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Kolin Torah Sermon

10/30/2010 09:31:33 PM


Rabbi Yales

The Kolin Torah was dedicated by Temple Isaiah on Kol Nidre Eve, September 17, 1972 as a memorial to the Six Million. The Scroll is on permanent loan to the congregation from the Memorial Scrolls Committee of Westminster Synagogue in London. The Kolin Torah is read by the congregation on Yom Kippur and Yom Hashoah in remembrance of the Holocaust. The Dedication Sermon was given by Rabbi Cary David Yales.

The Kolin Torah

The letter began, “Scroll #330 will be sent to you within the next ten days by BOAC air freight. Scroll #330 came from the town of Kolin (Czechoslovakia) and was written in 1720.”

So, after many months of correspondence, an old Torah scroll that had lost its way in the world, at a time when much of the world had lost its sanity, would now be making another long journey in search of just a little peace and love, and a Jewish home.

Tonight, Kol Nidre Eve, we dedicate this honored scroll. That our dedication may be worthy, it behooves us to know something of our Scroll’s past, where it has been and how it has come to us.

Our Torah comes from Czechoslovakia. When one speaks of Czech Jewry, one speaks pre-eminently of Prague. Here in this once vital and populous center of Jewish life in Bohemia, is the Alt-Neu Schule, the oldest extant synagogue in Europe, built in the 13th century. This is the city of the famous Jewish Town Hall with its Hebrew clock. Here, too, is the Jewish cemetery known as the City of the Dead, where the Jews are buried on top of each other — 200,000 of them it is said, because Prague would not grant the Jews additional space for a new cemetery. Here is buried the Maharal, Rabbi Judah Loew, creator of the legendary “Golem.”

If you visit Prague today and hear a Jew speaking about the wall, you must be careful not to assume that he is speaking about the “Western Wall” in Jerusalem. He might be speaking about the wall in the Pinkas Synagogue of Prague, the wall inscribed with 77,297 names of every man, woman, and child in Prague known to have been murdered by the Nazis.

Our Torah Scroll has its beginnings some thirty miles east of Prague in the town of Kolin, one of the oldest Jewish communities in Czechoslovakia. A number of Jews lived there in the 14th century. A synagogue is mentioned as being old in 1512, and by 1618 the Jewish community of Kolin was second only in size to Prague. But, like our Torah Scroll, which I shall tell you about in just a minute, life as a Jew in Kolin was not an easy one—certainly it was mercurial. Expelled in 1541, the Jews are invited to return in 1557, only to be expelled once more in 1561 and return again in 1564.

If you had been a Jew in Kolin in the 1600s, you would have been required to pay special taxes. You would have been permitted to own no other real estate except your own home. You might have difficulty finding work because you would not be allowed to engage in any trade in which Christian citizens were employed, nor could you have Christians in your employ.

Now, if I were a Jew in Kolin and I wanted to visit you, I would walk from my house on the Jews’ street in Kolin to your house on the Jews’ street. I could choose to visit you on a Sunday or a Christian holiday and know that you would be home or nearby, because on Sundays and Christian holidays, we Jews were not permitted to leave “our” street. The Christian community was certain that we Jews would poison their drinking water and, after all, what could be a more appropriate day for such a thing than a Sunday or a Christian Holy Day!

This was our life in Kolin. But it was not all so bitter. To be sure, there were always restrictions of one kind or another, at least until the middle of the 1800’s; even as late as 1913, a young Roman Catholic priest in Kolin named Hrachovsky tried to implicate us in a blood libel charge following the death of a girl who had committed suicide because she was pregnant by him. So, you see, we could never quite let our guard down. Still, it was not always bitter. We cannot forget the moments of joy we shared together.

Such a moment was the day in 1696 when we dedicated our new synagogue with its beautiful Aron Kodesh. Years later we would dedicate our new Sefer Torah, with its letters so brilliantly black and tall and noble on its clean, taut skin.

And, of course, we Jews knew the joy of a thousand simchas: the birth of our little ones, the Bar Mitzvah of a son, the marriage of our children. And there was our Yeshiva! A Yeshiva of such distinction that the great Moses Montefiore himself endowed a foundation just for our students.

