Swathed in a purple mantle and stored in a cabinet at the Owen Brown Interfaith Center is a Torah scroll that, unlike the Czechoslovakian community that once treasured it, survived the Holocaust.
The Torah, which is the first five books of Hebrew scripture written by hand on parchment and is the basic source of religious teachings in the Jewish faith, came to the Beth Shalom congregation in Columbia last month.
It was the last stop on a rugged journey from the small mill town of Litomysl, 80 miles east of Prague, that began in 1939. Then Adolf Hitler's armies were ravaging synagogues and destroying thousands of Jewish religious artifacts throughout Europe.
However, German soldiers in the region now known as Czechoslovakia were ordered to gather and save all objects relating to Jewish culture for the purpose of establishing a museum to "an extinct race."
The huge collection, which included artwork, ornaments and hundreds of scrolls, including the one that came to Beth Shalom, was abandoned in 1945 after Germany lost the war. It then sat in a synagogue storeroom for almost 20 years.
Most of the collection became the base for a museum in Czechoslovakia -- now called the State Jewish Museum -- while the 1,564 scrolls were purchased by a wealthy London resident, Ralph Yablon, who shipped them to Britain and created a trust for their protection.
According to the terms of the trust, the scrolls were meant to be used actively by congregations in services. So the trust committee began distributing them on permanent loan to synagogues around the world.
The scrolls, under normal circumstances, are an expensive investment for a congregation because producing them is an extremely precise craft and any slip of the pen makes the entire scroll invalid. It can take a professional scribe a year to complete and cost up to $15,000 to produce. But under the trust program, the Czech scrolls are made available at a nominal fee, 600 pounds or about $1,100 at the current exchange rate, to make them more accessible to many congregations.
After 23 years, most of the scrolls are in the possession of congregations in such places as Canberra, Australia; Johannesburg; Jericho, Jordan; New York, and, now, Columbia.
Rabbi Ken Cohen of Beth Shalom learned of the Czech Memorial Scrolls during the 1970s while studying for the rabbinate in London, and he said that it was there that he first dreamed of one day reading to his own congregation from one of the historic scrolls.
Shortly after accepting the post in Columbia a year and a half ago, Cohen began the application process for a Czech scroll to complement another scroll that was in use.
Most synagogues have two Torah scrolls because of the difficulty during services of rolling and unrolling the scrolls, which are sometimes 20 feet long.
In researching its origins, Cohen found little information about Litomysl, and virtually none about the once thriving Jewish community there. But he met a Florida retiree with an avid interest in Czechoslovakian Jews who helped him fill in many of the details about the community.
Litomysl, a town that produced textiles and Bendrich Smetana, one of the country's greatest musical composers, had its first Jewish settlement in the 16th century. There were about 400 Jews in Litomysl at the turn of the 20th century, but there was a explosion in size between the wars, Cohen said. It's probable that thousands perished in 1939 when the entire Jewish population of Litomsyl was sent to Auschwitz, he said.
Cohen believes that there are no Jews left in the town today. "With only 3,000 Jews in all of Czechoslovakia, most of them concentrated in Prague, it's unlikely that any remain in Litomysl," he explained.
Only the Torah scroll remains. To Cohen and his congregation, the scroll's survival has special meaning. "It is a living link with a destroyed community. But more than a link with what's extinct, it provides continuity with what exists," Cohen said.
Cohen's congregation chose the words "The People of Israel Live" as the inscription on the mantle that protects the scroll. Cohen explained that the phrase signifies "the dedication of a living memorial where, though the scroll, the people of Litomysl live."
Handwritten with a goose quill pen, as are all Torah scrolls, on parchment, the Beth Shalom scroll is patched in places and some of the characters are faded, but it is still readable.
The congregation plans a dedication ceremony in March. There, amid singing and dancing, the Torah scroll from Litomysl will be paraded under the chupah, the traditional wedding canopy, and formally made a part of Beth Shalom, Cohen said.