Raleigh's rescued Torah revisits its home

Czechs embrace a vanished past scroll to temple

Staff WriterApril 19, 2008 

  • For Jews, the Torah is the faith's single-most important religious object and serves as the centerpiece of Sabbath service. Written on parchment in Hebrew calligraphy, the Torah is a scroll containing the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. It is housed in an ark, a kind of cabinet located at the front of the sanctuary and is dressed in ornate covers with silver ornaments and bells. Congregants rise anytime the ark is opened, and it is carried around the synagogue before and after it is read, so congregants can touch it or kiss it.

In official documents, it was No. 622 -- a Torah rescued from the dying embers of European Jewry after the Holocaust. One of many.

It stood in the ark at Raleigh's Temple Beth Or, the tallest and oldest of the congregation's seven Torahs, taken out and read during the High Holy Days and on other occasions.

Raachel Jurovics, the temple's assistant rabbi, knew its history -- or so she thought.

She told tour groups the Torah came from Hermanuv Mestec, a small town 60 miles east of Prague in what is now the Czech Republic. The Torah found its way to Raleigh, she said, after the town and its synagogue were destroyed during World War II.

Three years ago, on one of these tours, a young woman with an accent piped up.

No, she said, the synagogue wasn't destroyed. I come from there.

Tonight, the beginning of Passover, Jews around the world will gather at ritual Seder meals to remember -- remember that they were once slaves in Egypt, that as a people, they suffered and overcame injustice, that today they are free.

Those who worship at Temple Beth Or also know that while others tried to destroy them, not everyone was quite so willing to forget them.

Earlier this month, Torah No. 622 returned -- albeit briefly -- to the synagogue where it was first used. A group of 15 Jews from Temple Beth Or and a minister from West Raleigh Presbyterian Church carried it across the Atlantic in a suitcase meant for golf clubs. In the presence of four of the town's clergy members, the vice mayor and a dozen townspeople, the group held a weekday morning service, much as the Jews of the town did for 500 years.

Except that this was the first Jewish service in Hermanuv Mestec in 68 years. And in this town, there were no more Jews.

Centuries erased

The 16 people who returned from the Czech Republic last week will tell you that remembering is not enough. Sometimes it's as important to thank other people for remembering.

"They could have bulldozed the synagogue," said Jurovics. "It's in the middle of town and they needed a new elementary school."

Instead, the people of Hermanuv Mestec -- population 4,000 -- decided that was one thing they could not do.

As in many of the small towns surrounding Prague, Hermanuv Mestec had a sizeable Jewish population dating to the 15th century. By 1859, the Jewish population reached its zenith with 721 people. Jews owned several shoe factories and many retail stores. They had a cemetery and a school.

And of course, they had a synagogue. Last rebuilt in 1870, the Moorish-looking temple was oblong, with six stained-glass windows, an upstairs gallery for women, and an elaborate wooden ark. According to one account, it had three Torah scrolls, which Jews read from during services each week.

But as with most European Jewish communities, life came to an abrupt and brutal end.

The Munich Agreement of 1938 allowed Adolf Hitler to annex Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland. Abandoned by its allies, the Czechoslovakian government capitulated.

By 1939, Jews were forced to wear a yellow star. The following year, they were dismissed from government service, denied school attendance and forbidden from worshipping in their synagogue.

Then, on Dec. 3, 1942, the last remaining Jews of Hermanuv Mestec -- about 60 --were ordered to assemble in the town square and put on trains bound for Theresienstadt, a transit camp. From there they traveled to Auschwitz, where 90,000 Czech Jews were systematically gassed.

Meanwhile, the town's three Torahs were shipped to Prague as part of an agreement the Jews struck with the Nazis to preserve the scrolls in one place. The synagogue was converted to a warehouse.

Bring in the Torah

After World War II, Jews in Raleigh and elsewhere began to confront the Holocaust and to reach out to its survivors.

One such survivor, Gizella Abramson, learned about the inventory of 1,564 Torahs from Bohemia and Moravia that had been collected in Prague's Jewish Museum. She and several others from Temple Beth Or contacted the Memorial Scrolls Trust, a London-based organization that rescued the Torahs from Prague in the early 1960s.

"These Torahs were so neglected," said Abramson, who lives in Raleigh. "A few couples got together and said, 'By all means, let's bring the Torah in.' "

In 1986, scroll no. 622 arrived at Temple Beth Or. The congregation doesn't own the Torah -- it is the property of the Memorial Scrolls Trust. But the temple can keep it for as long as it wants. Today, 14 Czech Torahs are on long-term loan at synagogues across North Carolina, said Susan Boyer, U.S. Director of the Memorial Scrolls Trust.

Over the years, the 150-year-old Torah has been used in countless holiday services, such as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and Sukkot, the festival of booths. Measuring more than 2 feet, and weighing close to 40 pounds, the Torah is too heavy for 13-year-olds to hold and read from during the bar or bat mitzvah rite of passage ceremony.

But since her arrival in 1993, Rabbi Lucy Dinner has made it her custom to use the Hermanuv Mestec Torah whenever she performs a conversion ceremony -- a ritual that requires the person converting to Judaism to hold the Torah and recite the Shema, Judaism's most famous prayer.

"We're carrying on the idea that the Holocaust cannot and will not triumph," Dinner said. "Judaism will prevail."

Sense of unity

Only seven Jews from Hermanuv Mestec survived the war, and only two returned to the town. Both have died. The synagogue, however, lives on.

Soon after the overthrow of Soviet domination in 1989, the townspeople began to restore the synagogue, the Jewish cemetery and the Jewish school -- a project completed in 2001.

"They see it as their cultural heritage, and it's their responsibility to take care of it," said Eliska Donatova, the former student at Southeastern Baptist Seminary in Wake Forest who told Jurovics about the synagogue in 2005, and who has returned to the Czech Republic. The synagogue is now used for concerts; the school has been converted into an art gallery; docents regularly give tours of the cemetery.

When Jurovics saw photos of the restoration, including the ornately tiled floor and the vaulted ceiling, she felt she had to thank the townspeople for their willingness to remember. Last year, as she began organizing the trip, she reached out to her friend and colleague, the Rev. Joseph Ward, pastor of West Raleigh Presbyterian Church.

For years, Ward had struggled with how to reconcile his Christian faith with its anti-Jewish Scripture passages, and historic acts of violence against Jews.

"Somebody needs to go along and stand in solidarity with this Jewish community," he thought, and signed up to go.

The 16-member group arrived at Hermanuv Mestec on April 3. When they entered the synagogue, they found more than a dozen townspeople who had already taken seats in the rear pews. A newspaper notice had invited people to attend.

After greeting them, Dinner began the service. When it came time to parade the Torah through the synagogue -- a venerated tradition -- the non-Jewish participants stood side-by-side with the Jewish participants to touch and kiss the wrapped scroll as it was taken down the aisle.

The service, in which five Beth Or members read in Hebrew from the Torah, was intently watched by the townspeople. One elderly woman sitting alone was so moved she cried quietly throughout the one-hour service.

"Their emotional presence was palpable," Jurovics said.

Later, at a lunch in town, histories were exchanged, and tentative friendships formed.

To Ward, the Presbyterian minister, the service was an act of liberation -- and a new story of remembrance.

yonat.shimron@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4891

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