Ceremony Honors Rescue of Holocaust Torah Scrolls

Dan Asia, second from right, carries Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging’s Czech Holocaust Torah during a commemorative event at the Arizona Jewish Historical Society in Phoenix on Feb. 25, 2024. (Photo courtesy Arizona Jewish Historical Society)

A commemorative service in Phoenix on Sunday, Feb. 25, included Torah scrolls from two Tucson congregations.

Both are Czech Memorial Scrolls that were collected by the Nazis during the Holocaust, warehoused in a ruined synagogue in Prague following the 1948 Communist coup, and finally rescued and brought to the Westminster Synagogue in London, which established the Memorial Scrolls Trust. The trust allocates scrolls, on loan, to Jewish congregations around the world.

Dan Asia, representing Congregation Eshel Avraham/Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging, and Herb Cohn, representing Kol Ami Synagogue, brought their congregations’ scrolls to the service, which marked the 60th anniversary of the scrolls’ arrival in London in 1964. The Arizona Jewish Historical Society and the Memorial Scrolls Trust arranged the “Phoenix 60 in 2024” gathering.

For many years, people believed the Nazis planned to use Jewish artifacts to create a museum of an extinct race. But the trust says that according to “Ark of Memory,” a 2012 monograph by Magda Veselská of Prague’s Jewish Museum, no documents exist to support this theory.

Including Torahs from Greater Phoenix area synagogues, there were 13 scrolls at the anniversary event, which began with a procession of Holocaust survivors or survivors’ family members accompanying each Torah, followed by a candle-lighting ceremony.

Speakers included Jeffrey Ohrenstein, CEO of the Memorial Scrolls Trust, who traveled from London to attend, and Rabbi John Linder of Temple Solel of Paradise Valley.

Violinist Martin Bukshpan, the director of the Red Rocks Music Festival, provided music to open and close the ceremony, “as if we had one of Chagall’s fiddlers on the roof,” Asia says.

After the ceremony, those who’d escorted Torahs to the event displayed them in a meeting room. It was the first time, Asia notes, that he and Cohn met.

Herb Cohn holds Kol Ami Synagogue’s Czech Holocaust Torah at the Arizona Jewish Historical Society in Phoenix on Feb. 25, 2024. (Photo courtesy Arizona Jewish Historical Society)

Cohn and his wife, Sue, originally obtained Kol Ami’s scroll in 1995 for a Long Island, New York, congregation. The Cohns moved to Tucson in 2006. In 2009, their former congregation merged with another Long Island congregation that already had a Holocaust scroll. The trust’s rules stipulate that a congregation can have only one memorial scroll.

“We were very fortunate that the trust agreed to allow us to transfer the scroll to Or Chadash” in Tucson, says Sue, who will be reading from the Czech scroll on May 18 when she and three other women celebrate their b’not mitzvah at Kol Ami.

In 2009, the Cohns went to New York to fetch the Torah. They recall getting strange looks as they walked through Newark airport with the heavy, bulky object in a 5-foot-long duffel bag.

“People thought we were carrying a dead body,” Sue says, adding that they had to buy a seat on the plane for the scroll because they would not dare to put it in the luggage compartment and it was too big to fit in an overhead bin.

At airport security, a guard wanted them to remove and unroll the Torah, Sue says, “but fortunately a supervisor had the sechel (wisdom) to allow us to just put it through the scanner and be on our merry way.”

Or Chadash and Temple Emanu-El merged in 2019 to form Kol Ami.

Kol Ami’s Czech Torah, MST 1408, was termed an “orphan scroll” because its place of origin could not be determined. In memory of that unknown community, Kol Ami adopted a Czech town, Cheb, which was a center of Jewish learning in Bohemia in the 14th and 15th centuries, says Cohn. His grandmother came from Bohemia, the largest region in the former Czechoslovakia.

Two other local congregations, Chaverim and Beit Simcha, also have Czech memorial scrolls on loan from the trust.

Rabbi Stephanie Aaron says she wasn’t able to participate in the ceremony because Chaverim’s Czech Torah was with a sofer for repairs.

Rabbi Sam Cohon of Congregation Beit Simcha was out of town and also could not attend the ceremony, but the Cohon family has a deep connection with the Memorial Scrolls Trust.

Rabbi Baruch Cohon, Sam Cohon’s father, explains that it was his uncle, Rabbi Harold Reinhart of Westminster Synagogue, who first learned of the cache of scrolls from a Czech teen who came to London on a kindertransport ship at the end of World War II.

Reinhart arranged for the scrolls to be rescued, with the help of philanthropist Ralph Yablon, who funded the purchase of the 1,564 scrolls.

Torah escorts sit with their scrolls during the “Phoenix 60 in 2024” gathering at the Arizona Jewish Historical Society in Phoenix on Feb. 25, 2024. (Photo courtesy Arizona Jewish Historical Society)

Although the elder Cohon never met Reinhart, he did get a tour of Westminister Synagogue from Ruth Shaffer, the secretary who organized and oversaw the Memorial Scrolls Trust for almost 40 years. It was Shaffer who employed David Brand, a sofer (scribe) who would spend 27 years repairing the Czech scrolls.

Brand’s arrival at Westminister Synagogue has become the stuff of legend, says Cohon.

The Orthodox scribe knocked on the door and announced to Shaffer that he was looking for work.

“Do you have any Torah scrolls that need repair?” he asked in Yiddish.

“We have 1,564; come in!” she replied.