Even some congregants at Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation don’t know the full story of their Torah, a nearly 250-year-old scroll that originated in what is now the Czech Republic, survived the Holocaust and landed in Reston by way of London.
But the synagogue is looking forward to a full telling this weekend, as it celebrates the scroll and remembers the genocide that sent it across the Atlantic Ocean.
The Reform congregation — much like the Reston planned community it resides in — was in its nascent stages in 1970, looking for a scroll to call its own. Longtime member Ted Smith said the synagogue was using a borrowed scroll when it got word of a project in London.
The UK Memorial Scrolls Trust had a collection of nearly 1,600 scrolls recovered after the Holocaust from today’s Czech Republic. They weren’t charging much, Smith said last week, just enough to cover shipping and help with restoration.
So the synagogue sent a $300 check to London. Months later, its scroll arrived, linking the congregation with a town 55 miles east of Prague, Hermanuv Mestec, and the Jewish community that once lived there.
“When we got the Torah in 1970, this was a small and young congregation,” Smith said. “It meant an awful lot to us and was our only Torah at the time.”
At its peak in 1849, Hermanuv Mestec’s Jewish population was over 800, according to Smith. By the late 19th century, that number had fallen. On Dec. 3, 1942, the Nazis transported almost all who remained — 60 in total — to the Terezin concentration camp.
That year, a group of Jews in Prague convinced the Nazi occupiers to allow them to collect Jewish artifacts for a museum. They retrieved the scrolls of Hermanuv Mestec — including another that wound up with Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County in Bethesda. In 1963, as the Czech Jewish community was struggling to rebuild, the collection was moved to London and then distributed around the world.
This weekend, Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the expulsion of Hermanuv Mestec’s Jews.
On Nov. 30, the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, Peter Papousek, will speak about the state of Czech Jewry today. On Dec. 2, Michlean Amir, who worked at the United States Holocaust Museum, and Mark Talisman, who organized the Smithsonian’s Precious Legacy exhibit of Czech-Jewish artifacts, will speak. On Dec. 3, the synagogue will host a presentation from Holocaust survivor Marty Weiss.
“We’re hoping that this will remind people of the importance of the Torah scroll and our links to this community that no longer exists,” said Smith, who researched the scroll’s history and helped to organize the week of events.
Rabbi Michael Holzman thinks many of the congregation’s younger families don’t know the history of the treasure under their roof. The synagogue has taken it out of regular use to protect it from wear and tear, but uses it on special occasions.
Not long ago, Holzman was working with an unenthusiastic bar mitzvah student when he discovered the teenager’s interest in the Holocaust. When Holzman told him about the scroll, “the kid’s eyes lit up,” he said.
The teenager ultimately read from the Czech scroll at his bar mitzvah
Holzman said that was what the Memorial Scrolls Trust was hoping for when it began to give its artifacts new homes.
“That Torah helped this congregation get its footing and grow and thrive,” he said.
He and Smith are hoping that the weekend spurs a new connection with the scroll’s native land. Ladislav Mares, a Czech Holocaust survivor who showed a group of congregants around Hermanuv Mestec in 1993 also organized the restoration of the town’s synagogue with Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation’s help. Since his death in 2007, however, the two communities have lost touch. Holzman hopes to organize another visit to Hermanuv Mestec, the town that helped to foster a Jewish community in a new place.
“The scroll tells two stories,” Holzman said. “One of destruction and hate, and another of birth and growth.”