TBS Holocaust Torah

Rabbi Jay Perlman's sermon on Yom Kippur, 2015, explains how Temple Beth Shalom acquired its Holocaust Torah:

Throughout the Middle Ages and beyond the Jewish communities of Europe knew well the experiences of ongoing persecution and anti-Semitic uprisings.  Yet throughout, these very same Jewish communities – large and small – continued to find ways to flourish – to bring Judaism to life – and to create.  One of these places was the town of Sobeslav in Czechoslovakia.  Some time during either the 1700’s or early 1800’s a special sofer – or Torah scribe was called upon to pen a most unique Torah scroll. 

This text would be, what is referred to, as a Kabbalistic or mystical scroll….And its writer – specially trained in the art of Kabbalah would scribe each of the letters with particular mystical focus and by using a unique calligraphic style.

Ultimately, it would become a spiritual and sacred work of art that its owners hoped would inspire generations of Jews.

When the Nazi’s rose to power and invaded Czechosolvia – tragically, the Sobeslav scroll – along with thousands of other Torahs in communities across the country-side – were in danger from the Nazis.

However, with the defeat of Nazi Germany, many of the Czech scrolls that had been taken were brought to London where they were held by the Westminster Synagogue.  Eventually, a number of these Torahs would be shared – on permanent loan – with synagogues around the world as a testament to the hope and promise of a Jewish people which has continually found a way to survive.

A number of years ago, thanks to the work of the Grossman family and Rabbi Sonsino – the mystical Torah scroll of Sobeslav – found its way to its new home, here at Temple Beth Shalom.

While the sign that we have for this Torah states that it was penned in the 19th century – a sofer who recently appraised this text for our community has told us that he believes that it is actually over 300 years old – and is one of the most unique Torahs that he has ever seen. 

During the past few years, our congregation through beloved members, Florence and Jerry Schumacher, has formed a special with the town of Sobeslav – near Prague.  Thanks to Florence and Jerry, the building – now a private home - which had served as the town synagogue was identified.  With the help of a local guide, we have been in touch with the owners of the property as well as with town officials.  And, I am proud to say that in the coming weeks, a specially created plaque – written in both English and Czech – will be dedicated near the site.  Some distant relative of Jerry’s – who are still living in the area – will be there for the ceremony….and by extension – through the Schumacher family - will be representing all of us.

The plaque reads: 

Here lived the heart of the Sobeslav Jewish community.  This community began in the early 16th Century and ended when the Nazis deported its last residents to Theresienstadt in November, 1942.  During the time the synagogue was active, its walls were filled with prayer, song, celebration, and learning by men, women, and children.  May their memories be for a blessing.  

Memorialized in 2015 by Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, Massachusetts, USA where a Torah scroll saved from Sobeslav continues to be a source of wisdom and light.

This afternoon…..as part of our commemoration of Yom Kippur….we once again read from the sacred scroll.  It is, for us, a living testimony: Ani Ma’amin - to our belief – with complete faith – in the continuity – in the vitality of the Jewish people.

Florence Schumacher's article on TBS Remembers Sobeslav Jewish Community:

The street in Sobeslav, Czech Republic, where the former synagogue was located, is still called "Jew Street" even though there haven't been any Jews in the town since 1942, when they were all deported to Theresienstadt. Until last November, there was no indication in the town that there had been a vibrant Jewish community there for hundreds of years.

Thanks to Temple Beth Shalom, there is now a plaque on the site of the former synagogue from where our Holocaust Torah comes. It says:

Here lived the heart of the Sobeslav Jewish community. This community began in the early 16th Century and ended when the Nazis deported its last residents to Theresienstadt in November, 1942. During the time the synagogue was active, its walls were filled with prayer, song, celebration, and learning by men, women, and children. May their memories be for a blessing.

Memorialized in 2015 by Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, Massachusetts, USA, where a Torah scroll saved from Sobeslav continues to be a source of wisdom and light.

With the help of Julius Muller, founder of the genealogy organization Toledot, and a leader of the Jewish community in Prague, Temple Beth Shalom sponsored the bronze plaque and arranged for it to be dedicated. Julius was able to find a descendant of one of the Jewish families to unveil it in a moving ceremony at the site of the synagogue on Sunday, November 15, 2015. A local choir sang Hebrew songs, Cantor Michael Forst from Prague chanted El Male Rachamim, and local officials spoke. After 70 years, the Jews of Sobeslav were memorialized, and Hebrew was heard on Jew Street again. The TBS plaque bears witness to the lives and cruel end of the Sobeslav Jewish community.

