Memory Serves

A bout 450 years ago somewhere in Eastern Europe, perhaps in Poland, an unknown scribe wrote on sheepskin parchment the Hebrew text of the Torah. When he was finished, each page was sewn together with thread made of gut, forming a scroll that eventually made its way to a Jewish synagogue in Czechoslovakia, where it lived for centuries.

Rabbi Herbert Brockman has told the story of what happened next hundreds of times. He tells it at nearly every bat and bar mitzvah at Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden. It’s the story of how the scroll eventually found its home here.

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On March 15, 1939, Hitler’s army invaded Czechoslovakia and took control of Prague. But instead of destroying the ceremonial objects of many Czech synagogues as they would later do in Poland and elsewhere, the Nazis preserved them. A 1986 article in the New York Times reports that the Nazis filled 50 warehouses with “paintings, clocks, tapestries, glasses, plates, candles, alms boxes, Torahs [and] books” confiscated from Czech Jews. Among these artifacts were 1,600 Torah scrolls. Some say they were intended to become exhibits in a museum Hitler had planned to showcase artifacts of the destroyed Jewish civilization. Some say the Jews themselves saved many of the Torahs.

For 20 years after the end of the war, the scrolls were left in haphazard storage. Then, in 1963, a London art dealer and his client, along with the rabbi of Westminster Synagogue, banded together to purchase the scrolls, according to the website of the Memorial Scrolls Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving both the scrolls and the history they embody. “They came up with the idea of lending them out to synagogues and other Jewish institutions to memorialize the six million,” Brockman says.

In 1988, two years after he arrived at Mishkan Israel, Brockman applied to the Memorial Scrolls Trust to find out whether any scrolls remained. After proving it was a legitimate institution that would preserve the Torah, the synagogue received an “orphan scroll”—one without its wooden poles and therefore without any identifying information—on permanent loan. It was first brought into the sanctuary on November 9, 1988, the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a night of widespread anti-Semitic violence and vandalism that many consider the beginning of the Holocaust. “It just happened that that weekend, the bar mitzvah’s grandfather came from Czechoslovakia,” Brockman recalls, “so he participated in helping carry it in.”

Brockman takes the Czech Torah out of the ark at the front of the Mishkan Israel sanctuary, where it’s stored with several other Torahs. He uncovers it, and the parchment crackles as he unrolls it on the padded pulpit. The scroll’s surface is thick and smooth, its lettering meticulous. A sofer, or scribe, is coming soon to do some restoration work.

“When you take possession of one of these, you commit to using it as a memorial to the six million Jews,” Brockman says. Mishkan Israel decided that this Torah would belong to the synagogue’s children, and that they would each read from it at their bar or bat mitzvah. “For them, that really means a lot,” Brockman says. He always invites the congregation up to see the Torah when it’s used and tells its story. Often, it’s the first time people have seen one of these sacred scrolls up close. “Even for people who grew up in the Jewish community, it’s an unusual thing,” he says.

You might expect a 450-year-old Torah to require archival care. “When we first got it, we went to the experts: the Beinecke rare book facility,” Brockman says. “They told us to build this airtight container with earthquake measurements and all that,” he says with a laugh. “It’s a good answer, I guess, for a university.” The answer for the synagogue, it turns out, is to treat it with the care given to any Torah, and to use it. Brockman points to damage—places where the scroll is torn or letters are worn away or patches have become dry and translucent. That damage, he says, actually occurred while the scroll was rolled up tight and left to sit for 40 years. “It’s skin, and skin needs to breathe,” he says.

The Czech Torah is a reminder of the Holocaust, but it’s not meant to prolong the suffering of that time and its aftermath. “You can live your life inured in that suffering, or you can draw something from it,” Brockman says. “So, the only redemption for suffering for a Jew is to take that suffering and understand other people’s suffering.”

Today, Mishkan Israel’s congregation is focusing its efforts on alleviating the suffering of immigrants, both those who are fighting for the right to stay in this country and those who are just arriving. Last year, they joined with four other synagogues to sponsor three refugee families—one from the Congo and two from Syria—through New Haven’s Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS). All three are Muslim. The congregation’s efforts were documented in a video produced by Faith Over Fear, a movement supported by Religions for Peace, UNICEF and “a global coalition of religious leaders,” according to Faith Over Fear’s website.

“In the Torah, in the first five books of Moses, the most common verse is to know the heart of the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” Brockman explains in that video interview. “Even if it means overcoming our ignorance about them, or our fear of them. You always fear what you don’t know.”

Rabbi Brockman rolls the Torah’s wooden poles together and prepares it to return to the ark. He slips over it a blue cover made specially for this scroll. On it are stitched flames of purple, orange, pink and red, and beneath them in gold, the Hebrew word zachor. Remember.

Mishkan Israel
785 Ridge Rd, Hamden (map)
(203) 288-3877
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Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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