We Jews also knew the joy of mitzvah. During the harsh winters of 1846 and 1847, we contributed substantial sums for the relief of one hundred Christian families in our town.

Of course, there is more. More joy and more sorrow. Much more sorrow.
Jewish life in Kolin came to an abrupt halt on June 10, 1942. On that day the first of three transports deported 2,202 Jews, men, women, and children from Kolin to Theresienstadt. All but 104 of them died in Nazi extermination camps.

The second part of our story begins with the Kolin Scroll, the one that had seen all the vicissitudes of Jewish life in Kolin pass before it since the 1700s.

Our scroll was taken by the Nazis to the city of Prague, capital of the “protectorate” of Czechoslovakia. Adolph Hitler, history’s diabolic monster, had decided that there should be visual reminders of testimony to the uncivilized, non-Aryan race he was determined to destroy.

He therefore ordered a museum created of Jewish artifacts, so that future generations could see for themselves how justified the Nazis were in exterminating the Jews. People would come from all the countries of a Judenrein world to inspect the memorabilia of a dead people.

A collection point was to be established for all ceremonial objects seized from the Jews and their synagogues. Preparations were made in 1940 to create this ghastly museum in the old Jewish section of Prague. Here, in lorries and trucks, were brought 1,564 Torah scrolls from central Europe. Here from synagogues throughout Czechoslovakia and other countries were brought Torah crowns, rimonim, breastplates of gold and silver, the curtains from the arks, menorahs, Passover plates of richly engraved silver, illuminated manuscripts and books, books by the carload. A thousand years of Jewish life in Central Europe were reflected in the ceremonial objects and ritual symbols dumped by the Nazis in synagogues, now used as warehouses, in the Jewish ghetto of Prague. Among these treasures was our Scroll from Kolin.

The task of arranging and cataloging this so-called “exhibition of an exterminated ethnic group” was assigned to talented Jews, who received a reprieve for their labor before being shipped off to their death.

When the “thousand-year Reich” came to an end, after a period infinitely less than the thousand years, but a thousand times too long, this great store of Jewish treasure remained in the synagogue-warehouses of Prague. The now decimated Jewish community was helpless, so the charge of these precious objects fell to the Czechoslovakian State which felt that it was important to maintain this Museum as a silent witness to what the Czech Jews endured and as an enduring appeal to the conscience of humanity.

Today, the museum is honorably maintained in the famous old Klausen Synagogue of Prague. Here are ceremonial objects, secular and religious records, and personal mementos—in all, 200,000 catalogued remnants of 6,000,000 who once lived.

The problem the Jewish museum confronted was what to do with the most precious of all these Jewish possessions, indeed, the synagogue’s only essential ceremonial object – hundreds upon hundreds of Torah Scrolls. Like the Holocaust victims, these Torah Scrolls had endured a sleep of death as they lay piled in a Prague synagogue for twenty years. Somewhere in this mass of Torah Scrolls was the one from Kolin. Unlike the Jews of Central Europe, these scrolls were to survive. Thus we unfold part three of our story.

So, for nearly twenty years after the war, no alternative to the continued storage and deterioration of the Scrolls was found. The only authorities which would possess the means and the will to cope with the challenge which the Scrolls presented would be found on the other side of the iron curtain. And, although attempts from the West were made, they were unsuccessful, because, aside from the Czech authorities’ general reluctance to do business with capitalist agents, they were conscious of a sacred trust and unwilling to consider an offer from a source which they thought might exploit the enterprise for profit.

Finally, a well-known London art dealer, who for some years has enjoyed enviable success in showing, in London, paintings and sculpture from communist countries was able to obtain the confidence of Artia, the official agents of the Czechoslovakian Government for cultural properties. In 1963 this art dealer negotiated with them for the Sifre Torah.

On the seventh of February 1964, one thousand, five hundred and sixty-four Scrolls, the largest shipment of Sifre Torah in history, began to arrive at their destination in Westminster Synagogue in London. In the synagogue, in three rooms, shelves were erected and numbered, one space for each of 1,564 Scrolls. Each of the Scrolls was given a number and placed in the space with the corresponding number, as if a naked corpse in shrouds had been put to sleep in a little bin. The Kolin Scroll slept in bin 1330.

