Restoration begins on Torah scroll that survived war, Nazis, monsoons and time
By Robert Nott, The New Mexican, Sep 4, 2013
Rabbi Marvin Schwab looks over a scroll Wednesday at Temple Beth Shalom. This scroll suffered water damage, and will be repaired and preserved. The congregation raised funds to preserve this historic centuries-old Holocaust Torah Scroll that survived the Nazi conquest of Czechoslovakia during World War II. Photos by Jane Phillips/The New Mexican
“With European [Ashkenazi] Jews the letters are at a particular angle, they have a particular shape of design, and the Sephardic way is very different. And the two shall never meet.”
Rabbi Marvin Schwab recalls his reaction the first time he used a quill pen on the historic religious document. The fabric was so fragile. The Torah scroll has survived the Nazi extermination of Jews and their religious artifacts in 1940s Czechoslovakia. So as he inscribed a Hebrew letter as part of a repair effort on the scroll, Schwab was overcome with emotion.
“I cried,” Schwab said.
Schwab, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom, announced the temple’s efforts to restore the scroll’s lettering — damaged by flooding from a summer rainstorm some years back — during the Wednesday evening’s Rosh Hashanah service, the start of the Jewish High Holy Days. The restoration project, which started this summer, was a surprise to many in the congregation, although, as Schwab joked, “In the Jewish world, there are very few secrets.”
The Holocaust Torah Scroll, as it is called, is 250 to 300 years old. It is one of the only existing items from the Jewish community of Mlada Boleslav in Czechoslovakia. It has been in Temple Beth Shalom since the late 1980s.
It seems destined to outlast its creators, its keepers, its enemies, and Santa Fe’s monsoon season. While Schwab leads a charge to restore the lettering of the scroll — “It wasn’t fit to be used in services” — he is proud of what its imperfect state says about Jewish fortitude: “Having it carry its scars is important.” Specially trained scribes, known as sofers, write Torah scrolls. The Temple Beth Shalom scroll is unique, according to both Schwab and sofer Rabbi Moshe Druin, because it includes script from both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. Sephardic Jews come from Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East, among other locales, while Ashkenazi Jews were from European and East European nations.
“While all the scripts are the same — every letter has its own character look — the style of each letter will be different according to the two ways of ethnic Judaism,” Druin said.
Temple Beth Shalom hired Druin, who laughingly calls himself “a glorified forger,” to recreate the original lettering in the Holocaust Memorial Torah Scroll. “We are not writing our own script over the existing script but re-enacting the style of the script that was there, so it is meant to look as if the original scribe came back from 100, 200, 300 years ago and is writing his own script,” Druin said.
Earlier this summer at the temple, Druin worked with Schwab and members of about 50 families from the congregation of some 350 families to carefully rescribe the roughly 40,000 (out of close to 305,000 letters) damaged in the scroll.
“It is an act not just of love but of learning, cherishing the act of holding a quill in your hand and together with the guided hand of the scribe, write letters in the Torah,” Druin said.
The history of the scroll was enough to evoke tears in some who worked on it at the temple. “It made me well up,” said David Miller, chair of the restoration project.
Mlada Boleslav, founded in the 10th century, is located about 40 miles north of Prague. It was once known as Jerusalem on the Jizera [River] for its vibrant Jewish population. After the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938, the town fell under the control of its German invaders.
As the Nazis rounded up and sent Jewish residents to concentration camps, the people of Mlada Boleslav asked their captors for permission to gather up their religious and ceremonial belongings in one locale. They were aware that the Nazis were destroying Torah scrolls everywhere.
According to Druin, the Nazis were delighted with the idea of letting the Jewish citizens do all the hard work, for it would make it easier for them to destroy the artifacts. Rumor has it that the Nazis may have contemplated creating a museum of these items to showcase their success in exterminating Jews. In fact, most of the Mlada Boleslav residents were sent to concentration camps, where they perished.
“The Jewish community [of Mlada Boleslav] did not survive. The Torahs did survive,” Schwab said.
The Jews decided to number the scrolls. Temple Beth Shalom’s is 426. It was moved to Prague in 1942 where it was stacked, along with about 1,500 other Torah scrolls from other parts of Europe, in a synagogue/warehouse basement for over 20 years. In 1963 the scrolls were discovered and rescued by art expert and historian Chimen Abramsky, who sought the scrolls on behalf of London art dealer Eric Estorick.
Both Schwab and Druin said Abramsky inadvertently stumbled into the room with all the Torahs and made some attempt to illegally smuggle them out before being jailed and then released. Eventually, he and Estorick helped broker a deal in which the British government paid for the return of the Torah scrolls.
Shortly thereafter, according to Druin, congregations around the world began receiving the scrolls on permanent loan with the condition that they care of them. By his estimate, somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 scrolls ended up in American synagogues, including Temple Beth Shalom.
The temple is working to raise about $250,000 for the restoration project. Druin, who works for Sofer on Site in Miami Beach, Fla., said he will return to Santa Fe to work with other congregation members in the lettering process. Ideally, the restored scroll will be used in services at the temple.
“I want people to be reunited around the project and feel a sense of accomplishment,” said Schwab, who intends to retire next year. “I want to see the light of hope shine in their eyes.
“I can’t imagine what the Nazis thought as they were handling these Torah scrolls. And now they serve as a symbol of survival and perseverance — and possibly of renewal.”
Contact Robert Nott at 986-3021 or