|The exterior and interior of the old synagogue in Pacov, now in the Czech Republic.wikimedia commons|
Housing a Holocaust memorial Torah in your own synagogue is a privilege and an honor.
Learning where that Torah came from – who touched its parchment and read its words – is a blessing. But it is not one that is gained easily.
Indeed, says Rabbi Ronald Roth, religious leader of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel, it is only after months of research that he now understands the journey his shul’s memorial Torah has taken, and the people it has reached.
The Torah has been with the Fair Lawn synagogue for several decades.
“Congregant Ed Davidson brought it here from London in 1978,” Rabbi Roth said of the Czechoslovakian Torah, now encased in a glass cabinet in the synagogue sanctuary.
He explained that the Torah was one of some 1,564 scrolls stored in Prague’s Michle Synagogue during World War II. The damp 18th-century shul served as a warehouse for scrolls from Prague and surrounding communities in Bohemia and Moravia.
According to a document from the Memorial Scrolls Trust, founded more than 30 years ago to help get these scrolls back into the life of Jewish congregations, a British philanthropist who was a member of London’s Westminster Synagogue bought the scrolls in the 1960s. On February 7, 1964, two trucks filled with scrolls arrived at the synagogue, ready to be sorted, examined, and catalogued.
“Some could be made kosher, but the vast majority could not, so the people in London offered them on permanent loan to synagogues around the world as memorials to the Holocaust,” Rabbi Roth said.
This year – the 50th anniversary of the scroll’s arrival in London – the Westminster synagogue asked each Torah recipient to make a poster, which would be displayed at a major commemoration ceremony.
Up to this point, Rabbi Roth knew only that the Torah came from the city of Pacov. Writing to the Trust for more information, he learned little, so the synagogue planned to use a picture of a Holocaust survivor holding the Torah, surrounded by his grandsons, on its poster.
“Then [in January] I found that there were photos of both the synagogue and the Jewish cemetery in Pacov online,” Rabbi Roth said. “So I downloaded them and put them on the poster. We shipped it off to London and it was on display there with the other posters.”
Not stopping there, he realized that doing further research into the origins of the Torah could be a valuable educational experience for students in the synagogue’s religious school.
“I wanted to work with a religious school class, so I started doing research with the seventh-graders,” he said. “So far, we’ve found a couple of things.”
For example, he said, “the students pointed out to me the existence of Wikimedia, which contains another series of photos. Two years ago, a Czech man went [to Pacov] and took a series of photos. The cemetery has a building at the entrance with a historical exhibit about the Jews of Pacov.”
Because the Wikimedia entry included the photographer’s name, Rabbi Roth reached out to him, asking him to translate some of the material in the photos he took of the exhibit.
The photographer responded, and included the translations. From these Rabbi Roth learned that the cemetery dates from 1680 and has been preserved as a cultural monument by the Czech Republic. One or two photos showing the interior of the synagogue before the war also were on Wikimedia.
Spurred on by his success, Rabbi Roth decided to learn even more. Looking at the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, he found not only more photographs but also the names and history of some Pacov residents. He also found some home movies.
“Who would have thought it,” he said. “It was purely random and by luck.”
The movies were donated by Gabrielle Reitler, now Rosberger.
“Her mother came from a large family,” Rabbi Roth said. “The family photos and movies were entrusted to a non-Jewish family during the war.” Surviving both Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, Ms. Rosberger’s mother, Blanka Bruck (later Reitler), returned to reclaim these items. Later, she married and moved to Canada.
“I looked online for Gabrielle and found a Facebook page,” Rabbi Roth said. “I sent her a message, but she didn’t respond. However, the page said we had a mutual friend, a woman named Linda Shecter. She’s an old friend of Gabi’s.”
Another random – and fortunate – occurrence. The rabbi had known Ms. Shecter in Nashville, when he headed the West End Synagogue. She and her husband had lived, among other places, in Montreal.
“So I sent a message to Linda, who sent an email to Gabi, who then responded,” Rabbi Roth said. “She told me that in the home movies were her young cousins Nina and Peter. They were the happy little kids walking down the street.”
Sadly, the two children later were sent to Theresienstadt. While she was there, Nina drew a number of pictures, including one, “Girl looking out of the window,” which appears in ” I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” a collection of drawings and poetry by Jewish children who lived in that concentration camp.
“It’s on pages 38 and 39,” Rabbi Roth said. “It was made by this little girl who had been so happy as an 8-year-old. In the back of the book, it gives her name and says she was a member of Group 2. She did the drawing in the spring of 1944. She died in Auschwitz on May 15, 1944, at age 12 and a half.”
In Auschwitz, Ms. Rosberger said, her aunt – Nina’s mother, who came from Pacov – made a fateful decision. Because Peter was too young to work, he was selected for the gas chamber. Unwilling to let him die alone, his mother decided that the three of them – she, Nina, and Peter – would enter the chamber together.
Religious school teacher Debbie Propper Lesnoy said that her seventh-grade students took the research project very seriously, “as it was a hands-on way of approaching a topic that we have been studying all year. Each student contributed in his or her own way, with artwork, poetry, and an incredibly informative PowerPoint.”
Ms. Lesnoy noted that it was particularly moving “when we researched the [U.S. Holocaust Memorial] museum to locate an old video of a family in Pacov that we knew from our cemetery research had perished. We saw young children and typical-looking family members enjoying life as if all were well. My students’ faces dropped when we realized that all but one of these people were killed not long after.”
“Every student in the class gathered around the video,” she said. “Though many things we learned impacted us, this connection between typical life and impending death, and the Torah we now have that these people used, affected my students in a profound way – and me, too.”
“Another moving moment occurred when we connected a cemetery plot with the family name, Lederer, of a synagogue leader. The cemetery plot told us that Emil Lederer had died in the Holocaust. We had just seen his picture and name in our research of [life in] Pacov.”
Ms. Lesnoy said that when the class saw a Google street view of the synagogue as it is today, the students reacted strongly. “It is the only building that has not been kept up. Why?” asked one, while another mused on the fact that so many who had attended the synagogue had died.
Ms. Lesnoy said the students used technology during the whole year to learn about the Holocaust.
“The way they approached this through technology, art, and poetry showed me how each student processed the information differently, and how important it is as a teacher to use a variety of strategies when approaching such an emotional and critically important topic,” she said.
Now that he has learned more about Pacov and the people who lived there, Rabbi Roth is eager to preserve that information. He is working on a slide show featuring the photos he has found, and he plans to work with the students to create some narration as well.
The research “has put a human face on the Holocaust, especially for the kids,” he said. “Now we have a real picture of where [the Torah] was – the synagogue, town, and the people who no doubt were in the synagogue getting aliyot and lifting that Torah. It makes it much more personal and touching.”