When Etz Hayyim Synagogue was reopened in 1999 as a place of prayer it was in need of a Torah Scroll. – Containing the five Books of Moses written by hand on parchment a Torah Scroll includes the basic laws and tenets of Judaism and is central to the synagogue service. In February 2000, Etz Hayyim received Memorial Scroll No. 1227 from the Memorial Scrolls Trust (MST) of Westminster Synagogue London on permanent loan. The Memorial Scroll is being regularly used for festival services and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.
The Memorial Scrolls Trust
The Memorial Scrolls Trust was established in 1980 to care for and restore 1,564 Torah Scrolls which had arrived from Prague in 1964. Since then, some 1,400 Torah scrolls have been allocated to over 1,000 communities and organisations around the world.
The Story of the Czech Torah Scrolls
The MST holds and cares for a collection of scrolls, which were collected from communities in Bohemia and Moravia and saved from destruction by members of Prague’s Jewish community during the Second World War. These Scrolls are thus survivors and witnesses of the Shoah.
For more than a thousand years Jews had lived in Bohemia and Moravia and developed a rich Jewish culture. After the German invasion in 1939, the historical congregations were closed down and their synagogues were destroyed or deserted. In 1942 members of Prague’s Jewish community decided to gather the religious treasures from the destroyed synagogues. They persuaded the German occupants to accept their plan and so they collected more than 100,000 artefacts and brought them to the Jewish Museum of Prague. Among the artefacts were about 1,800 Torah scrolls, which were labelled in Czech and German with a description of the place it came from. Except for one survivor, all the curators and cataloguers of the museum were eventually deported to Terezin and Auschwitz. After the war the scrolls were transferred to the abandoned synagogue at Michle outside Prague. In 1964, the Memorial Scrolls Committee of Westminster Synagogue in London arranged the shipment of 1,546 Torah Scrolls to London, where they were catalogued, restored and repaired, to be eventually sent to synagogues and organisations all over the world for religious and educational purposes to synagogues in need.
Since September 2008, the Czech Memorial Scrolls Museum at Kent House, the home of Westminster Synagogue, tells the story of the Scrolls and their odyssey from Bohemia and Moravia to Westminster Synagogue in London and then on to new homes throughout the world.
The Memorial Scroll No. 1227 at Etz Hayyim
In 2000, Etz Hayyim received Memorial Scroll No. 1227 through the assistance of Mrs Ruth Shaffer (1910-2006), then Director of the Memorial Scrolls Trust. This Memorial Scroll is currently the only Memorial Scroll in Greece and it is designated as an orphan scroll: 216 out of the 1,546 Czech MST Scrolls are designated as “orphan scrolls”, which means that when the Torah Scrolls arrived in 1942 at the Jewish Museum in Prague from the communities in Bohemia or Moravia, it was no longer possible to identify these scrolls’ origin.
Nikos Stravroulakis, founding director of Etz Hayyim Synagogue, described his first encounter with the Memorial Scroll No. 1227 and its installation into Etz Hayyim Synagogue in a letter to the MST:
“As I am the sole Jew here I was in a bit of a quandary – to lead it into the synagogue alone – or to wait until such time as one could do traditional honours with perhaps some visiting Jews attending. In the end I decided that I would simply pray that all of the 263 victims of our community would be with me in some spirit. Lacking the tradition that we have of showering a new Sepher with sweets and flowers as it is taken up to the Ehal I wrapped it in a tallet, put around a quite exquisite Torah binder set with a silver clasp with the Shema on it and hung over one of the etzim a silver yad (both gifts that were recently sent) and placed it in the Ehal – along with a chocolate bar! I had recently pruned one of the olive trees and so I put the branches in a vase in front of the Ehal. It was a very powerful and moving experience for me and I am deeply grateful that the Sepher was given a new home here in Hania. I pray that for many years it will be the companion of our other Sepher.”
Since then, the Memorial Scroll No. 1227 has been used for festival services and for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. In July 2016, Vadim Wulfsohn read from the Memorial Scroll during his Bar Mitzvah service. His father, Jason Wulfsohn, had grown up associated with Westminster Synagogue so that Vadim’s reading from the Memorial Scroll “added yet another dimension of significance to an already sacred and magical time” for the Wulfsohn family.