In Memory of the Jews of Vlasim

By Rabbi Jonathan Cohen

We have four Torah scrolls in our ark. Two of them belong to Mishkan Torah. The third belongs to a member of our congregation who wishes to remain anonymous. And the fourth one belongs to the community of Vlašim, a town in the Central Bohemian Region of the Czech Republic, some 70 kilometers (about 40 miles) south-east of the Czech capital, Prague. These days Vlašim counts 12,689 inhabitants. It boasts of its English-style park which contains many pieces of romantic architecture such as a Chinese pavilion and a fairy-tale castle with four ornamental turrets and a tower.

The Jews of the Czech Lands

Before the Shoah Jews had lived in Bohemia and Moravia – the historic regions that make up today’s Czech Republic – for more than a thousand years, and over that time they developed a rich Jewish culture. That culture was centred on Prague and spread across a large number of communities in towns throughout the country. According to the 1930 census, there were 117,551 Jews in Bohemia and Moravia (there were 356,830 in all of Czechoslovakia). Following the Nazi invasion in 1939, congregations were closed down and their synagogues destroyed or desecrated. By 1941 some 26,000 Czech Jews had managed to emigrate. Most of the remaining 81,000 Jews were deported to the ghetto at Terezín (better known by its German name of Theresienstadt). There many died of infectious disease or starvation. Most of the remainder were sent to the killing centres of German-occupied Poland, Belorussia, and the Baltic States. Only about 10,500 Czech Jews were left in Terezín when Soviet troops entered the place on May 9, 1945. Today there are only about 4,000 Jews left in the entire Czech Republic.

The Jews of Vlašim

The first mention of Jews in the local chronicles of Vlašim dates from 1570. By 1724, a small community was living there permanently. In the early days, most of Vlašim’s Jews were distillers and tavern-keepers; some were active in the phosphorus industry. After Austria emancipated its Jewish citizens in the mid-19th century, they tended to move toward the urban centers of the Empire to pursue careers in commerce or the liberal professions. Most of Vlašim’s Jews lived lives of domestic obscurity. Some achieved a measure of external fame. A painter named Salomon Benesch was born there in 1867. He made his career in Vienna whence he was deported to the Terezín ghetto in June of 1942. Three months later he was murdered at Treblinka. In 2010, one of his watercolours sold at auction for 1,800 Euros. The family of the composer Gustav Mahler came from nearby. Indeed, the first person to bear the family name (until then Jews did not have family names) was the composer’s great-grandfather, Abraham Mahler. This Mahler was a synagogue cantor who also earned his living as a kosher butcher. In 1881 the young Gustav returned to Vlašim, where his mother’s sister still lived, on summer holiday from his studies in Vienna. It was there that he first fell (tragically) in love.

In 1893 the town’s Jewish population was 210; we know that in 1921 there were still 87 Jews in Vlašim. By 1930 the Jewish population had dropped to 67 (of a total population of 3,625). On December 11, 1942, Vlašim’s 63 remaining Jews were deported to Terezín together with the Jews of Prague. We know the names of those people; they have been etched into the stone at the synagogue in Prague. From Terezín most were sent to the death camps of Poland. Only four of them survived.

The Czech Memorial Scrolls

In the years after the War a legend grew up that the Nazis had planned to create a “Museum to an Extinct People.” This has little foundation in fact. However there is a true story that is even more meaningful than the legend, for it points to the heroism of our people’s efforts to protect our precious legacy. In 1942 a devoted group of eight Jewish historians and communal leaders devised a way to bring the religious treasures from the country’s various deserted communities and destroyed synagogues to the comparative safety of what had become the Central Jewish Museum in Prague. The Nazis were persuaded to accept the plan and more than 10,000 artifacts were brought to the Museum. The curators laboured under appalling conditions to preserve these holy objects – objects that had previously been at the mercy of vandals and plunderers. Each one was meticulously recorded, labeled and entered on a card index by the Museum’s staff with a description of where it had come from. The curators hoped that these treasures would be protected and might one day be returned to their original homes. All of the museum’s curators were eventually transported to Terezín and Auschwitz, with only two survivors.

