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Czech Sefer Torah returns home after 75 years

Unlike elsewhere in Europe, a substantial amount of Czech Judaica survived the war, though it was neglected for many years.

    Peter Briess, 86, holds the restored 137-year-old Sefer Torah
    Peter Briess, 86, holds the restored 137-year-old Sefer Torah

    Peter Briess was one of the few to escape the clutches of the Nazis after they occupied Czechoslovakia in March 1939.

    Three months later his father secured exit visas for the family, after signing their family home in Olomouc over to the Germans.

    Tragically, Peter never saw his grandparents, aunts or uncles again.

    But while little remains of the town’s once thriving Jewish community, Mr Briess had cause for celebration last weekend. Now aged 86, he travelled back to his birthplace with his sister Hana and nephew Daniel for a uniquely moving ceremony.

    On Sunday, more than 75 years after it was last used, Olomouc’s original Torah was returned to its small but once again blossoming community. The grandfather-of-two, who now lives in Hampstead, was the only person present who had attended services in the town’s original synagogue.

    Unlike elsewhere in Europe, a substantial amount of Czech Judaica survived the war, though it was neglected for many years.

    In 1964, 1,564 surviving Czech Torah scrolls were brought to England. They were entrusted to the newly formed Memorial Scrolls Trust (MST), which then distributed many on permanent loan to active Jewish communities.

    Now, for the first time, one has returned to its former community, thanks to the MST and the support and fundraising of the Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City, California, where it had been based since 1970.

    Mr Briess and his family were among a host of guests at the welcoming ceremony.

    “It was very, very emotional,” he said. “I was the only person there who had actually attended the original synagogue where this scroll was used, before it was burnt down by the Nazis in 1939.

    “I still remember going there for Simchat Torah and other festivals. My parents were married in that shul.”

    The scroll travelled almost 6,000 miles, accompanied by Rabbi Corey Helfand and several other members of his community who had raised thousands of dollars to restore it.

    There was standing room only for Shabbat services in Olomouc, ahead of the ceremony on Sunday morning, according to Jeffrey Ohrenstein, chairman of the MST.

    “It was an amazing, emotional and meaningful occasion,” he told the JC.

    Mr Ohrensten was accompanied by a delegation from the trust who met up with the American group and lay leaders of the Olomouc Jewish community. Also in attendance was Karol Sidon, chief rabbi of the Czech Republic, and Daniel Meron, Israel’s ambassador to the country.

    American sofer Rabbi Moshe Druin was the man charged with restoring the precious relic. He was also in attendance, overseeing the inscription of the last few letters. He shared the honour with several of those present, including Mr Ohrenstein and Mr Briess.

    “When I sat down with the scribe and he was speaking to me in very moving terms, he had me quite choked,” said Mr Briess.  

    Daniel Meron, Israel’s ambassador to the Czech Republic, was also there with his wife Jill, a former JFS pupil whose family hails from Olomouc.

    “My wife had tears in her eyes,” he told the JC. “As an ambassador of Israel I see it as my duty to take part in Jewish events here. Rabbi Druin completed the torah on Sunday morning and I and several others had the privilege of writing a letter.”

    Several people then read from the Torah, which is thought to date back to 1880, and there was singing and dancing as the scroll was placed in the ark.

    Mr Ohrenstein, whose trust is based at the Westminster Synagogue, said: “This was living proof that the Nazis didn’t win. Even though they virtually destroyed this community, the scroll is still there and it’s now small but thriving again.”

    Petr Papoušek, president of Olomouc’s Jewish community, described the event as “very emotional and spiritual” and thanked the MST and the Peninsula Sinai Congregation.

    “When the Torah was finished I cried and it doesn’t happen to me often. I hope that it will bring our community more energy and enthusiasm for future,” he said.

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