During WWII 1,564 Torah scrolls were taken by the Nazis from synagogues all over Bohemia and Moravia. They survived the war and were stored in an old dilapidated shul in Prague until, in 1964, they were purchased and brought over to London’s Westminster Synagogue and thus the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust was formed. When Nottingham Progressive Jewish Congregation (now Nottingham Liberal Synagogue) was founded in 1965 it applied for, and received, one of these Torah scrolls on permanent loan.
We duly received scroll number 886, together with a letter of provenance. Some 25 years later, those UK congregations possessing Czech scrolls attended a conference led by Rabbi Andrew Goldstein. The conference confirmed to us that our scroll originated in Austerlitz, now known as Slavkov.
However, about 20 years ago, to our surprise the Westminster Memorial Scrolls Trust (www.memorialscrollstrust.org) wrote to tell us that our scroll was numbered 887 and came from Kamenice rather than Austerlitz. We presented photographic evidence to them of its 886 marking and so we continued believing that ours was from Austerlitz. The matter languished until 2015 when, with a new management team in place at Westminster, and through the dogged persistence work of our own researcher Debbie Moss, the truth was discovered. It emerged that back in 1964, two scrolls were inscribed with the same number, 886, and the number 887 was omitted. We possessed the scroll that should have been inscribed 887! The true Scroll 886 is in the care of Finchley Progressive Synagogue. Like ourselves, Finchley have held Czech scroll Shabbats for many years.
Thus it was revealed that our Czech scroll, 887, was not from Austerlitz, but actually from the small Moravian town of Kamenice nad Lipou, about 80km West of Slavkov.
This came as a real shock since over the last 25 years we have made a number of visits to Austerlitz, forging strong links with the town's people and in particular with Ruth Matiovska, the one remaining Jewish resident. Indeed Ruth is an honorary member of Nottingham Liberal Synagogue.
At this stage, the Memorial Scrolls Trust (MST) took on the task of trying to find another Austerlitz scroll for us. Bev Karp, a member of another ‘Austerlitz community’ in the United States suggested an option might be to find a scroll that was given over to the now defunct theology department of Leeds University. This scroll, number 1199, was definitely from Austerlitz! The Chairman of Trustees at the MST, Jeffery Ohrenstein, then began a painstaking search for the missing 1199 scroll. Eventually it was recovered and Jeffery collected it from Leeds and, after a brief stay in London, it was joyously handed over to Rabbi Tanya by the MST.
So, now we have our Austerlitz scroll and all is well. And we now have our Kamenice scroll with the challenges that it brings. Already NLS members Wendy and Eve have uncovered a wealth of information about the Kaminice community - and they seem enthused to carry on this work in the future.
So, now our next trip to the Czech Republic, scheduled for the summer of 2018, will include both Austerlitz and Kamenice nad Lipou.
We will ensure that the memory of the 47 Jewish souls who once used this scroll, and the 93 who formed the Austerlitz community will never be forgotten and will always be honoured. Because, as Rabbi Andrew Goldstein said 26 years ago, if we don't, the chances are that no-one else is going to.
So we now have 5 Torah Scrolls. These include:
The Austerlitz and Kaminice scrolls
As described above.
The Swiss Scroll
This scroll arrived in 1980 from the Swiss hometown synagogue of one of our members. We are told that it was probably written in Hungary some 150 years ago, by a left handed scribe. It is known, unsurprisingly, as our Swiss scroll.
The Derby Scroll
The Derby Hebrew Congregation held its last service in 1986 and decided to hand over its Torah scrolls to surrounding congregations. We were given one of them.
The Czech, Swiss and Derby scrolls are used alternatively in our services.
The Small Scroll
This scroll is only half the height of the others. It was purchased by NLS (formerly NPJC) for use in children's services, or where its small size makes it more convenient to use.
All our scrolls have richly embroidered mantles, for regular and High Holyday services, made specially for them.