Then, the second stage, the work of examining and classifying the Scrolls began. Several skilled scribes were engaged in the task of inspecting each Scroll from beginning to end and making entries of their findings regarding the condition of parchment, writing, and of any noteworthy distinguishing features.

The primary object of this undertaking was to separate the Scrolls into those in good condition, those beyond repair, and those which could be made right with greater or less effort.

At the same time, a Memorial Scrolls Committee was established to review the hundreds of requests for the Scrolls which have come from synagogues, universities, and museums throughout the world.

The concluding chapter of our story begins with a letter which I wrote to my colleague, Albert Friedlander, Rabbi of Westminster Synagogue, to inquire if our congregation might be considered as a home for one of the Torah Scrolls. I hastened to add in my letter to Rabbi Friedlander that we did not require a Kosher Scroll, one that has been restored. We have three such beautiful scrolls, generously and lovingly given by members of our congregation.

After many months of correspondence, the Memorial Scrolls Committee granted our request for a special Memorial Scroll, a scroll deemed “Pasul,” beyond repair, and legally unfit for reading because of its many broken, erased, and otherwise illegible letters.

No doubt, after careful consideration, Scroll #330 was selected from the hundreds of scrolls, taken from it bin and packed with meticulous and loving care for shipment to Lexington. When I received the letter and I knew that the Scroll was on its way to begin a new life in a new home, I prayed that its trip would be an easy one, and its last one.

When Bonnie and I drove to the airport on that late day in June, we were both rather silent. I think we both knew that we were part of a drama, old and familiar to our people, but new to us. I thought of the many times in Jewish history that our people, in danger and in flight, were nonetheless preoccupied with the saving of their sacred Scrolls.

Remember the vignette in one of Chagall’s paintings. There, in the corner of the painting, a little shtetl synagogue is burning, its scarlet flames leaping skyward. A pogrom is raging. Men are rampaging through the village, burning, looting, killing. A frightened bearded Jew is running from the synagogue, a Sefer Torah in his arms. Four figures suspended in mid-air, tire, looking down incredulously, but the Jew runs, clutching his Torah, determined not to stop until he has found a resting place for his sacred burden, his tree of life.

At the airport, the box as placed on an office counter. After the accompanying shipping slips were read, a customs agent approached, looked at me, at the slips, and at the box. His question was altogether appropriate. I knew he had asked it a thousand times before, but under the circumstances, I knew also that I would never forget it. He asked, “What would you say is the value of it, sir?”

In your name, I answered, “Priceless.”

Priceless because it is the very breath and being of our people; because though we have seldom been able to live by it, neither have we been able to live without it.

Priceless because those strangely-shaped black letters form the words and concepts on which humanity is founded and on which it will always rest.

Priceless because anyone who wishes to understand us fully, must first understand our commitment to Torah.

Yes, and priceless, because a thousand voices have prayed over this scroll.
How many hands have touched this Torah? How many minds and hearts have been touched by it? How many young students because a Bar Mitzvah by it? How many gentle old men have studied from it? In its processions around the synagogue, how many lips have kissed it? How many? Lips of the old and the young. Lips lifeless now, that cried out to the executioners in fear and faith at Auschwitz and Dachua, “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Elohaynoo Adonai Echad.”

“Priceless,” I said, in your name, and in the name of every Kolin Jew, in the name of every Jew inscribed on the synagogue wall, in the name of every man, woman, and child, I say, we will not forget you, neither we, nor our children, nor our children’s children.

Come, beloved Torah, your life has been long and hard. Come, enter into our lives that we may do you honor. We reverently rise.

Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, we humbly accept this Sefer Torah. We consecrate to Your holy purposes this sacred gift which honors the memory of Six Million.

Forgive its imperfections as we today are forgiven our own. Allow us every once and awhile to read its broken letters, O Lord, for this Torah has slept too long, and it yearns to be read and kissed as in days gone by.

As we dedicate this Torah in memory of the Jews of Kolin and the Six Million, help us, God, to rededicate our lives to all that it represents.


Sat, December 4 2021 30 Kislev 5782