Czech Torahs

We Remember
the Jews of Louny, Svĕtlá nad Sázavou and Tábor, Czechoslovakia

        Jews had lived in the towns and villages of Moravia and Bohemia since the late 10th century, thriving in vibrant communities in spite of various forms of persecution. During the 19th century, they gradually became emancipated and civil equality was granted.  Unfortunately, that ended with the Nazi occupation following the Munich Agreement of 1938. The Jewish population of Bohemia and Moravia was virtually annihilated between 1939 and 1945, over 77,000 or approximately 84.8% of their numbers murdered. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica: “6,392 had died in Theresienstadt, 64,172 had been murdered in the extermination camps and of the Jews who had not been deported, 5,201 had either been executed, committed suicide, or died a natural death. On the day of the restoration of national sovereignty in Prague (the Prague Uprising,) May 5, 1945, there were 2,803 Jews alive in Bohemia and Moravia who had not been deported, most of them partners of mixed marriages.

        After the start of Jewish deportations, a group of Jews at the Jewish Museum in German-occupied Prague submitted a plan to the Nazis to save the precious objects in the synagogues by bringing them to the museum to be catalogued and preserved.  We will never know the real reason the Nazis agreed to this plan, but transport companies were given permission to bring Torah Scrolls, religious treasures in gold, silver and textile, along with historic archives and thousands of books from over 100 synagogues, to Prague.  More than 100,000 items were eventually received by the newly-named Central Jewish Museum. The Germans were defeated and the Torah scrolls were safe. But unfortunately, after less than three years of Czech freedom, the Communists staged a coup and took over the government, the revival of Jewish life was stifled, and the Prague Jewish Museum came under government control. Hundreds of rescued Torah scrolls languished as state property.

        On a visit to Prague in 1963, Eric Estorick, an American art dealer living in London, was asked by a state official if he would like to buy some Torah Scrolls. At the Michle Synagogue he saw wooden racks holding about 1,800 Scrolls. He returned to London and contacted a fellow American, Ralph Yablon, who in turn contacted his rabbi, Rabbi Harold Reinhart, of the Westminster Synagogue, and offered to put up the money to buy the Scrolls. After their authenticity and condition were verified, an offer was made for the purchase. Two trucks crammed with 1,564 Torah Scrolls arrived at the Westminster Synagogue in February and March of 1964, and the Memorial Scrolls Trust was established to oversee their care, restoration and allocation to synagogues around the world. Old York Road Temple-Beth Am is privileged to hold three of these sacred Scrolls, from the towns of Tábor, Louny and Svetlá nad Sázavou.


        Before World War II, Tábor, located about 75 miles SSE of Prague, was a calm, countrified town without much industry, surrounded by a beautiful hilly and wooded landscape, where Jews had been living since 1594. There were many Jewish-owned businesses in the town, with a synagogue, a rabbi, a cantor, a shochet and a shammas serving the Jewish community, even though many identified themselves more as Czechs than Jews. But they were Jews, and the Nazi occupation brought difficult changes to their lives:  they had to wear the yellow star and obey a curfew; they had to sit at the back of buses and ride. in the last car of trains. They could only shop from 4:00p.m.- 5:00p.m., and their ration books, marked with a big “J”, had few coupons and many restrictions.  They were barred from school and prevented from talking to non-Jews. Then, in November 1942 a transit camp with 1,267 Jews, including many Jews from distant towns, was created in Tábor. Shortly thereafter, the Nazis began transporting Tabor’s Jews to Terezin and farther east, and within months had eradicated the entire community. After the War, some Jews returned and attempted to revive the congregation, but there was only a small group using a prayer room, and even that ended in 1972. The synagogue, once a beautiful landmark but long abandoned, was torn down in 1977 and replaced with a parking lotAlthough there is a plaque commemorating the site of the synagogue, monuments on the sites of the old and new Jewish cemeteries, and annual observances of Tábor’s Jewish past, today you could not even make a minyan in Tábor. 

