Among Congregation Beth Israel’s Sifrei Torah is our Holocaust Memorial Trust Scroll, on permanent loan from the Memorial Scrolls Trust in London. It has been in our care for over fifty years, and as a symbol that our Jewish children’s voices were not silenced, all CBI students read from this scroll on their B’nei Mitzvah.
This is what we know if it’s journey.
Our scroll is from the town of Taus-Domazlice, in Czechoslovakia. It is over 150 years old, as evidence during the style of its script, the condition of its ink, its letter embellishments, type of parchment, and style of stitching for its sheets.
During the Second World War, our scroll was among 1,564 Sifrei Torah looted from the synagogues of Bohemia, Morovia, and Slovakia: the Nazis intended these scrolls—along with gold and silver ornaments, vestments, and Jewish art and writing—to be part of an exhibition “of the works of an exterminated ethnographical group”
After the German defeat, the Prague museum, where this collection had been stored, was taken into the care of the Czechoslovakian State. Under their leadership, the museum displayed the collection as witness to the devastation of the Jewish community “and as an enduring appeal to the conscience of humanity” While the Sifrei Torah were maintained to the best of the museum’s ability, the state lacked the space, resources, and expertise to properly preserve them, and long term storage began to compound the damage done by Nazi handling.
The expertise necessary to care for the Sifrei Torah existed (and overtures to the Prague Museum were made from) the western side of the Iron Curtain, but the Czech authorities were wary of these, and, conscious of the “sacred trust” involved in the endeavor, were unwilling to consider offers from those who might prove exploitative. In 1963, Atria, the Czech Communist government agency for cultural properties, approached London art dealer Eric Estorick about the scrolls. With the backing of a London philanthropist, the scrolls were expertly packed and transferred to the Westminster Synagogue of in London on February 7, 1964. This process was by far the largest transfer of Sifrei Torah in known history.
Upon their arrival in London, each Torah Scroll was examined and classified by a group of expert Sofrim, identifying those in good condition, those beyond repair, and those that with effort could be successfully restored. Some scrolls remained in Westminster Synagogue as a permanent memorial. Others, particularly ones of historical import were given to museums.
The vast majority, including our own, through the efforts of Gus J Solomon and his wife, Elizabeth W. (Libby) Solomon, have been distributed to synagogues worldwide, to in the words of the Reverend Dr. Harold Reinhart, then Minister of the Westminster Synagogue, “find their places in the sacred Arks, to live and breathe again.”
Through the efforts of Judge Gus Solomon and Elizabeth (Libby) Solomon Our Holocaust Memorial Trust Scroll arrived in Portland as a permanent loan to the congregation. It was formally dedicated and placed in our Ark at Shabbat Evening Services on Friday, May 10, 1968 as part of Congregation Beth Israel’s 110th anniversary, in the words of Rabbi Emanuel Rose in his anoucement of its arrival, “testifying to our continuity as a living people.”
In 2019, the CBI Community’s yearlong focus was on restoring the Holocaust Memorial Scroll; over the course of multiple visits from an expert Sofer, this scroll (and others in our collection) was painstakingly restored. Over the course of this process, community members were able to attend “Letter Fill In Events,” with education booths and activities, leading up to the unforgettable opportunity to join the Sofer in scribing a letter in the Torah.