Today is September 29, 2020 /
Kol Ha’Emek (the Upper Valley Jewish Community) and Dartmouth Hillel are honored to serve as co-trustees of Memorial Scrolls Trust (MST) scroll #1397. Our scroll is one of the nearly 1,600 Torah scrolls that were collected and safeguarded by the staff at the Jewish Museum in Prague during the Second World War. MST #1397 comes from Breclav, a town in southern Moravia in what is now the Czech Republic, on the Austrian border about 60 miles from Vienna.
The Jewish Community of Breclav. At the time of the scroll’s dedication in 1866, Breclav was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was known by its German name, Lundenburg. Approximately 500 Jews lived there, constituting a small proportion (~4%) of the population.
The earliest record of the Jewish community in Breclav dates back to 1414. Over the next two centuries, the town saw a pogrom and was the site of several battles, both before and during the Thirty Years’ War. A new wave of Jewish families moved to Breclav in 1651 and established a synagogue in 1672. According to town lore, as congregants were impatiently gathered outside the synagogue on a snowy winter night in 1697, waiting for the tardy sexton to bring the key, the roof of the synagogue collapsed. With a mix of horror and relief, the community gave thanks that it had been spared a tragedy and proclaimed that date (the 11th of Tevet) a town holiday.
The town’s Jewish community also gained fame due to the role played by one of its members in a 1723 chess match in Vienna between Count Joseph Wenzel of Liechtenstein and a French Marquis. The Count, who had placed a large bet on the game and was facing an imminent loss, called for assistance from Juda Loeb, a member of the Breclav Jewish community. The game was moved to the Count’s palace, where Loeb enabled the Count to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat – much to the fury of the French Marquis. In appreciation, the Count invited Loeb to build a house on his land, where Loeb and his descendants, the Kuffner family, lived until 1871. The Kuffner family established a brewery, now known as the Ottakringer Brauerei, which continues today.
As occurred across Czechoslovakia, the Nazis destroyed the Jewish community of Breclav and, in 1942, deported all of its members to concentration camps. The Breclav synagogue was eventually converted into a museum, and the Jewish cemetery has fallen into disrepair.
The Rescue of MST #1397. Thanks to the efforts of the Jewish Museum in Prague, our scroll, and many others like it, was saved from destruction. Following the war, the Czech communist authorities took control of the museum and the scrolls were housed in conditions detrimental to their longevity.
In 1964, the Westminster Synagogue in London, England purchased the scrolls from the Czechoslovak State, and the Memorial Scrolls Trust was established to care for them. This purchase was another crucial event in the survival of the Czech Torah scrolls. Once in England, the scrolls were catalogued, evaluated, repaired and, in time, entrusted to Jewish communities around the world. Today, the Memorial Scrolls Trust continues to promote the legacy of the Czech Torah scrolls. At its headquarters in London, the Trust has a permanent exhibit which relates the history of the scrolls and the Czech-Jewish communities from which they came. It also serves as a resource for information relating to each scroll and its specific history.
The Next Chapter: MST #1397 in the United States. In 1980, MST #1397 was shipped by the Memorial Scrolls Trust to a congregation in Greenwich, Connecticut. Because that congregation had two Holocaust scrolls in its possession, MST #1397 was brought to the Roth Center in 1998 by a family with a longstanding connection to Dartmouth College. When the scroll arrived at the Roth Center, it was believed to have originated in the Czech town of Tabor.
In 2016, with the guidance of Rabbi Edward Boraz and the newly formed Scroll Committee, an arrangement was formalized with the Memorial Scrolls Trust in which Kol Ha’Emek and Dartmouth Hillel were named co-trustees of the scroll. Around that time, the Scroll Committee discovered that there had been a mix-up in Greenwich in 1998: the scroll from Tabor had remained in Greenwich, and the scroll brought to the Roth Center had, in fact, been shipped from the Czech city of Brno to Prague (and then to London and Greenwich). Brno was known, however, to have been a waystation and gathering point for many scrolls and other Jewish ritual objects, so it was impossible to confirm that MST #1397 had actually been in use in Brno itself.
Unlike many scrolls rescued from the Holocaust which were irreparably damaged, MST #1397 was in good enough condition that it could be read from in services, though it did require some restoration work in order to be considered kosher. The Scroll Committee felt it critical to restore the scroll for use, as a symbol of the resilience of the Jewish people – Torah scrolls are intended to be used to pass on the teachings of the Jewish people, and relegating the scroll to a display cabinet would deprive our congregation of the opportunity to demonstrate the continuity of practice using MST #1397 which, like the Jewish people itself, has survived a long and arduous journey. As it is written in Deuteronomy 20: “For the word is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.”
In 2017, our scroll was restored to kosher status by Rabbi Kevin Hale, a scribe (sofer) from Massachusetts. A few interesting discoveries were made in the course of the restoration. Perhaps the most compelling is that the scroll is much older than previously believed. There is strong evidence to suggest that the scroll was written in the late 18th century, rather than the 19th century as we had initially thought. The scroll is written in Sephardic script, though the regional origin of the script remains somewhat mysterious. There are stylistic elements in the writing that suggest that the scroll may have been written in Jerusalem, the Balkans, Persia or perhaps Holland. The rededication of the scroll took place in a joyous ceremony at the Roth Center in March 2018 with over 100 people to bear witness.
In 2020, Scroll Committee co-chair Thomas Cochran conducted further research into the origin of the scroll. Upon researching two individuals – Samuel Kunstler and Monisch Bittner – whose names were inscribed on a silver band affixed to the wooden rollers of the scroll, he discovered that those individuals had come from (and were buried in) the town of Breclav. The date on the silver band is 1866, and Breclav dedicated its new synagogue in 1868, which suggests that the scroll was dedicated in anticipation of the synagogue’s completion. Further research is ongoing by the Scroll Committee.
The Scroll Today. Today, MST #1397 sits proudly alongside our other Torah scrolls in the ark at the Roth Center, embraced by a beautiful cover embroidered by Kol Ha’Emek member Shari Boraz. We read from the scroll every year on the Shabbat morning nearest to Yom Ha’Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) in the spring. From time to time, a family whose child is celebrating a bar or bat mitzvah wishes to have the scroll used during the ceremony, as a way of marking the continuity of the Jewish people. Kol Ha’Emek is delighted to make the scroll available for this purpose.
MST #1397 remains under the care of the Scroll Committee, which oversaw the restoration of the scroll and ensures compliance with the terms of the trust agreement with the Memorial Scrolls Trust. The Scroll Committee is pursuing several initiatives to learn more about the Jewish community of Breclav and to make contact with members of the community there. The Committee is eager to welcome new members who are interested in its work; please contact the office if you would like to get involved.