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From Moravia to Merseyside: The Curious Story of a Torah Scroll

In July, PtJA Project Consultant, Dr. David Fligg, was invited by the Liverpool branch of the Jewish Historical Society of England to relate a rather fascinating story. David had tracked down the actual Torah scroll that pianist and composer Gideon Klein might have read from for his Barmitzvah.

Researching the provenance of Torah scrolls isn’t usually the domain of musicologists, but finding this scroll remains one of the more curious pieces of archival research that David has been engaged in.

Restored shul

The restored Přerov Synagogue, now a church.

Giving a lecture in Boston, USA, for the IAJGS annual conference in 2013, David met Chuck Weinstein who had been researching a Torah scroll from the Czech town of Miroslav, and which is now being used in a synagogue in Huntingdon, New York. Through the Czech Memorial Scrolls Project at London’s Westminster Synagogue, Chuck was able to confirm to David that there are two extant scrolls from Gideon Klein’s synagogue in Přerov, Moravia, on loan from Westminster. One is in the Agudas Achim Synagogue in Austin, Texas. But the other is much closer to David’s home, just 75 miles away at the Liverpool Reform Synagogue, Merseyside.

 

Gideon 1933 final

Gideon around the time of his Barmitzvah

Gideon turned 13 in December 1932, and celebrated the traditional Jewish coming-of-age, his  Barmitzvah. The Hebrew date of his birthday, the fourteenth day of the Jewish month of Kislev, fell on Tuesday 13th December that year, and it can be assumed that the Barmitzvah celebration took place on the following Saturday, Shabbat, where the Torah reading tells of the uneasy meeting, after many years, between Jacob and his brother Esau. Towards the end, it recounts and prophesises that the progenies of Esau will include Amalek, whose descendants are, in Jewish tradition, the deadliest enemies of the Jewish people.  The passage from the Prophets that Gideon would have recited was from the Book of Obadiah which, commenting on the section of Genesis previously read, talks of the eventual downfall of those who want to destroy the Jews. We know what Gideon and his family at that time didn’t: namely, that by the end of the decade, they were to be caught up in a modern manifestation of Amalek’s hatred.

 

David holding the Prerov scroll

David holding the Přerov scroll.

David contacted the Liverpool Reform Synagogue, and was invited to go and look at the scroll. “It was both exciting and moving,” recalls David. “We don’t know whether this is the actual scroll that Gideon read from. But he would certainly have seen it in action, so to speak, on the occasions he visited the Přerov synagogue when he was a youngster.” The scroll carries inscriptions on the rims, though the Synagogue officer, Martin Herr, who facilitated David’s visit, admitted that they had not so far been translated. So David investigated further, and it was determined that the inscription recorded that the scroll was donated by a Přerov philanthropist, Leib Bruch, and his wife Rachel, and that it was completed in Přerov in 1822.

How the scroll ended up in Liverpool is a remarkable story in its own right. When the Nazis looted the Přerov Synagogue, the Torah scrolls eventually, in a somewhat convoluted deal brokered between the Germans and Jews eager to salvage and audit what they could, found themselves stored in part of the Jewish Museum Prague, then being used by the Nazis as a warehouse for stolen Jewish ceremonial objects, along with one and half thousand other scrolls. After the war, with hardly any communities or Jews to claim them back, the scrolls languished, literally rotting away, for almost 20 years.

Hannah Stevenson - Prerov scroll

Hannah Stevenson uses the Přerov scroll to prepare for her Batmitvah.

Then, in 1963, a London art dealer, American born Dr. Eric Estorick who regularly visited Prague, discussed the future of the scrolls with Ralph Yablon, a philanthropist and member of the Westminster Synagogue, who in turn raised it with his friend, the synagogue’s Rabbi, Harold Reinhart.  The Rabbi immediately agreed that his synagogue could house the scrolls under controlled conditions, and the Memorial Scrolls Trust was established to oversee this. In February 1964, financed by Yablon, the first scrolls began their journey from Prague to London. As the vast majority of Czech Jewish communities were destroyed, most of the fifteen hundred rescued scrolls were unable to be reunited with their original synagogues, and so became known as orphaned scrolls. Westminster Synagogue remains the custodian of the scrolls, permanently loaning them to numerous congregations throughout the world.

The story of the salvaged Czech Torah scrolls after the war has a poignant equivalence with the story of the rescued Jewish Czech children at the outbreak of war, the Kindertransport. Many of them, like the scrolls, became orphans, but found safe haven in the UK. It’s highly significant, then, that Liverpool Reform Synagogue uses the Přerov scroll for the Batmitzvah ceremonies of its girls. Says David, “By using the scroll in this way, the Synagogue is undertaking something really beautiful, because it’s doing exactly the opposite of what the Nazis envisaged. I think it’s a very empowering thing to do. While ever that scroll is being used in this way, it’s no longer an orphan, but a wonderful connection between its new home on Merseyside and the murdered members of its former home in Moravia, and to Gideon Klein and his family.”
For more information about the Memorial Scrolls Trust, visit: http://www.memorialscrollstrust.org/.

Liverpool Reform Synagogue: http://www.lrshul.org/

Jewish Historical Society of England: https://jhse.org/
The former synagogue in Přerov, now a church: http://pravoslavi-prerov.hys.cz/lang-gb

 

 

 

 

 

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