The Czech ambassador to the UK Michael Zantovsky will join senior rabbis from the Reform and Masorti movements at a ceremony this weekend commemorating the 50th anniversary of the arrival of hundreds of Holocaust-era Czech Sifrei Torah to Britain.
The event, on February 9 at London’s Westminster Synagogue, will also see representatives of more than 40 congregations from around the world that have been the recipients of long-term loans of the scrolls.
The story of the scrolls began in 1942 when the curators of the Prague Jewish Museum realised that there were Sifrei Torah all over Czechoslovakia that were at risk of being lost or burnt by the Nazis.
With the agreement, remarkably, of the Nazi invaders, the curators sent out a message to the outlying communities of Bohemia and Moravia: send us your precious Judaica and we will catalogue it for safe-keeping.
Those congregations that were already overrun by the Nazis began to send Sifrei Torah and other religious objects to Prague, where they were identified and catalogued. All the material was sent to the Michle Synagogue outside Prague, where it stayed until the end of the war. Almost all of the curators were killed during the Holocaust.
Three years after the end of the war, the Communist regime took over in Czechoslovakia. Soon, the contents of the Michle Synagogue came to the regime’s attention and negotiations began worldwide to secure the best price for it.
By chance, a UK-based art dealer, Eric Restorick, travelled to Prague and became aware of the cache of scrolls. He contacted Rabbi Harold Reinhardt of the Westminster Synagogue and, through solicitor Ralph Yablon, who had helped Westminster secure its Knightsbridge premises, the scrolls were brought to London in 1964.
For the past 50 years, the scrolls — repaired and restored, largely by the Torah scribe David Brand — have been loaned out — even the Queen has one in Windsor Castle.
The Scrolls Memorial Trust, which looks after the scrolls and manages a small museum at Westminster Synagogue, is run by noted scholar Evelyn Friedlander.
In a statement this week, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said that in rescuing and restoring the scrolls, the memorial trust had “kept alive memories of communities that perished in the Holocaust” and was at the same time helping to “build a better Jewish future”.