Home December 2023 Torah Procession on Kristallnacht

Torah Procession on Kristallnacht

Congregation hosts a reunion of looted scrolls

The Torah procession.

It was a Torah reunion. The Torah scrolls carried into the awe-inspiring sanctuary of Philadelphia’s Congregation Rodeph Shalom on Nov. 9 had not been together since they were rescued in 1964. All had been looted from Czechoslovakian synagogues by the Nazis and doomed to rot in a Prague warehouse.
    “These scrolls were witnesses to and survivors of Kristallnacht, November 9 and 10, 1939–often called The Night of Broken Glass—when Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues were attacked in a terrifying act of Jew-hatred,” said Rabbi Jill Marderer, spiritual leader of the synagogue. “There were 100,000 Jews in the Czech Republic then. Now there are fewer than 4,000.”
    Neither the scrolls nor those murdered in the Holocaust have been forgotten. Instead, on this past Nov. 9, some 350 people stood in silence as the scrolls were marched into the sanctuary and lovingly placed on the bima.
    Barbara Chestler chaired the event.
    “The gathering was held on the 60th anniversary of the Memorial Scrolls Trust (MST), a non-profit created solely for the purpose of transferring the 1,564 scrolls from Prague to London, rehabilitating and restoring as many as possible, and loaning them to synagogues and Jewish institutions,” she said.
    Lois Roman, an MST trustee, explained that the Nazis had methodically classified and catalogued every item they collected. Each originally had a note attached giving its place of origin and age.
    “Some were badly damaged,” Roman said. “Some lost their identifying notations. Some had bullet holes. Some had notes in them saying things like ‘Do not forget us.’ This evening is a commemoration of the Holocaust. Since these scrolls carry the memories of the people who lovingly dressed them, carried them, read from them, they are also survivors, and this is a perfect time honor them.”

From left: Rabbi Jonathan Falco and Rabbi Chaim Edelstein.

    MST continues to care for the scrolls, some 1,400 of which are currently in use in Jewish institutions around the globe, on loan unless or until a synagogue disbands or merges with another synagogue. Some of 22 scrolls now in Monmouth and Middlesex Counties were brought by area rabbis and synagogue leadership to the Memorial Scrolls Gathering.
    Among them was Rabbi Jonathan Falco, Assistant Rabbi of Congregation Shaari Emeth, Manalapan, who said, “Our memorial scroll is considered an orphan scroll, meaning the Trust doesn’t know what town it originated in.
    “Walking in that procession with all the other scrolls was so powerful. It made me feel a visceral connection to our past. The gathering was exactly what many of us needed. It also brought to mind Israel’s missing hostages, who are so much on our minds now.”
    Rabbi Chaim Edelstein carried the scroll from Temple Beth Ahm in Aberdeen, where he serves as spiritual leader. He said participating in that procession “made me feel part of something much bigger, of a much larger gathering than the one in that magnificent sanctuary.”
    One member of the organizing committee, Debra Kirsh of Manalapan, was in contact with all the synagogues and rabbis in the area that had MST scrolls, to remind them of the event and make sure they had the information they needed. She mentioned one rabbi who would not commit to being free on the 9th but was at the event.
    “Somehow he found me in the crowd,” she said, “and he actually thanked me, saying he was so glad he made the time to come.”

Some communities brought story boards about their Torahs.

    Phillis Brooks, a former president of Temple Beth Ahm, co-authored a booklet about the history of Hermanuv Mestec, the town from which its Torah originally came. The booklet, filled with information about the town’s history as well as that of its Jewish community, contains the list of all the towns’ Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust. She said a selection of names are read at every Yiskor service in the synagogue.
    “I thought the whole evening was wonderful,” Brooks said. “I never expected to see so many people and so many Torahs, will all the different sizes. Some were small, some were huge, some were in cases, and some had crowns. And there was everything in between. I was just amazed.”
    She, too, found the procession moving. “When the doors at the back of the synagogue opened and all those Torah’s marched in, I had goose bumps. And tears in my eyes. It was a moment I won’t forget.”  

JoAnn Abraham began chronicling Jewish life as editor of Monmouth County’s Jewish newspaper, now defunct, and has written for national and international publications. She is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.

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