need to understand the unique historical background of the Holocaust Torahs.

By the year 1900 Jewish museums began to appear in a few European cities, one of which was the city of Prague, a city located in what was then called the territories of Bohemia and Moravia. The Jewish Museum in Prague was founded in 1906 as the third of the big, major Jewish museums in Central Europe….one in Vienna, Austria and one in Frankfurt, Germany. So the Prague Jewish Museum was a well-established institution when the Nazis occupied Prague and the lands known as Bohemia and Moravia in March, 1939. 

We know that the Nazis plundered everything Jewish in their blitzkrieg through Europe, so it was unusual, and unexpected that the charter of the Prague Jewish Museum would be changed by the Nazis in 1942. This change announced that the "numerous, hitherto scattered Jewish possessions of both historical and artistic value, in the territory of the entire Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, must be collected and stored." How strange. The outside world was told only that property was being taken into temporary custody until it could be returned to its "rightful" owners. Since I don't use expletives on the Bimah, I shall only say, RUBBISH! It is known that the Nazis intended to mount a permanent exhibition of "an exterminated ethnographical people" following their systematic murder of every European Jew. So from 153 destroyed Jewish rural communities in Bohemia and Moravia where Jewish life had survived for a thousand years, in compliance with that directive, poured Jewish artifacts of every conceivable type into the Jewish Museum of Prague - everything from decimated synagogues, everything from privately owned property of Jews who were deported to concentration camps, everything from small museums and libraries. No category of possessions was left untouched.

It was the Jewish museum staff to whom the job of sorting and cataloguing tens of thousands of confiscated items including torahs, synagogue ceremonial objects of silver and gold, glassworks and porcelains, precious metals and textiles, woodwork and oil paintings, manuscripts, furniture, clothing and folk crafts. As though this task was not heartbreaking enough, the Jewish art historians and curators were forced to develop the administrative and exhibition programs for future museum shows depicting the legacy of a doomed people. And they did this under unimaginable work and psychological conditions, under the constant threat of deportation, death and under continual controls by the SS. It was not long before the Jewish museum curators and workers were themselves condemned to death….the final wave of deportation of museum employees took place in February, 1945. Two months later the war in Europe ended…April, 1945.

By war's end in 1945, the Central Jewish Museum filled 8 Jewish community buildings and more than 50 warehouses in Prague. And the Jewish Museum was returned to Prague's Jewish community…those few who had survived and the few survivors who returned. This decimated community had neither the human nor financial resources left to preserve its legacy. Thus in November of 1949, the entire collection, as well as the monuments of Prague's Jewish Quarter, were gifted to and placed in the care of the Czechoslovak Republic. The Museum was renamed the State Jewish Museum. We must remember that Czechoslovakia was behind the iron-curtain and though efforts were made by western interests to obtain collections, neither the Czech nor Soviet governments would enter into any negotiations with the West. But finally in 1964 a deal was brokered with the Czech government by an English art dealer and an English philanthropist to acquire the entire collection of deteriorating Torahs that were stored any which way in Prague. As we know, Torah scrolls are perishable…the parchment is made from the skin of sheep…we are not talking about metals, wood and glass. In 1964….almost 20 years after the war's end, 1,564 sacred Torah scrolls began making their way to the Westminster Synagogue in London. A decision was made that the Westminster Synagogue would be the repository of the Torahs. Again, the incredible number of 1,564 Torah Scrolls. 153 Jewish communities, 1,564 scrolls or approximately 10 Torahs per community. A Memorial Scrolls Committee was established to draw up the rules and regulations and to administer the vast work that lay ahead.

When each scroll arrived at Westminster Synagogue in London, it was numbered, inspected and a system of cataloguing was devised. To put it another way, the scrolls were triaged by experts and a record made, so far as was possible, of the origin and age of the Scroll, the physical condition of its components and, most important, the state of the writing and defects therein. They were bloodied, torn, tear-stained, some wrapped in talit….these Torahs were witnesses to the horror of the times and they looked it. On the basis of the evaluation, the Scrolls were then classified into five grades, from best to unusable. It was then hoped that eventually, with much effort and at great expense, the majority of the Scrolls would be made fit for use in synagogues and other Jewish institutions and schools. Of the remainder, those unusable, would serve as sacred memorials. 

The Memorial Scrolls Committee had as its most important objective the distribution of the sacred Scrolls throughout the world wherever they could be of most service. Thousands of requests came from all over the world. The Committee decided that priority would be given to requests from synagogues in immediate need of Scrolls for use in their services. When a request was granted, the Torah Scroll would be handed over on "permanent loan." Financial contributions were accepted for restoration and preparation costs.

We are now at the point where we can proceed from the general historical background to the specific history of our Holocaust Torah.

 

The date is February, 1978, 28 years ago, when the first letter of request from Rabbi Sheldon Moss was sent to the Memorial Scrolls Committee at the Westminster synagogue, London. He was requesting a sacred Scroll which would reside within the congregation of the Bernardo Jewish Community, Poway, California…..Bernardo Jewish Community, that was the original name of our founding congregation. Our small congregation then had a Torah on loan from Beth Israel-San Diego which had requested its return. There followed many letter exchanges between Rabbi Moss and the Chairman of the Committee and to make a long story short, by December, 1978 a Paul Rosenblatt selected a Torah for us and a student at UCSD by the name of Solon Rosenblatt signed off as having received Scroll #279……and hand carried it from London to San Diego delivering it to Temple Adat Shalom. Notice the name change…..from the Bernardo Jewish Community to Temple Adat Shalom, Community of Peace…between February and December of 1978, the congregation affiliated with the then Union of American Hebrew Congregations now the Union of Reform Judaism, adopted a new name…Temple Adat Shalom, but still had an office in the Mercado for the Rabbi and Secretary and services were held at the Lutheran Church of the Incarnation on Espola Road. With the Torah came the need to properly house it in an appropriate Ark. Alan and Laurie Rathsam donated a Portable Ark to house the Torah. Alan spent over three hundred hours in the design and construction of the Ark with its walnut finished doors and solid ash letters symbolizing the Ten Commandments. That Ark continues to house a Temple Adat Shalom Torah and is located in Room , the small chapel.

