By Eden C. Stein, Ph.D.
Every year, as part of the seventh-grade religious school class at Temple Emanuel of Greater New Haven in Orange, the young teens learn about the Holocaust. In 2019, the class was inspired and supported by the Barbara Rosenthal memorial fund, lovingly created by the Weber family at Temple Emanuel. The class had a very special task to research and learn about the origins of the Holocaust Memorial Scroll on loan to Temple Emanuel from the Memorial Scrolls Trust in Westminster, London.
“It was cool because we had our very own Torah from the Holocaust," said Lila when she first found out about the project. "It was on display in a glass case near the entryway to the temple. We saw it every time we came in.”
Before the class started to research online, they examined the scroll, learning that it was Number 1178 and was originally from Horazdovice, which was part of Czechoslovakia before World War II.
The students visited the Memorial Scrolls Trust website and found a special section about Horazdovice as the Westminster synagogue also has a scroll from that particular town. The class started learning about life in Horazdovice from the time Jews first settled there in 1618.
“It was just like any other normal town in Europe. Just like in other towns, the amount of Jewish families was limited," recalled Matt. "Jews were disrespected and not treated like other people until the mid-1800s when they were given more rights.”
"Then they became more successful," Lila noted. "For example, the Eisner Sewing Company was founded and a wealthy business person purchased a framed Ferris wheel for the community.”
"During the Holocaust, the Nazis came in and took all the scrolls. Instead of destroying them, the Nazis held on to them, perhaps because they were going to create a museum to an extinct race,” Matt said. Some Jews in Prague convinced the Nazis to allow them to catalog the scrolls, carefully giving each a number and matching it with its community of origin.
As part of the Holocaust Unit, the class had a visit from survivor Andy Sarkany. The students were very moved when he told them his story and shared maps and pictures.
Beyla wrote how Sarkany's visit affected her. “Everything that Andy shared with us was very impactful...He had so many messages about helping each other and people who helped him survive...The thing that struck me most was his story about Rose (a non-Jew) who took him out of the ghetto to get medical care. He said to love, not hate.”
During the 1960s, the scrolls were brought to Westminster and the Memorial Scrolls Project commenced.
“We found out that the rabbi in charge of the project was the great uncle of one of our members, Melissa Perkal. Melissa came to our class and told us about this special connection,” Lila explained. "Our scroll is written on expensive parchment made from a cow’s hide. It is lighter than other large scrolls, which shows it is from a wealthy community. The calligraphy is a combination of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic writing.”
Temple Emanuel is in the process of having the scroll restored to a level of kashrut, which will allow it to be read once again during services. The students created presentations about Horazdovice and the Memorial Scrolls trust for the congregation.
This scroll has a unique history and Temple Emanuel has a special connection to the Memorial Scrolls project. The scroll itself is a testimony to the Jews of Horazdovice and its survival from the time it was commissioned in the 19th century through its restoration by the temple's current members. It is a symbol of the survival and future of a beautiful heritage. Just as the text of the Torah binds Jews together through time and space, this scroll binds the students and congregation to Jews who lived two centuries ago and 4,000 miles away.
Through this project, all members of this class have developed a close connection with the scroll and hope to read from it as they become Bar and Bat Mitzvah later this year.