        Our synagogue’s Czech Memorial Scroll number 1138 is from Tábor.  In the more than 100 years since it was first lovingly written by a Czech Jewish scribe, it has witnessed some of the worst inhumanity the world has ever known, and it has witnessed great joy.  One joyous event was the erev-Shabbat service on Friday evening, April 6, 1973, when it was dedicated by Rabbi Harold Waintrup of blessed memory, and the members of Old York Road Temple-Beth Am. Today it still continues to forge the chain of Jewish life l’dor v’dor, from one generation to another.


        Memorial Scrolls Trust Scroll number 1060, from Louny, came to Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in 1973, carried by Rabbi Harold Waintrup aboard a flight from London.

        Louny, a town in the Czech Republic founded in 12th century, is roughly 35 miles northwest of Prague.  Jews have a long history in Louny, and are first mentioned in 1254 as living on a Jewish street and having a synagogue and a cemetery. The city records for 1380–92 contained a special section for Jewish lawsuits.   In 1505, Jews lived mostly in the eastern part on Židovská (Jewish) street in a small ghetto consisting of 12 houses, a school and prayer chapel. In the city record books we can find the names of eight prominent Jews.  As elsewhere in Europe, Jewish life in Louny was sometimes chaotic and sometimes, peaceful. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Jews were periodically expelled from Louny, only to be allowed back again because the town needed their financial help.  In 1803, Gabriel Taussig built a synagogue, and in 1860 the Louny Jewish Community was officially established.  Jews from surrounding communities moved to Louny, and in 1871 they built a new synagogue, which the Old York Road Temple-Beth Am group led by Rabbi Leib visited in April 2013 as part of its Central Europe tour.  The community flourished in the second half of the 19th century and included doctors, businessmen, and lawyers. Tragedy befell Louny’s Jewish community in WWII.  The entire community was deported to the Nazi death camps in 1942, and the synagogue’s religious items were sent to the Central Jewish Museum in Prague. The Jewish community in Louny disappeared. The synagogue was rented out as a workshop and is currently used as the municipal archive.

        There are no Jews in Louny today.  However, the synagogue remains with a Jewish star on its handsome iron entrance gate, the Ten Commandments on the facade above the door, and a faded Magen David is visible on the ceiling. The 2013 Beth Am visit sensitized Louny’s Mayor, Radovan Sabata, to the history of Jews in Louny.  And on June 23, 2014, the townspeople, led by their Mayor, along with representatives of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Czech Republic and the Kehila of Teplice, a neighboring town that still has a vibrant Jewish community, held an impressive prayer ceremony in Louny to celebrate 600 years of Jewish presence in the region.  They placed a plaque on the outside wall of the synagogue commemorating the lost Jews of Louny, with the inscription. “In memory of the citizens of our city who were victims of the Holocaust 1939-1945.”]

Svetlá nad Sázavou

        It was with great joy that in 2004 our Old York Road Temple-Beth Am merged with Temple Beth Torah and their  “Little Torah from Svetlá” joined our two Czech Memorial Scrolls. Its history like the others is tragic, in this case mirroring the stories of the martyred Jews of Svetlá nad Sázavou. As far back as the 17th century there was a Jewish presence in that small town bordering Bohemia and Moravia, today part of the Czech Republic.  By 1930, the last official count, they numbered 79 men, women and children who worshipped in a small synagogue on the river and would be buried one day in the Jewish cemetery nearby. But the end of their world was imminent. On the eve of the signing of the Munich Agreement, September 30, 1938, the Jews of Svetlá celebrated an impromptu service in the little synagogue on the river. Herbert Morawetz, the son of their most prominent citizen, held the little Torah and chanted the blessing in Svetlá for the last time. On June 13, 1942, 55 of their Jews were taken by the Nazis to Terezin to die there or in other concentration camps. The Jews of Svetlá were no more.

