An Emblem of All That Was Lost — and All That Survives

Written by Seth Jacobson on . Posted in Features

On Sunday, Dec. 3, Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County rededicated a Torah scroll with a deep connection in this community. This Czech refugee survived the Holocaust, endured a long journey across oceans, and has made its home in Bethesda, Maryland, since 1991. In poor condition when it arrived, the 200-year-old Torah scroll is still not kosher (not fit for ritual use), but it has undergone a preservation process to ensure its survival for future generations. Now in a new case, this fragile and precious object will continue to be displayed and serve as a central piece in the congregation’s education program.

The rededication ceremony was the centerpiece of a week-long commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the Heřmanův Městec Jewish community in what is now the Czech Republic. Founded in the 15th century, Heřmanův Městec’s remaining Jewish citizens were assembled and sent by the Nazis on Dec. 3, 1942 to the concentration camp Theresienstadt; many were subsequently sent to Auschwitz.

How did this Torah scroll end up in Bethesda?

In 1991, congregant Dahlia Amir was approaching her bat mitzvah. The granddaughter of Czech Holocaust survivors, she decided she wanted to bring a pre-war Torah scroll from Czechoslovakia to Maryland. Together with her mother Michlean, now an archivist at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), she successfully found a 200-year-old Torah scroll that had been archived by the Memorial Scroll Trust in London, among about 1,800 Torah scrolls transferred from the Jewish Museum in Prague. The rest is history.

On hand to celebrate the Torah scroll’s rededication with Rabbi Greg Harris and the Beth El community were David Frous, first secretary of the political department of the Czech embassy in Washington, D.C., and Petr Papoušek, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic. Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation in Reston, which rededicated its own Czech Torah scroll the day before on Shabbat, was also participating in the week’s commemorative events.

Representing the Jewish communities in the Czech Republic, Papoušek spoke about reconnecting communities through restored Torah scrolls. “Your communities in the United States and all over the world are still reconnecting to Czech Jewry and Czech Jews, and it’s a positive connection,” he said. “Because something horrible happened, but we know that the future will be better.”

Also in attendance was Mark Talisman, the founding vice chairman of the USHMM. He recounted how, as a congressional aide to U.S. Representative Charlie Vanik in the 1960s, he traveled with the congressman to Czechoslovakia. He discovered that thousands of Jewish relics — kiddush cups, candelabras, and Torah scrolls — were taken from the Jews in Prague and nearby towns and housed in a locked “Jewish Museum.” After negotiating their removal, these Jewish ritual objects were eventually used as an exhibit called “The Precious Legacy,” which travelled widely. 

Referring to the day’s printed program, which listed the names of the town’s victims, Talisman reminded all those present that they carry a heavy responsibility. “You are living a double life,” he said. “You are living a life that the people on the back of that sheet can’t.”

Michlean Amir’s family was originally from Pilsen, a town whose Jewish community dates back to at least the 14th century. The town had the second-largest synagogue in Europe, after the Dohani Synagogue in Budapest. Today, Pilsen’s Jewish population is estimated to number in the 70s. By contrast, Olomouc, where Papoušek lives, has an active community with a revived synagogue, kosher kitchen, and restored Torah scrolls, including one from the Memorial Scrolls Trust. There is a Jewish day school in Prague, sponsored by the Lauder foundation, which also hosts online classes for children.

During the ceremony, a young member of the synagogue chanted a portion of the Torah, the first time it had been read from since World War II. “The last time a teenager read from this scroll was in a small village that we’re honoring,” said Rabbi Harris. "The world was completely different, and yet we are still here.”

Michlean and her family were in attendance at the rededication. She said she felt a mixture of emotions throughout the day. 

Michlean was born in Paris after her parents fled the Nazis, and her father joined the Czech brigade of the British Army. After the war, they returned to Czechoslovakia, but they were later forced to flee again from the Soviets. In 1948, they immigrated to Israel, and later to the U.S. She feels that there is not much of a future for Jews in the Czech Republic, because the community is so small and not growing.

“I grew up knowing that I lost grandparents and uncles and so forth, but I guess it was not real, you know it was like a story,” she said. The Nazis kept meticulous records of their atrocities, but there were at least four transports from Theresienstadt that were not documented. “One of them was the transport that my grandparents were on,” she said. “They were sent to Estonia and let out in the forest. Most of them died, except for 50 strong young people who were taken to forced labor camps.”

And the ceremony made it all much more real to her. “It was a very painful experience, but it is also very uplifting because this Torah has a new life and it will be a part of the education of the children of Beth El.”

By Seth Jacobson

 Seth Jacobson is a legislative and national security analyst.