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The Story of ACT Jewish Community's Czech Scroll, No. 84


A book entitled Light Beyond the Shadows: The Legacy of the Czech Torah Scrolls and the Renewal of Jewish Life in Czechia, which is held in the ACTJC Library, tells the inspiring story of the survival and second life of 1,564 Torah Scrolls from Bohemia and Moravia after WWII.  The ACT Jewish Community received two of these scrolls and currently retains one of them, No. 84, known in our Community as 'the Schlesinger Scroll'.
As custodians of Czech Scroll No. 84, the ACT Jewish Community has an obligation to commemorate the Jewish population of the desolated community, Roudnice nad Labem, from which the scroll was rescued.  The ACT Jewish Community performs this commemoration on Shabbat Ekev, which is when we remember our own founders.  Our privileged position as custodian of the scroll is made public through this website.
On 15 March 1939, the Wehrmacht entered Prague.  Czechoslovakia became a German 'Protectorate'.  From October and November of that year, the Jewish communities of Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia were forced into ghettoes, the largest being Theresienstadt.
In 1942, following a Nazi instruction, the Jewish leadership in Prague requested all Jewish communities in Bohemia and Moravia to send their “historically valuable” items to the Jewish Museum in Prague and arranged for Jewish leaders to sort and to record all of the more than 200,000 objects.
At the end of the war, only about 4000 Czech Jews survived the devastation and the depleted Jewish Community of Prague was unable to look after the Museum and its contents, the world's largest assemblage of Jewish artefacts.  The Czech State authorities stepped in and maintained the collection as a memorial to the vanished communities.  However, it was realised that without proper conservation, after the Soviet takeover and the associated restrictions on religious activity, the Sifrei Torah would deteriorate.
In 1963, through the intervention of Ralph Yablon (1906-1984), a London businessman and philanthropist and founding member of the Westminster Synagogue in London, arrangements were made with the Czech authorities whereby those scrolls thought to be repairable would be released into the care of a Memorial Trust set up by the Westminster Synagogue.  On 7 February 1964 two large trucks delivered the consignment of 1564 scrolls out of 1800 originally collected.  The scrolls were re-numbered and underwent a year-long classification of the scrolls.   Each scroll received a numbered brass plaque.
At this time, an experienced Sofer (scribe), David Brand (1928-2016), offered his services and skill, working on the restoration of the Czech scrolls for 27 years.
Arrival of the Scrolls in London brought a flood of requests from Synagogues and other institutions, even individuals, throughout the world, seeking one or more of the Memorial Scrolls.  The applications totalled nearly twice the number of Scrolls available.  The Czech Memorial Scrolls committee considered each such request, giving priority to newly established Synagogues and to congregations where the Rabbi or members were survivors of the lost Czech communities.
Following a submission in September 1966 to the Memorial Scrolls Trust by the then President of the ACTJC, Earle Hoffman, Sefer Torah No. 867 came to Canberra.  It was formerly the scroll of the Hermanuv Mestec community, written in 1880.  Hermanuv Mestec is in Bohemia, its Jewish history going back to the 15th century.  In 1893 there were over 1000 Jews in the town and its satellite villages, but by 1930 the number had declined to only 50-60 souls.  That small community was sent to the ghettos in 1942 and later to the death camps.  It was not re-established after the war.  This scroll was transferred to the custodianship of the Sydney Jewish Museum in 2001 with the approval of the Memorial Scrolls Trust.
By October 1966, a proposal had been put forward by a group of ACTJC members to subscribe privately towards the expenses of restoring another scroll to honour Rabbi George (Nathan) Schlesinger, whose family in Czechoslovakia had been among the victims of the Holocaust.  Rabbi Schlesinger, who was in the Department of Philosophy at the Australian National University from 1958 to 1967, generously volunteered his services whenever needed as a leader, lecturer, and officiant on Sabbath and festivals to the young ACT Jewish Community.   Before his departure in 1967 to take up a professorship in North Carolina, Dr Schlesinger was honoured as 'the first Rabbi of Canberra'.
The Czech Memorial Scrolls Committee agreed to provide a second scroll and by December 1966 Sefer Torah No. 84 arrived in Canberra, having been transported in the luggage of a young member of the ACTJC who was returning from working in London.  This scroll, originally from Roudnice nad Labem in Bohemia, was written in about 1850.  Within the ACT Jewish Community, it is referred to as the 'Schlesinger Scroll'. 
Roudnice nad Labem (Raudnitz on the Elbe) was one of the oldest communities in Bohemia, dating back to before 1570.  In 1631 the Jewish Community saved the town from destruction at the hands of the Saxons by payment of a large sum of money.  By 1650 the community employed its first rabbi, and its first public religious school was founded in 1841.  According to the local census, there were 320 Jews in Roudnice in 1910, falling to 194 by 1921.  A new synagogue was built in 1853, about the same time that scroll No. 84 was written.  There would appear to have been a well serviced and active Jewish life in Roudnice nad Labem in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  The Community was liquidated by the Nazis in 1942.  After WWII, the Jewish community did not re-establish.
A long-standing leader of the Jewish community in Roudnice nad Labem was Max Epstein whose house, built in 1900, is today a regional museum where an exhibit about the Epstein family has been mounted.  Max’s son, Kurt, was a champion swimmer and water polo player, competing for Czechoslovakia in the 1936 “Nazi” Olympics.  Kurt survived the war, married and had three children who now live in the USA.  Kurt’s daughter, Helen, has written a book about her father’s life.
Scroll No. 84 (the 'Schlesinger Scroll') remains in the holy ark in the National Jewish Memorial Centre, the home of the ACTJC, until it can be permanently displayed in our planned Holocaust Museum and Education Centre where it will be on show in the nation's capital as a permanent testimony to the Shoah, and as a reminder of the resilience of the Jewish spirit and the dedication of the Jews who saved the scrolls.
Thu, 13 June 2024 7 Sivan 5784