Most Saturday mornings you can find me briskly walking down the hall at Congregation Beth El in Fairfield, Connecticut, rushing to get inside for the beginning of the Torah service. There is no religious imperative driving me, just a communal and meditative way for me to break from the other six hectic days of my life.
On this particular morning, something stopped me. Perhaps I was aware that it was the fourth anniversary of 9/11. Perhaps I was reminiscing about the day when I brought my children into the sanctuary to partake in the writing of a new Torah commissioned for our synagogue.
All I know is that I stopped, turned around and looked at the Holocaust Memorial Torah. I had walked past it thousands of times, with its Holocaust-themed Torah covered with a yellow Star of David and six lit candles, its railroad tie and the barbed wire snagging a piece of faded blue and white prisoner’s cloth.
But I never really saw before.
This time I looked and thought, “Where did this come from? What’s the story behind this Torah?” These questions changed my life, the lives of a small community of Czech Hussite Christians in a steel-working city 25 kilometers northwest of Prague, and a man no one here even knew existed.
Some quick research confirmed my hunch. This was a scroll received from the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust, an organization that rescued more than 1,500 Czech scrolls and redistributed them to Jewish organizations worldwide to encourage remembrance of those who died during the Holocaust.
Little was known about scroll 458 from the town of Kladno in the Czech Republic, other than it might have been one of possibly eight scrolls originally from the town. The Kladno synagogue was converted to a Hussite Church in 1939 at the request of the Kladno Jewish community in a bid to extend the safety of the town’s Jewish population.
I researched Kladno, found a street address for a building known as “the old synagogue” and wrote a letter to “The Elders of The Czech Hussite Church, Kladno.”
Several weeks later I received a letter from the elders informing me of their eagerness to learn about this scroll. They too had been involved in research about their lost Jewish community and knew nothing about the existence of the scrolls.
THE SCROLL STORY
With the help of Michael Heppner, the British researcher connected with the Trust, and the information provided by Kladno’s town archivist and the church elders, I uncovered more of the scroll’s story.
In 1939 the call went out from the Prague Jewish community to all the Jewish communities in Czechoslovakia requesting them to send their Torahs to Prague for safekeeping. This did not sit right with Rudolph Salus, the town’s soccer sportscaster and a member of the Kladno Jewish community. He believed the scrolls would be safer hidden within the walls of the synagogue’s basement.
Arrangements were made, at great peril if the Germans uncovered the plan. The scrolls remained safely entombed behind the walls from the time Salus and his family were transported to Terezin in 1942 until the liberation of the camp in May 1945, when Salus returned to release the scrolls from their hiding place.
Some time afterward, the scrolls were sent to Prague to join the sum total of 1,564 Czech Torah scrolls saved from the flames and devastation of the Holocaust, only to languish once again. The scrolls were stacked like cordwood in warehouses and storerooms until 1963, when a British-Jewish philanthropist negotiated the transport of these scrolls to England.
A second life emerged for these scrolls in the post-Holocaust Jewish communities. Like the Kindertransport children of the Second World War, 1,400 of the scrolls were tagged and disseminated across the United States and Europe to serve as emblems of the past and ambassadors to the future. In 1974 one of these scrolls from Kladno arrived at Congregation Beth El in Fairfield, where it quietly remained, respectfully exhibited in its niche.
CONNECTING TO THE PAST
After 18 months of research and almost daily correspondence with Eva Bodlaková, elder of the Hussite church in Kladno, I found myself on the outskirts of Kladno on Christmas Day 2007 with 18 members of Congregation Beth El.
In total, more than 150,000 Jews were sent to Terezin. A mere 17,247 survived. Of the 15,000 children who passed throughthe gates of that ghetto posing as a haven for Jews to fool the International Red Cross, only 132 survived. The grave-stones in the Kladno cemetery were mostly pre-Holocaust. These were the people who once embraced, danced, learned and worshipped with our Torah.
We stood silently to pay our respects to the past, to recite Kaddish for the dead who no longer had anyone else to recite the prayer for them. Later that evening, the Hussite community hosted a “meeting” for their Jewish guests. A shofar was blown as a call to prayer, not by a Jew, but by the Czech representative of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem.
The lord mayor of Kladno bestowed gifts upon us, and the Hussite Choir regaled us with Hebrew songs they had prepared for our arrival. These events all took place within the walls of the building that was once the Kladno Synagogue, now the Hussite Church of Kladno. Where the aron ha-kodesh once stood, the ark holding the Torah scrolls, a simple white crucifix now hangs. More than 100 souls gathered that evening as strangers, but we parted as friends.
Perhaps the greatest gift was learning there was one remaining Jewish survivor of the Kladno community. Petr Herrmann was 16 years old when he was transported with his parents to Terezin in 1942. Now 83 years old, he resides in a Jewish home for the elderly in Prague. He ventured out to meet me the day we arrived at our hotel in Prague, bearing the story of the 26 members of his family who all perished, save him.
Emboldened by our meeting in Prague, Herrmann traveled to Kladno on Christmas, accompanied by Frantisek Bányai, president of the Jewish Community of Prague. Herrmann stood in front of us, Jew and Christian, and told how this was the synagogue of his youth, where he had not stepped foot since his deportation 66 years prior.
With grace and dignity, he placed a yarmulka on his head and recited the words of the Shehechiyanu, thanking God for allowing him to participate in this most special day. No breath, no sound was made. The gift of his presence and his words were of a profundity to rival anything we had experienced.
We came to Kladno, a group of strangers looking for connections but unsure what we would find. We came as a band of cultural time travelers expecting to make connections and have an adventure. We left irrevocably changed, touched by the lives of people we didn’t know before and one we didn’t know existed. All because of a few questions about a scroll.
Ellin Yassky ’78 is a researcher and independent editor with 25 years of experience creating illustrated books, with a subspecialty in books on Judaica. She lives in Fairfield, Conn., with her two children, Max and Zoe.