Scrolls of Survival
Each of Dayton’s four synagogues is home to a Torah scroll that served European Jewish communities until the Nazi occupation. Here are their stories.
By Renate Frydman, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer
Ezra the Scribe, in the middle of the fifth century B.C.E., began the custom of reading aloud from the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, during public worship. This became a form of popular instruction in Judaism and a paramount and lasting feature of the synagogue service. It was eventually decreed that there could be no public reading from the Scripture except from specifically prepared, enscribed parchment scrolls.
The Torah has been held in such reverence by the observant Jew that no tampering with the Hebrew text — nor any change in the manner and technique of its production — is allowed.
When we raise the Torah up high in our services, it signifies our reverence for the pact between God and humankind, the inspired commandments and eternal truths revealed by God to Israel.
Some Torahs in Dayton synagogues have come a very long way to find a home here. The stories behind these journeys help us appreciate the freedom of living in this great country. We realize again the sacredness of these scrolls and the lengths to which Jewish people go to protect them.
The Gordon Family Torah, Beth Jacob Synagogue
It was 1941. In Glenoke, Poland, the Gordon family was preparing to leave its home for a ghetto. At that time, the Nazis and their supporters were burning the synagogues. Elia, the father, took the Torah out of the local synagogue. Along with the family cow, the fur coats they wore for warmth in the bitter Polish winters, and other family belongings, Elia carried this Torah to the gentile farmer who was his neighbor. There was little they could take, so he begged the man to keep the things until they could return.
He asked the farmer to keep the Torah in the house rather than the barn so moisture would not damage it.
The 7,000 to 8,000 Jews of Glenoke left much behind when the Germans forced them to leave for the ghetto. Some buried jewelry and other valuables. Most were killed in the Holocaust and never returned to claim their belongings.
After five or six months in the ghetto, Maurice Gordon, Elia’s youngest son, went to the forest where his brother and brother-in-law were in the partisans (resistance fighters). They were liberated in May 1944.
During this time, Maurice was separated from his parents. He was in the forests with the Russians who were fighting the Germans. He did not know what happened to his parents.
When the Gordon family returned to its hometown at the end of the war, they found that only 50 to 100 Jews were left. Maurice was the only one whose parents survived.
The town had been destroyed by bombs. But the farmer, who had their things, was still there. When they returned, he brought them food to eat and returned the Torah.
Antisemitism there under the Russians was widespread after the war, and so the Gordons left. Maurice carried the Torah out of Poland, through Czechoslovakia and Austria to a displaced persons camp in Germany. In May 1949, the Gordons came to the United States and lived in Haverhill, Mass. for a year and a half. When they came to Dayton in 1951, the Torah was still with them. Elia Gordon then gave the Torah to Beth Jacob Synagogue. He had it repaired after its long journey and years in hiding.
When the Gordons came to the United States they had a special suitcase for the Torah. It was five feet long and made of aluminum. They put clothes around it, so it was safe.
Every Kol Nidre at Beth Jacob, the Torah is held with reverence by the descendants of Elia Gordon.
The Sokol Family Torah, Beth Abraham Synagogue
A very special Torah scroll was sent from Israel in honor of Thelma and Philip Sokol and was donated to Beth Abraham Synagogue on April 29, 1956. Their nephew, Fred Sokol, was at the dedication and gave a speech in Hebrew presenting the scroll from his family in Israel to the Sokols here in Dayton.
Eliahu Shklovsky, Fred’s father and a prominent member of the Petah Tikvah Synagogue near Tel Aviv in Israel, made numerous bus trips to Jerusalem to ask Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to give permission for the Torah to be shipped to Dayton. This process took a year.
It finally came in a wooden box with the seals of the Ministry of Religion. “We carefully unpacked it. It was very exciting,” Fred Sokol said.
At the time, Beth Abraham congregants young and old raised the funds to restore and acquire this scroll.
The scroll comprises 33 fragments of other Torah scrolls, painstakingly put together in Israel. The fragments were gathered from Central, Eastern and Western European countries. Some of the fragments were secretly used by Jews in the Nazi concentration camps of World War II.
The Sokol Torah is one of only three or four of these Torahs in existence because it is so difficult to gather enough fragments to compile a complete Torah.
Tracing the Torah’s past before it came to Israel is difficult. Its development was derived from three sources.
First, the Jewish Cultural Commission formed in Europe shortly after World War II had the task of searching for Jewish religious objects left behind by the Nazis who had destroyed and burned hundreds of synagogues in conquered countries.
