Temple Israel has the great honor of being the home of The Sefer Torah number 1359, which is on permanent loan to us from the Memorial Scrolls Trust located in London. Our Torah came from the small town of Zamberk in the Czech Republic – a town in the Bohemia Province on the western side of Prague. The town was quite small and not much information has been found about it. A congregation in Texas has a “sister” scroll to ours. At Temple Israel, the scroll has been used at B’nai Mitzvot and during services for Yom Hashoah.
In 1936, the Munich Agreement was signed to appease the Czech leader who then gave up land near Germany and expelled Jews from that area. Six months later, Jews were told that they could only live in Prague (in the 1800s, Jews had moved from Bohemia and Moldova to Prague). In 1938/39, Jews who went to Prague stayed with family members there. They were told to take the Torahs, books, etc. to the Jewish Museum of Prague, where each item was given a number with their town on it, put in cloth bags, and stored in warehouses – 14 warehouses worth – which is where they remained until after the war.
In 1942, the Prague Jews were sent to the Terezin Concentration Camp, where 80,000 were murdered including those who went to Auschwitz and perished. Only 14,000 survived of which 100 were children. After the war, most didn’t stay in the Czech Republic and many migrated to the United States and Israel.
Roughly 3 years later, a Communist crew found 1,564 scrolls and other Judaica in the warehouse. They could have thrown it all out but instead put everything in an old synagogue outside of Prague – the Michle Synagogue – which had no heat or air-conditioning, broken glass windows, etc. These artifacts remained there for 16 years.
In 1963, the Czech Republic needed money and an American art dealer in London (Eric Estorick) asked if anyone was interested in purchasing the Judaica. His friend, a scholar and founder of a London synagogue, went to look at the items and bought the entire lot, sending them all to the Westminster Synagogue in London.
On February 7, 1964, the items arrived and the Torahs were sorted – Kosher (for those who never had a Torah), Useable and as Memorials (to be used as a witness of the Shoah.) Temple Israel’s Torah was in the Useable category and a good size in comparison to others.
A sofer (scribe) was needed and the Israeli Embassy was asked if it could recommend one. Soon after, David Brand knocked on the door of Westminster Synagogue and inquired if they had any Torah to repair. The answer was yes, over 1500 Torahs needed restoration. David worked there for 30 years as their sofer.
In the late 1960/70s, the Torahs and other Judaica were commissioned all over the world including by the Queen of England, in New Zealand and at Camp Ramah. Some of the collection remains at Westminster Synagogue, a permanent memorial to the martyrs from whose synagogues they come; many of them have been distributed throughout the world, to be memorials everywhere to the Jewish tragedy. You can read more about the history of these scrolls by visiting the Memorial Scrolls Trust website.