After the war, with fewer than 18,000 Czech Jews having survived – remember, from a pre-war population of more than 90,000 – the objects remained warehoused in an unused synagogue. Following the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, discussions were held with Israel with the view of selling the collection, but the negotiations dragged on. Since the surviving remnant of the Prague Jewish community lacked the resources to maintain the museum, it came under the control of the Czech state authorities.

Caring for the 1,564 Torah scrolls in the collection proved especially challenging. They could not effectively be displayed as museum exhibits, and they would eventually deteriorate if they remained rolled up and unused. In fact, the synagogue housing the scrolls was near a river which overflowed each spring and so some of them became water damaged. All of them suffered from the moisture of the stuffy, humid rooms in which they were stored. In 1963 Eric Estorick, a prominent British art dealer who enjoyed the confidence of the Czechoslovak government agency responsible for cultural property, was able to arrange for the scrolls to be purchased by Ralph Yablon, a successful London businessman and philanthropist. (By the way, the state Jewish Museum of Prague continues to hold the other ritual items – thousands and thousands of Torah ornaments: crowns, pointers, breastplates, wimples, ark curtains, and so forth. Some of those you may recall were made part of a traveling exhibit called “The Precious Legacy.”)

The purchase agreement stipulated that the Czech Memorial Scrolls (they used to be referred to as “Holocaust Scrolls”) would be entrusted to a responsible, non-commercial body. The officers of Westminster Synagogue, an independent congregation in London, accepted Mr. Yablon’s invitation to undertake this responsibility. After a preliminary examination in Prague, the scrolls were carefully packed and shipped to London. They were then distributed to synagogues, educational institutions, and other bodies wishing to have a memorial to the communities destroyed in the Shoah. It is important to note that the scrolls were entrusted to recipients on “permanent loan.” Each scroll bears a brass identification tag to that effect.

The Memorial Scroll Housed at Mishkan Torah

In the 50 years since their arrival in London, these scrolls have brought new life to new Jewish communities, and provided a unique way to remember the shattered communities whence they came. The scrolls are read in almost 1,400 synagogues around the world with a combined membership of over a quarter million. They have been used by an estimated 100,000 B’nai Mitzvah, confirming new generations in their Judaism – the ultimate symbol that the Nazis' effort to exterminate our people has failed.  

Our scroll arrived in 1967.  We welcomed it with a public ceremony which was described ion the June 8 edition of the News Review.

An age-old ceremony was re-enacted in Greenbelt on June 4 when a newly acquired Torah or religious scroll was borne in solemn procession to the Jewish Community Center on Ridge Road and Westway and dedicated in a 2-hour ceremony. Among the dignitaries in attendance were Representative Hervey Machen, state senators and delegates, and city leaders headed by Mayor Edgar Smith.

The procession down Ridge Road included synagogue leaders, Sunday School children, and many members of the congregation. The Torah, which contains the Five Books of Moses was protected by a canopy. … The Torah changed hands several times after the Allies invaded Prague. Eventually it was restored and brought to the J.C.C. through the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Mollerick and other members of the congregation. It does not belong to the Greenbelt synagogue, but has been loaned in perpetuity. The title remains with the Jewish people in general and the Torah is considered a memorial to those who perished in Europe.

For a considerable time our use of the Czech scroll was limited to holding it on the bimah during the chanting of Kol Nidrei and parading with it through the streets of Greenbelt on Simchat TorahHowever, in February, 2017, we brought in a sofer to evaluate and make needed repairs on the scroll.  The Torah is now kosher and fit for ritual use.  We read from the Torah for the first time on Shabbat Zachor, right before Purim.  The highly appropriate maftir reminded us not to forget to blot out the memory of Amalek.  

There are no Jews in Vlašim today but there are other scrolls that come from there: one of them is housed in a Reform Temple in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and another resides in a Conservative shul in Redwood City, California. A third is located in a Reform synagogue in Radlett, a suburb of London, England. Two more scrolls reside respectively in Reform synagogues in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida and Mount Lawley, Western Australia. So it is that all of our congregations are linked with each other and to the martyred community of Vlašim. We carry on for them. May we be worthy of perpetuating their memory in the way by which we honour their most sacred possession and live its lessons.