The Pardubice sefer torah

The information for this article comes from Jane Liddel-King, Valerie Collis, and Michael & Valerie Berkson

In February 1964 two large lorries arrived at Westminster synagogue in Knightsbridge, London, whereupon volunteers unloaded 1564 Torah scrolls into the lobby of the building.

The Czech Memorial Scrolls (as they became known) originally formed part of a larger collection of Synagogue possessions confiscated by the Nazi "protectorate" during World War II from the Jewish communities of Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia. At The Jewish Museum in Prague these scrolls together with gold and silver appurtenances, vestments, books, manuscripts and other treasures, were meticulously labelled and catalogued under German direction. The Germans planned to use these artefacts for permanent exhibition as relics of a defunct culture. The Prague Jews themselves were put to work sorting and packing this vast collection. Afterwards these individuals were condemned to the same fate as millions of their co-religionists and sent to the concentration camps.

At the end of World War II the scrolls were left in a disused Prague synagogue until the intervention of a London art dealer Eric Estorick. Mr Estorick negotiated with the Czech Government Agency responsible for cultural property, Artia, for the release of the scrolls to a responsible non-commercial body: Westminster Synagogue. This move was financed by businessman and philanthropist, the late Ralph Yablon. When the scrolls arrived at Westminster Synagogue they were housed in wooden racks which had been built especially for them. Each was given a number from 1 to 1564. Many of the labels attached by the Nazis at the time of confiscation had survived and each provided valuable information about the scroll to which it was attached.

One day in 1965 Mr Brand visited Westminster Synagogue to see if there were sifrei torah in need of repair. He did not expect to be confronted with the awesome sight at 1564 sifrei torah in their wooden racks. He spent the rest of his working life repairing them.

Each scroll was examined carefully. Those that were too badly damaged to be used are displayed at Westminster Synagogue and other religious and educational centres including Westminster Abbey and Kings College, Cambridge. Those that could be repaired were given new homes on permanent loan from the Czech Scrolls Memorial Trust in synagogues throughout the world, especially new communities. These scrolls provide continuity with the past and nascent communities without the own sefer torah.

In the mid-60s the Cambridge Jewish Residents' Association asked the Czech Scrolls Memorial Trust for the loan of a sefer torah. At the time Thompson’s Lane Synagogue only had the "Montifiore" sefer torah (see The Cambridge Synagogue sifrei torah). The Memorial Trust selected a scroll to send to Cambridge. This was the Pardubice scroll 689.

The Pardubice scroll was written in 1850 and was used by the community of Pardubice, a town between Prague and Brno in what is now the Czech Republic. On 5th and 9th December 1942 the 1,256 Jews living in Pardubice and the surrounding area were transported in two groups to the Terezin transit camp. 39 survived until the end of the War.

Some time later it was decided that the Pardubice scroll was unfit for ritual use. However, the scroll, with its specially made Torah mantle indicating its loan to and use by the CJRA, remained in Cambridge. From the 1960s to 1980s the scroll was kept in the ark in Thompson's Lane, and then stored in private hands for safe keeping.

In October 2004 there was a conference at Westminster Synagogue to commemorate Czech Holocaust victims and to mark the 40th anniversary of the arrival of the Czech scrolls in England. Almost two hundred people from Europe and North America attended. Altogether representatives from 18 British Communities and 2 North American synagogues brought their Czech scrolls to London for this occasion. All the scrolls brought to Westminster Synagogue were paraded in their mantles and ornaments before the commemorative service. After Kaddish and the conclusion of the service there was a procession of the Torah scrolls out of the service by the light of six memorial candles which had been lit during the service.

As a result of the conference the CJRA Committee decided to see whether Pardubice Scroll 689 could be made kosher again. In 2005 the sofer Marc Michaels was asked to examine the scroll, who stated that it was one of the most exciting Czech scrolls he had handled. He advised that the scroll was nicely written with very consistent beyt yosef in the unusual format of sixty lines to a column. It was basically in good condition and didn't require much attention to correct it.

Having been assured that the scroll should be used once more, the Cambridge Jewish Residents' Association loaned the sefer torah to Beth Shalom Reform Synagogue. The scroll was displayed on Yom HaShoah 2004, and was used for the first time by Beth Shalom on Shavuot. Being rather fragile, it is not used too often. To commemorate the deportation of the Jews of Pardubice to Terezin on 5 and 9 December 1942, it was used for the service on 10th December. Service leader, Dr Melissa Lane drew on its origins for her sermon. Beth Shalom invited members of the CJRA to join them for this service and it was particularly pleasing that Priscilla Goldstein, a Cambridge resident for 57 years, brought up in the Orthodox tradition, was called to the Torah for the very first time.

A memorial certificate that provides some of the history of scroll 689 can be found in Thompson's Lane Synagogue. The dedication reads:

This Scroll, PARDUBICE (Pardubitz), was written in 1850

The Cambridge Jewish Residents’ Association was given custody in 1967 of scroll no. 689.

It was used in services in Thompson's Lane Synagogue for over 20 years and

following repair in 2005 is again in use in Cambridge services.

This scroll is a living memorial of the Jews of Pardubice

who were murdered by the Nazis.

See the Memorial Scrolls Trust and "Faces in theh Void" by Jane Liddel-King for further background and information on the Czech scrolls.