My husband Jerry and I visited Sobeslav in September 2013 while we were on our way from Prague to the national historic site Czesky Krumlov. Sobeslav is in the middle of a rural, forested area in the Czech countryside between two mountain ranges, about two hours south of Prague. A number of small towns are also in the rural area, as well as the surprising presence of a McDonald's and a KFC. We were able to visit the site of the former synagogue, and the current residents suggested we could put a plaque on the building to show it was once a synagogue. We also learned about a history of the Sobelsav Jews in a book at the Chamber of Commerce. Our enterprising guide rushed to have the chapter about the Jewish community copied for us before we left. Julius later translated it.

The Sobeslav Jewish Community
Jews came to Sobeslav at the beginning of the 16th century, but they were expelled in 1606 and could no longer live in the town, though they were allowed to trade there. They moved to nearby towns. Only after the 1848 revolution gave equality to the whole population did the Jews return to live in Sobeslav. Despite anti-Jewish riots in 1866, they built a thriving community establishing successful clothing, grocery and liquor shops and factories.

The synagogue housing the Torah we now have and a school were built in 1874. By 1910, there were 121 Jews in Sobeslav. They mostly spoke German. The commercial success of the Jewish community and their preference for speaking German alienated the local population, resulting in more anti-Jewish riots in 1911. But after World War I the German language disappeared from the streets of Sobeslav.

Between the world wars the Jewish community thrived, until the German occupation in 1939. The Germans introduced anti-Jewish laws, so Jews could no longer practice their faith or attend public restaurants, theaters and swimming pools. Jews had to wear a yellow Star of David. In 1940, Jewish shops and the synagogue were closed. In November 1942, all the Jews were deported to Theresienstadt (also called Terezin) and in 1943 to Auschwitz to be murdered. Only two residents survived: 70-year old Berta Kreisslova and five-year old Pavel Wurmfeld.

A member of one of the most prominent Jewish families, who owned an important factory, was spared because of intermarriage. Josef Blann, who was married to Milada, a non-Jew, was not deported, but the following year he was sent to the Oslavany labor camp and his 14-year old daughter, Noemi, to Theresienstadt. They were liberated in 1945 and returned to Sobeslav, where Milada still lived. Noemi's son, Pavel Makovec, unveiled the TBS plaque at the November dedication.

The synagogue was used as a storehouse until it was torn down in 1959. A building for the town's office of communal services was established there. Today it is a private residence.

The Missing Neighbors Project
In 2001, students in the Sobeslav gymnasium (high school) participated in a project organized by the Jewish Museum of Prague to remember victims of the Holocaust. Under the leadership of teacher Radim Jindra (who spoke at the plaque dedication), the students researched the lives of the Sobeslav Jewish residents and what happened to them. They even retraced their deportation to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. Their research culminated in a well-regarded exhibition that brought their work to the Sobeslav public. Jindra was invited to Yad Vashem for his contributions.

The Holocaust Torahs
Our Torah scroll from Sobeslav comes to us because of unique rescue efforts. At great personal risk, a devoted group of Jews from Prague collected Torahs and other ritual objects from the many synagogues being closed in the provinces during the early years of the war and brought them to Prague for what was to be the Central Jewish Museum. All the Jewish curators were deported and killed at Auschwitz, but the Torahs remained stored in a former synagogue in Michle, near Prague (which we visited since Jerry's ancestors had lived in that town). After the Communists discovered the scrolls, they welcomed an offer to buy them from the Westminister Synagogue in London. The Memorial Scrolls Trust brought 1,564 Torahs to London, where the idea to allow synagogues throughout the world to have the Torahs on long-term loan emerged. Thanks to the generosity of Louis and Patti Grossman, Temple Beth Shalom became the home for the Holocaust Torah from Sobeslav (MST#299). For more information about the Memorial Scrolls Trust project, go to www.memorialscrollstrust.org.

There are no longer any Jews in the Sobeslav, nor is there a single Jewish community in any of the small towns of southern Bohemia. But the Torahs from the destroyed communities continue to bring light to Jewish communities throughout the world.

Our Holocaust Torah will be in the ark of the new Beit Midrash. Rabbi Jay expects it to be used more often there than in the past when it has been used just during the Yom Kippur service.

Pavel Makovec (l), a descendent of one of the few Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in Sobeslav, and Julius Muller (r) from Prague unveil the TBS plaque at the site of the former synagogue as the choir members look on during the plaque dedication on November 15, 2015.

Dedication Video

The dedication of the plaque that Temple Beth Shalom arranged to be placed on the site of the former synagogue in Sobeslav.