        Miraculously, their Torah survived. The Confirmation Class of 1982 raised the money to adopt “The Little Torah from Svetlá” in honor of their beloved Rabbi Bernard Frank. It journeyed from a small village in Czechoslovakia to London, from London to Temple Beth Torah in Northeast Philadelphia and finally to an honored place in the holy ark of the Beth Torah Chapel of Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington, Pennsylvania. While the Little Torah has played an important role in the spiritual life of our community, there was no marker in Svetlá to honor the Jews who cherished it. We hope to close the circle on June 21, 2016, when representatives of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Czech Republic; Jan Tourek, Mayor of Svetlá nad Sázavou; and congregants of Old York Road Temple-Beth Am, dedicate a plaque in memory of the citizens of Svetlá who were victims of the Holocaust. It is a story with no end;L’dor v’dor, from generation to generation assuring that the Jews of Svetlá will never be forgotten.

        More information about the Holocaust history of Bohemia and Moravia, our towns, their Torahs, and their hundreds of Holocaust victims can be found in the program book for our November 2, 2014 memorial and rededication program. To view the program book in its entirety, including the names of those who were murdered by the Nazis, please click Part 1 and Part 2.  For more information about the Memorial Scrolls Trust and its worldwide programs, please click here.

November 2, 2014, Old York Road Temple-Beth Am paid homage to our three Czech Holocaust Memorial Torah Scrolls. These Sefer Torahs were rescued from the ashes of Tábor, Louny and Svetlá nad Sázavou and miraculously made their way to our synagogue. When a Memorial Scroll is entrusted to a congregation it is with the understanding it play a meaningful role in the spiritual and educational life of the synagogue and that an attempt be made to connect with and to honor the people who prayed from that Torah before us. We were able to meet these commitments to the victims of Tábor and Louny and their Torahs. It was time to honor the 55 Jews of Svetlá who never returned. The link was Herbert Morawetz, the only survivor of Svetlá’s Jewish population and the last Jew to pray from their Torah-our Little Torah of Svetlá- that sits on the top shelf of the Aron Kodesh in the Beth Torah Chapel.

On June 17, 2016, seven Beth Amnicks and three members of the Morawetz family began an unforgettable odyssey to memorialize those 55 Jewish citizens of the small Czech town of Svetlá nad Sázavou murdered by the Nazis and to honor their Torah which eventually became ours. We spent three days visiting every corner of Jewish Prague culminating on June 20 when we experienced one of the most memorable days of our lives. Mayor Jan Tourek, the mayor of Svetlá; VIPs of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Prague and the Czech Republic; and citizens of the town of Svetlá, hosted a magnificent homage to their 55 Jewish Citizens martyred in the Holocaust, and honored the ten of us representing OYRTBA who came to Svetlá to place a memorial plaque in a prominent place in Svetla’s Town Hall. In the old Jewish cemetery of the town, surrounded by our “family” and all those dignitaries led by Mayor Tourek, in our best Czech accent, we recited Kaddish for each one of the murdered 55 Jews of Svetlá nad Sázavou.

We had accomplished an amazing mitvah. Though many of these people knew nothing about the fate of their Jewish citizens, their long gone synagogue or the journey their Torah made from the ashes of the Holocaust to Old York Road Temple-Beth Am, they were truly touched, ashamed of what had happened and determined it would never happen again. They were proud to have that plaque affixed to the wall of their Town Hall to remind them of the 55 Jews taken together on June 13, 1942, and murdered in concentrations camps. They were proud the Little Torah of Svetlá had an honored place in our synagogue. They were proud of us.

Old York Road Temple-Beth Am Participants:
Rhoda Ryba
Ilean Molish
Jane Hurwitz
Bill Patent
Carol Stein
Barry Stein
Bridget Dorfman

From the Morawetz Family:
Pegeen Morawetz Rubinstein
David Rubinstein
John Morawetz