This winter, my family and I visited Prague, home to the 16th century legend about the Golem, a mythical figure who protects the Jewish community. Like other major East European cities, Prague faced, in a cruel historic irony on the Golem legend, the twin evils of the 20th century: both Nazism and Communism. The anti-Semitic and murderous totalitarian regimes of Germany and the Soviet Union wreaked havoc on the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, leaving “a hole in the heart of the world,” as chronicled by Jonathan Kaufman in his riveting book about the Jewish experience in those countries before and after the war.
The unspeakable crimes of the Nazis was brought home to us, in vivid and shocking display, when on a bitterly cold and dreary winter day, we touredTheresienstadt, a Nazi labor camp 40 kilometers north of Prague, where approximately 70,000 Jews brutally died either because of the horrendous conditions in the camp or because they were eventually transported to Auschwitz, where they met their ultimate demise.
Not only were an unimaginable number of Jewish lives tragically lost, but also in the aftermath of the Nazi (and subsequent Communist) takeover of Czechoslovakia, the country’s vibrant Jewish religious and cultural life was almost completely wiped out, with many synagogues either abandoned or destroyed.
However, while touring the old Jewish quarter of Prague, which has become a popular tourist attraction since the Velvet Revolution and downfall of Communism, I happened upon a fascinating and inspiring story, with a Chicago connection. In defiance of the Nazis’ nefarious plan to extinguish Jewish life throughout Europe, I learned that in 1942, a group of dedicated Prague Jews helped save approximately 1,600 Torah scrolls from synagogues in Prague and the surrounding Jewish communities by bringing them to the Central Jewish Museum (and later housing them in the Michle Synagogue outside of Prague), where they were cared for, so it was hoped they could be used again after the war.
Tragically, all but two of the curators of the museum, who repaired and carefully documented where each scroll had originally come from, died in the Holocaust, meaning that their sacred work could no longer continue. But in another miraculous twist of fate, in 1963, Rabbi Harold Reinhart of London’s Westminster Synagogue, with the help of a number of prominent British philanthropists, purchased the scrolls from the Communist Czechoslovakian government and brought them to London, where they have been preserved. The full story about the Prague scrolls is told in Philippa Bernard’s powerful book, Out of the Midst of Fire.
Today, through the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust, many of the scrolls are on permanent loan throughout the world. Besides making them available to Jewish communities around the globe, in 2008, the Trust opened a museum in the Westminster complex containing a poignant exhibit about the rescue of the scrolls.
When I returned home, I discovered that 20 synagogues in the Chicago area are using them for religious and/or educational purposes. I was especially delighted to hear that one of the scrolls, originally from Prossnitz, located east of Prague, where a number of leading Jewish intellectuals had lived, is at my own synagogue, North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park. They are also being used at both Camp Ramah and Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute. There is also one on display at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie.
Besides their religious, educational, and cultural significance, the saved Torah scrolls help celebrate the revival of Jewish life in Prague, albeit on a dramatically smaller scale than before the war, as well as help enrich our own community by connecting us to our past and giving us hope for the future. This remarkable achievement also gives concrete expression to the renowned Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim’s famous dictum of not providing any posthumous victories to Hitler. Indeed, this uplifting tale, while not new, is today a positive antidote to the latest troubling developments in Europe, particularly in France, where extremism and anti-Semitism have reared their ugly heads again.
Richard D. Zelin, Ph.D. was Associate Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish United Fund and Director of the Chicago Conference on Soviet Jewry.