I wish I could give you information about our Torah's history. I sent several communications to the Committee asking for information about its provenance, age, from where our Torah came and any other information that could be contributed about our Torah #279, the answer to me was always the same. History unknown. Our Torah is referred to as an "orphan." 


The story doesn't end here……who was Paul Rosenblatt who made the Torah selection? In 1978 he was working with the U.S. government in England. His son, Solon Rosenblatt, was a student at the U.C.S.D. who taught Hebrew School at TAS. Solon was going to London over the winter holiday break to visit his family and thus was authorized by Rabbi Moss to hand carry the Torah from London to San Diego. 

There are two interesting stories about the trip from London to New York. It is necessary to mention this because the first story appears in two written histories of the Temple found in the 18th and 25th Anniversary Year Books. This is that story as written: Solon sat on the plane with the Torah in his lap. The pilot told him that he would not leave the gate, the plane would not take off until the Torah was stored in the cargo hold of the aircraft or had its own seat. The flight was filled. There was a stand-off, arguments ensued at which point someone on the plane got sick, exited, thus making available a seat for the Torah and the rest is history. Not quite! 

The second story is quite similar but its source is completely credible because it is a first hand account. This Temple archivist located Dr. Solon Rosenblatt through the wonders of the computer. He is a renowned orthopedic surgeon living and practicing medicine in the Bay Area of California. He shared the following accurate story of the Torah's journey from London to San Diego:

As Solon was boarding the aircraft at London's Heathrow Airport to return to San Diego, he was asked to check the Torah into the baggage area. He explained that he would not do that because it was a priceless survivor of the holocaust not to mention its precious religious value. He explained that he was prepared to hold the Torah on his lap for the entire flight from London to San Diego despite the stops and changing of planes. In those years this did not pose a problem for the airlines. However, it surely was going to be a problem for Solon. He was anticipating a long transatlantic flight followed by a long cross country flight. But he accepted the assignment. As the plane taxied out to the area waiting for instructions to take-off, a woman passenger suddenly started screaming that she was getting claustrophobic. After several unsuccessful attempts at quieting her down, the pilot called the control tower. A special truck with a stairway rolled up to the plane as it sat on the taxiway and the woman and her rather embarrassed husband were escorted off the plane. A stewardess offered Solon the seats just vacated. She informed him that there was now a seat for him and for his "friend" (as she called the Torah.) Solon recounted that he and his "friend" flew on to San Diego without any further interruptions. Not quite!!

This wonderful story is not over. When Solon landed at Los Angeles International Airport he was required to go through customs to declare all valuables. One should add that you are also subject to search and seizure. Solon had all the proper documents which valued the Torah at 400 British Pounds Sterling. As he was waiting in the customs line, a tall, stern police officer from the L.A.P.D. approached him and rather gruffly asked what he was holding. Solon explained the Torah in great detail. The officer said, "I think you had better follow me." Solon was nervous, uneasy and puzzled about where he was being taken. The officer lead him out of the customs area escorting him directly to the area in the terminal where friends and family were waiting to pick up the passengers after they cleared customs. In this case, directly to his Aunt. The police officer said "Shabbat Shalom, I'll try to make it down to San Diego one day for services." It was at that time that Solon noticed the name tag that he was too nervous to look at before. The officer was Sargent Levi. Sargent Levi did come to Temple Adat Shalom for the ceremony inaugurating Torah Scroll #279.
 

While you cannot hear me Dr. Solon Rosenblatt, please accept the congregation's heartfelt thanks for taking the time to tell us the story up front, personal and just the way it was. It is very much appreciated.
Because of a Torah's centrality and sanctity in Jewish life, the donation of a scroll or the providing for a scroll are highly esteemed forms of philanthropy. And so it is only appropriate that Dr. Howard and Lottie Marcus be acknowledged as having provided for our Temple's Holocaust Torah ensuring that it is taken care of for future generations. To be acknowledged also is the contribution of the late David Desow and Paula Desow for funding the earlier work of restoration and repair. 

When I began my presentation, I said that this evening we strike back at death by creating new life….that this evening we offer up love and life. I believe Torah Scroll #279 does just that. Torah scroll #279 found a very good home at TAS. Our clergy honors the memory of the six million who perished by having each student read from our Holocaust Torah during his/her Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Our Torah came to us as a symbol of tragedy but its life with us is a symbol of hope, love, rebirth…………new life.

Please note that our Holocaust Sefer Torah MST#279 is on permanent loan from the Memorial Scrolls Trust, whose website can be found at this link:  http://www.memorialscrollstrust.org.

In concluding, the word "serendipity" dances in my mind due to a delightful accidental discovery having been brought to my attention: our Holocaust Torah #279,   2 + 7 + 9 = 18 ... Chai. Please join me in saying………… L'Chaim, to life!

            

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