On Sept. 25, 1988, Rabbi Joseph P. Klein and United Hebrew Congregation Terre Haute celebrated Erev Sukkot and dedicated the Pardubice Memorial Torah, arrived on permanent loan from the Memorial Scrolls Trust in Westminster, England.
The scroll survived a long and harrowing road to reach its new home. Starting in 1942, members of Prague’s Jewish community gathered more than 100,000 artifacts, including some 1,800 scrolls, from devastated communities and synagogues.
Among them was this Torah from Pardubice, Czech Republic. Curators attached a tag with the number 32379 to the Pardubice scroll and when it made its way in 1964 to Westminster Synagogue in London, it drew the formal designation MST#845.
The scroll still resides at Temple Israel, where former UHC President Scott Skillman told its story with this multimedia presentation Nov. 9, 2015, as part of the community’s Night of Broken Glass remembrance marking the 77th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
Hello! Shalom! How are you? Welcome to my house!
I am 32379, from Pardubice, Czech Republic.
I live here, at United Hebrew Congregation in Terre Haute, Indiana. But I have not always lived here. If you have a few minutes, I would love to tell you about my first home.
I have to warn you though, it is not an entirely happy story. But it is a story of perseverance and life in the face of those determined to take life. Does that sound scary? Good! I want you to be a little scared.
Most torahs do not have names
Most torahs do not have names. We are hand-written in Hebrew by special scholars in Israel. The panels of parchment are sewn together and rolled into a scroll. One of the bases for Jewish communal life is the weekly reading of Torah before a congregation. I have a name, though. It was given to me by Nazis, but I am not ashamed of it. I kind of wear it with pride. My name is 32379. Those Nazis had a habit of keeping lots of stuff that did not belong to them.
I will tell you more about that and how it came to be in a minute. But first I want to talk about my first home.
I was written in 1880! I am 125 years old! I am celebrating my quasquicentennial! Which should have been the same for my Temple. I am from Pardubice (Par doo BIT sa), which is in the Czech Republic now.
My Temple was built in 1880 but my people have been in this area for centuries. History talks about a fire that destroyed the town in 1507, and even then there were noted Jewish merchants and scholars in the town. But it was not easy for them. In 1534, the law prevented them from being “residents” of the town. In 1588, the king passed a decree that allowed no more than 15 families to live in town.
In 1644, they were allowed to be residents, but they had to pay a special tax. And every business transaction had special taxes, too. They were not allowed to own restaurants or breweries and if their house or business were destroyed they were not allowed to rebuild. It was not easy to stay.
For the next two hundred years, things went back and forth for the Jews in Pardubice. They were allowed to have a special cemetery and that cemetery is still there today. By 1880 the 432 Jewish residents were permitted to build a Temple. It was updated in 1907 to add extra benches and increase in size for the women’s section.
The trouble began
Things stayed that way for a while, and by 1930 there were 518 Jews listed in town. But that’s when the situation got bad. My town is about an hour east of Prague. Germany is about 2 1/2 hours by train to the west. That’s where all the trouble began. During the 1930s, Germany was in turmoil. A new political group rose that accused Jews of all kinds of things that, of course, were not true. But that was irrelevant to what this group wanted to do. Jews were an easy group to pick on. They did not just hate Jews. They hated gypsies and just about anyone who was different from themselves.
The Nazis wanted to claim lots of territory. They seized Austria and they wanted land in my country that they called Sudetenland. This area was on the western edge of my country. They were threatening to attack the land if the governments did not agree to let them have it. This area was the industrial part of my country, and also had all the defensive fortifications.
On Sept. 30, 1938, many of the European nations agreed to let Germany have the land. Of course, they did not include us in the agreement, but England, Italy, France, Poland, Russia and Spain all agreed to carve up my country. This agreement was called the Munich Agreement, of which Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain famously said, “I believe it is peace for our time.” Boy, was he wrong! This was appeasement at its worst. They gave in and that was the beginning of the end for us.
The world watched in silence
Kristallnacht was just a week and a half later, on Nov. 9, 1938. The whole world was put on notice of that the Nazis intended to attack Jews in their own territory! Dressed as civilians, the Nazi troops ransacked homes, businesses and synagogues. Although the troops were ordered not to hurt people, some Jews were beaten in the streets and in their homes. The Nazis arrested Jews all over and accused them of causing the trouble! Many men were put in concentration camps. We knew that no one was safe. In our land, and all over Europe, Jews were trying to get out!
In March of 1939, The Nazis took over our lands. They marched right in while the world watched in silence. They started doing the same things to us that they were doing to Jews elsewhere. They passed a series of increasingly oppressive laws making life worse for us. By 1940, they seized our property and prevented us from praying. My Temple was left empty and unprotected.
The Jewish federation in Prague convinced the Nazis that they should be allowed to collect all the Jewish artifacts throughout the country. Why they did this is a bit of a mystery. There is a myth that the Germans were going to start a museum for the Jewish race that they intended to wipe out. Scholars have debunked this myth. The Nazis in Germany knew nothing of the collection of artifacts in my lands.
The Jews in Prague were historians, and they catalogued everything. The Nazis collected the materials and put numbers on everything. That is how I got my Name. I am Jewish Artifact 32379! See, they wrote it right on my scroll. We can surmise that the people did it for a number of reasons. They probably thought that one day we could all be put back. They also thought that as long as they were busy doing a project for the government, they would not be deported. That did not work out so well for them.
More than 1,500 torahs were brought together and stored in the basement of The Michle Synagogue in Prague. That is where I stayed until 1964. The gold and silver artifacts were not recovered.
On Dec. 5 and 9, 1942, all of the Jews still left in Paradubice were sent to Terezin. The Germans called it Theresienstadt. Terezin was an old fort built by Emperor Joseph II, but it was empty by the 1900s. It was turned into a prison. Although Terezin was built to house 7,000 troops, the Germans had more than 57,000 people crammed into the small space. Food was nearly impossible to come by. Many people died there from malnutrition and disease. Then in 1944, the Nazis sent everyone still left alive to Auschwitz for the “Final Solution.”
The war’s aftermath
The war ended and the Nazis succeeded at nothing. Officially, 342 Jews from Pardubice were killed as a result of the Nazis. Only 10 Jews returned to my town. My Temple still stood, but was empty — no Torah, no artifacts and no children. For a brief period, my building was used as an art museum.
In 1958, my former home was torn down to build a department store. My cemetery is maintained and a special memorial to my people exists there. But even in modern times, people have broken into the cemetery and desecrated the graves. It is shameful.
The good news is that Jews do live in increasing numbers in my old country. The people are much more aware of our history and the hardships we endured. Life for the Jews is much better than it was for their ancestors.
In 1964, we forgotten scrolls were rescued. We had to be bought from the government, but a trust was formed for that purpose in England. The Memorial Scrolls Trust bought the scrolls and took them to England. We were tracked and restored and waited to be able to deliver our story. More than 600 of my kind were leased to congregations in America and around the world. We had special instructions to help us teach the world about what happened so that it might not happen again. Unlike most torahs, I am kept uncovered and retain my number and catalogue tag, so I can be seen.
Arrival in Terre Haute
In 1988, I came to Terre Haute from England. I have been here ever since, and I hope to stay here for as long as there are people here to listen to my story. At least once a year, the congregation reads from me, to teach the children about what happened in those days.
The words inside me relate many well-known stories. My personal story is one of life: that a people and their religion can survive through the worst-imaginable conditions and that haters will not long endure. I like to believe that I will see my sesquicentennial birthday in just 25 more years. I hope to be here, wearing my number and teaching my lessons in my home, wherever that may be.