Today is March 31, 2020 /
Kol Ha’Emek, the Upper Valley Jewish Community and Dartmouth Hillel are 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.
Our scroll comes from the town of Brno, the capital of Southern Moravia and the second largest town in the Czech Republic. At the time of our scroll’s dedication in 1866, Brno was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1848, the Jewish population of Austro-Hungary benefited from the repeal of laws which, until then, had dramatically curtailed their civil rights. As a result, many of them left the small towns and villages for the more prosperous industrial centers, such as Brno.
As the population of Brno increased, so too did its stature as a center of scientific inquiry. Baruch Placzek, the chief rabbi of Moravia and the rabbi of the Synagogue Maior in Brno from 1860 to 1922, was a leading figure in this regard. He was at home in both the spiritual and the scientific world. He published articles on ornithology and botany and was a close friend of Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian monk who lived and worked in Brno and who contributed to the development of modern genetics. Placzek also corresponded with Charles Darwin.
The Jews of Brno prospered, intellectually and financially, and their numbers increased steadily until the Germans took control of Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939. The Germans immediately began their work of destroying the more than 350 Czech-Jewish communities. Indeed, they set fire to the Synagogue Maior, the probable home of our Memorial Scroll, on March 16, 1939. 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. 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 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.
Our scroll is currently in the hands of Rabbi Kevin Hale, a scribe (sofer) who is restoring it to kosher status. A few interesting discoveries have been 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.
We look forward to learning more about our scroll when its restoration is finished in the spring of 2018. To celebrate this wonderful event, we will be hosting a siyum or rededication ceremony from March 23-25.
We hope you will join us.
For more information about the Memorial Scroll Trust, please click on this link.