Two photo captions in last week's Fairfax Weekly misidentified the youth preparing for his bar mitzvah. He is Harrison Krat. (Published 11/30/95)
The Jews of Sedlcany, a tiny Bohemian village 35 miles south of Prague, did not survive the Holocaust. But their Torah did, confiscated by the Nazis, who planned to exhibit the works of an exterminated people.
Now, more than half a century later, and after two decades in the darkness of an abandoned synagogue near Prague and nearly 30 years in storage in London, the Sedlcany Torah has a new home, and new life, in Springfield.
Earlier this month, 14 survivors of the Holocaust joined 400 others at Congregation Adat Reyim to dedicate the 200-year-old Torah, which has been painstakingly restored by Orthodox scribes in New York for use in religious services. Congregation members throughout Northern Virginia paid for the $16,000 restoration letter by letter, with schoolchildren chipping in dimes and quarters earned by doing chores and parents contributing larger sums.
Adat Reyim's Rabbi Bruce Aft said he knows of no other Holocaust Torah in this area that has undergone such complete restoration. "We wanted to keep alive the people of Sedlcany," he said of the project, which took nearly two years.
The sacred scrolls, which comprise the five books of Moses, had deteriorated badly. "There was almost not one letter we did not have to go over," said Rabbi Moishe Klein, who led the restoration, which took about 2,500 hours. A dozen soferim, or scribes, traced over the 304,805 Hebrew letters on the faded parchment, using kosher ink and quill pens from turkey feathers. Two badly damaged sections had to be sent to Israel for replacement.
Klein, a master scribe, said he has never done a restoration quite like it. "It was a work of love. Every one of these boys who worked on it was very emotional. The people who used it -- who knows what they went through? One of the boys said, When I write it, I could see the people using it in the ghetto under those circumstances. It felt like restoring their souls.' "
Feelings ran equally strong at the Torah's rededication, which Aft called "a spiritual moment of ecstasy."
"I was just floating," said Dan Eb\ert, who spearheaded the restoration and was chosen to carry the Torah into the synagogue under the houpa, a ceremonial canopy. The congregation's joy, however, was tinged with sadness over the assassination, one day earlier, of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whose life was memorialized during the service.
Marcy Siegel, the first youth reader, worried that she would forget the three sentences she was to read from the Torah, which she had memorized. "With the Holocaust survivors there, I really wanted it to be special for them," she said.
That it was, said Rene Edgar Tressler, who grew up near Sedlcany and spent 33 months in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps, losing 64 members of his family. Tressler, who lives in Silver Spring, said he felt a "strange mixture" of happiness that the Torah had a new life and sadness over the "tremendous loss of human life and culture" in the Holocaust. "There is no Jew in Sedlcany anymore," he said.
In 1938, there were 122,000 Jews in the Bohemia and Moravia regions of Czechoslovakia. Today, there are about 5,000, according to the Czech Memorial Scrolls Centre at London's Westminster Synagogue, which in 1964 obtained 1,564 Torahs that had been confiscated by the Nazis with other religious objects. After the war, the Czech government agreed to let the London synagogue have the Torah collection for $30,000.
"To keep them in store, rolled up and unused indefinitely, would be tantamount to passive vandalism," Harold Reinhart, Westminster's founding rabbi, wrote at the time.
Since then, nearly 1,300 of the Torahs have been placed on permanent loan worldwide, with more than 900 in the United States. Thirty-four are in the Washington area, including at Georgetown University and the U.S. Naval Academy, according to Ruth Shaffer, joint chairman of the Czech scrolls center. Most of the 200 or so still in London are too damaged to be given out, she said.
The Sedlcany Torah, which has Nazi classification number "4953" carved into its wood rollers, was written in the early 19th century, Shaffer said. Its extensive restoration was met with enthusiasm this week in other Washington area congregations.
"That's unbelievable," said Judith Kranz, executive director at Kehilat Shalom. Last year, the Gaithersburg congregation dedicated its own Czech Torah. "You can't open it too often, and you have to be very careful with it," she said. "But there is something about looking at it in its damaged state that creates a special feeling. It is old. It is damaged. But we think of it as a living thing."