Our Torah was written sometime in the 1700s and resided
in a small town in Czechoslovakia called Sobeslav (Sobislau). The
town's synagogue was built in the 1880s, so presumably the scroll was
housed in a private residence for community use before the synagogue
was built. We know that one of the Presidents of
the synagogue's Board of Directors was named Emmanuel Frankenstein. He
read from this Torah.
This Torah scroll uses a special script called "modified
Beit Yosef." This scroll is particularly uncommon, in that it is
written on approximately 50 deerskins (bellies). By Jewish law, an
animal may not be killed only to be used for leather, but must also be
used for food. Deer are kosher animals, but hard to shecht
(kill in a ritually kosher way). We therefore speculate that the deer
were neither killed nor eaten by the Jews; however their hides were
purchased for the Torah scroll.
Nearly the entire Jewish population of
Sobeslav perished in concentration camps during the Shoah. The
Nazis meanwhile stripped synagogues of articles of value and sent many
of them to be warehoused. Many of these objects are now in the State
For 20 years after the war, these stolen items,
including 1,564 Torah
Scrolls from throughout Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia, lay piled in
the disused Michle Synagogue outside Prague. In 1964 these sacred
Scrolls were given to the care of the Westminster Synagogue in London.
Then came the monstrous task of cataloguing, inspecting and
classifying the scrolls according to their condition. Those that were
deemed usable, or could be made usable without too much labor, were
put up for distribution to various Jewish agencies. Priority was
given to synagogues that did not have a Torah scroll of their own.
Scrolls are now in use in many countries around the world.
Some of the collection remain at Westminster Synagogue,
a permanent memorial to the martyrs from whose synagogues they come.
The rest have been distributed throughout the world, to synagogues as
well as to Yad Vashem, Westminster Abbey, and the Royal Library at
Windsor Castle. These scrolls serve, in the words of Harold Reinhart,
"to live, to commemorate, to inspire a saddened but not hopeless world,
and to glorify the holy Name."
When a request for a Torah is approved by the
committee, a scroll is handed over on a "permanent loan" basis. Our
scroll (catalogued as No. 1144) came to us by way of Etz Chaim, a now
disbanded congregation in
Novato. They had made the request, which was approved, and had already
received the Torah when the congregation disbanded. When some of the
members of Etz Chaim joined our community, they told us about the
Scroll and made the arrangements for the transfer. That's how we came
to be the proud guardians of one of the Czech Memorial scrolls.
Sobeslav today has no Jewish population. The synagogue, after years as
a warehouse, has been restored as a workshop and apartments. The only
known Jewish survivor of Sobeslav was its rabbi, Dr. Arthur Katz, who
happened to be out of the country at the time of the deportation. Dr.
Katz went on to become the first rabbi of Hendon Reform Synagogue
outside of London. Dr. Katz's son, Steven, is today the rabbi at that
same synagogue. In 2009, Hendon Reform Synagogue became
the keepers of our Torah scroll's twin, the only other known Torah
scroll from Sobeslav.
To find out more about important work of the Memorial Scrolls Trust, click here.
Names of the Jews
of Sobeslav who perished in the Shoah, inscribed on the interior walls
Pinkas Synagogue in Prague. Photo by Barbara Lesch McCaffry.
Sobeslav's central square today.
Photo by Martin Bilek.
Members of Hendon Reform Synagogue
welcome their Sobeslav Torah scroll, the twin of ours, in 2009.