One by one, teens carried six Torah scrolls into the sanctuary at Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains. As they proceeded down the center aisle to musical accompaniment by teenage siblings Elizabeth and Justin Koizumi, who played the flute and violin, respectively, the 100-or-so people in the audience rose out of respect.
While it’s customary to stand whenever a Torah is lifted, the honor directed toward these scrolls seemed more profound, those in attendance having recognized the difficult journeys that brought the scrolls to New Jersey, and on this night, what they represented.
To mark the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, each of the six Union County congregations —all either Conservative or Reform — brought a Torah scroll that had been rescued from communities in the former Czechoslovakia and is now in possession of each of the six congregations.
Kristallnacht, which occurred on Nov. 9, 1938, is often considered the first onslaught of the Holocaust. Over 1,000 synagogues across Germany and parts of Austria and Czechoslovakia were burned, and 7,500 Jewish businesses were destroyed. The ceremony, “Kristallnacht and the Czech Memorial Scrolls,” was held Nov. 3.
When the Torahs reached the front of the room they were placed in specially designed holders facing the audience. Clergy introduced the teens from their synagogues, after which the young members provided a brief history and description of the scroll they carried: where it came from, when it was written, and whether it is in useable condition. The teens also gave a description of the communities the scrolls came from, including when they were established, what happened to them during the Holocaust, and how many people survived.
Afterward, everyone sang “It’s a Tree of Life” in Hebrew and stood for a moment of silence.
The six scrolls are part of a cache of 1,564 collected during the Holocaust from synagogues in Moravia and Bohemia and stored in a synagogue in Prague. In 1964, after being purchased by an art dealer in London, they became part of what is now the Memorial Scrolls Trust in the city’s Westminster Synagogue. Many are on permanent loan to synagogues around the world; Torah scrolls in good condition are used, those that are not are on display.
Peter Fleischmann, a member of Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains who represents the Trust in New Jersey, was born and raised in Czechoslovakia and fled with his family in 1941 when he was 14. A guest speaker for the ceremony, he frequently shares his story of survival, which includes nearly being sent back to Czechoslovakia from Cuba. He said that when the Torahs were loaned to their respective synagogues in N.J. and around the world in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, congregants understood the significance, but that’s not necessarily the case today.
“I encourage each congregation to … find some way to continually remind their congregations that they are there, what they are, what and why they’re there, what they stand for,” Fleischmann said during the ceremony, “because in the not-too-distant future, those Torahs will be the only surviving connection of what happened during the Holocaust.”
In addition to Temple Sholom and Congregation Beth Israel, the other participating synagogues were Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah in Clark, Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford, Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, and Temple Sinai in Summit. Even though some of the synagogues have multiple Torah scrolls rescued from Czechoslovakia, each provided only one so that the six scrolls could represent the six million Jews murdered in the Shoah.
Sophie Drapkin, 18, a member of Temple Sholom, said she could not turn down the opportunity to be a part of the ceremony. She was already familiar with the story of the Temple Sholom Torah, and had seen several memorials to the Holocaust during a confirmation trip to Prague and other Central European cities.
“I thought it was something really special to participate in tonight,” she said.