Often, this meant digging through the rubble of destroyed buildings and homes of religious leaders to find the fragments.
Another source was the Jewish Brigade, a part of the British Army. When Nazi territories were liberated, members of the brigade searched through towns and countrysides for holy and treasured Jewish religious objects.
The victims of the concentration camps were the third source. As countries were invaded by the Nazis, Jewish people gathered what they could carry and either hid items for future recovery or took them along.
Many of the Torah fragments were surreptitiously brought into the camps, carefully kept hidden, and secretly used for teaching and services.
The Sokol Torah was put together by the Israeli Ministry of Religion. Scribes were hired to piece the Torah together as authentically as possible.
Some stains remain on the parchments, a testimony to the difficulties endured by these sacred scrolls in the lands where Jews lived. It is still in use for Beth Abraham’s weekday services.
The Klatovy Torah, Temple Beth Or
Temple Beth Or’s Torah scroll of the Shoah came to the congregation the year it was founded, in 1984. The temple’s first religious committee chairman, Alan Steinharter, obtained it for the congregation. It’s been in use since Temple Beth Or’s first Shabbat Service on Jan. 29, 1985. It is one of the rescued Czech Memorial Scrolls.
In Czechoslovakia in 1942, the Nazis warehoused approximately 1,800 Czech Torah scrolls at the Central Jewish Museum in Prague. According to the Czech Memorial Scrolls Museum in London, members of Prague’s Jewish community “devised a way to bring the religious treasures from the deserted provincial communities to the comparative safety of Prague. The Nazis were persuaded to accept this plan and more than 100,000 items were sent to the museum.”
Prague’s Jewish leaders hoped that someday those liquidated artifacts might be returned to their communities.
After the war, the scrolls became the property of the Communist government. In 1964, London’s Westminster Synagogue purchased 1,564 of these Torah scrolls with the help of private donations. Westminster Synagogue established the Memorial Scrolls Trust to conserve, restore and distribute the Czech scrolls.
Temple Beth Or’s scroll, on permanent loan from the trust, is from Klatovy, a town in southwest Bohemia. The Jews of Klatovy were deported in November 1942, first to Terezin, then to extermination at Auschwitz; 595 Jews of Klatovy perished. None returned.
The scroll at Temple Beth Or is proudly brought out to be read by youths for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.
The Ceske Budejovice Torah, Temple Israel
Temple Israel is also home to a Westminster Trust Czech scroll, from the town of Ceske Budejovice in the western part of the former Czechoslovakia.
In 2006, a survivor of the town, John Freund, who settled in Toronto, provided information to Temple Israel about his lost Jewish community.
Located not far from the Austrian border, Ceske Budejovice was predominantly Czech with a minority of Germans and Jews.
Freund indicated that these groups lived in relative harmony, although some tension between these peoples was always present. The Jews represented about two percent of the population of 50,000 in the early 1930s.
Many of the Jews there spoke Czech and German, not Yiddish, and were part of the middle class. The Jews owned textile and food stores and produced chocolate, window frames, and nails. Among the professions, there were a number of physicians, dentists, teachers, and traveling salesmen.
The community’s large synagogue, built at the edge of the town in the 1880s, served the entire community. It was in the German, liberal tradition.
The Jews of Ceske Budejovice did not feel threatened by the population in the town. But on March 15 1939, German armed forces crossed the nearby border with Austria, which Germany had annexed in 1938.
At first, the Jews were allowed to gather for services on Friday evenings and on the High Holy Days; not at the beautiful 19th-century synagogue, which was closed and boarded up, but in a small warehouse. To erase the existence of Jewish life, the Nazis blew up the large synagogue in June 1942. According to Freund, a photo of the falling steeples is in the town’s archives.
Two months before that, on April 18, almost 1,000 of the Jews of Ceske Budejovice were deported to Terezin. From there, most were sent to ghettos in Poland, “where they died either from starvation, being shot, or gassed in Auschwitz or elsewhere,” Fruend wrote.
The covering for this Torah scroll at Temple Israel is a stark black. Over the years, students have read from it as part of their confirmation ceremonies, a service that coincides with the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.
Temple Israel will soon donate one of its other Torahs to a growing Progressive Jewish congregation in Felsberg, Germany. Deborah Tal-Rüttger, a lay leader of the German-Jewish congregation, has sought a Torah for a decade. She will accept the Torah on June 5 at Temple Israel’s Jewish Cultural Festival, on behalf of Jüdische Liberale Gemeinde Emet weSchalom e.V. Nordhessen. German-Jewish immigrants founded Temple Israel in 1850.