In our latest “Have Your Say” essay Rabbi Andrew Goldstein discusses how the fact that his London synagogue uses a Torah scroll from the Czech town of Kolín led to close links with the town, whose Jewish community was destroyed in the Shoah but whose Baroque synagogue — where that Torah was once read, ancient Jewish cemetery, and former Jewish quarter still stand pretty much intact. As part of the involvement, Rabbi Goldstein and a group of his congregation has on occasion taken their Torah back to Kolín (where no Jews live today) for use in prayer services.
As a follow up, we would like to note how a rescued Torah scroll from Ostrava in the Czech Republic prompted a somewhat different — but also intense — response from the Kingston, Surbiton and District Synagogue in Kingston-upon-Thames, England, where it is used. This is the Kingston Ostrava Circle, a project to find living eye-witnesses and family members and to collect available evidence of Jewish life in Ostrava — where, unlike in Kolín, almost no physical traces of the destroyed Jewish community remain, though a tiny Jewish community still exists.
As the YIVO Encyclopaedia writes:
Following the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia on 15 March 1939, Ostrava’s six synagogues were torched. In October of that year, 1,290 Jewish males were sent to Nisko nad Sanem, a forced-labor camp; an additional 3,558 Jews were deported to Terezín mostly in September 1942. After World War II, approximately 250 Jews returned to Ostrava and a Jewish community—covering northern Moravia and Silesia—was reestablished. A new cemetery was set up in 1965 (and a ceremonial hall was built in 1986–1988). The old cemetery was destroyed in 1980 and is now a public park. In 1997, the Jewish community had approximately 80 members.
Albeit none of them had any personal or family connection to Ostrava (and some in fact first had to look up the strange location on the map), the presence of this scroll encouraged the members of the synagogue to research the history of the Jews in the city. The Kingston Group, coordinated by David Lawson, started in 2006 by making contact with ‘Ostravaks’ whose stories could be found on the Internet and by recording video interviews with them.
By now, a huge amount of material has been assembled, and the Kingston group partners with the Prague Jewish Museum to preserve it. As it states on the group’s web site:
the Jewish Community has not been destroyed. It has survived and been recreated in virtual reality through our worldwide network of first, second and third generation Ostravaks. Their family stories, photographs and memories which we have collected have all been sent, six large boxes full, to the Jewish Museum in Prague, with whom we have worked closely throughout this research. There the material will be preserved and made accessible to future researchers and entered on the Museum’s data base.
Our Ostrava sefer has, indeed, proved to be a “Tree of Life to them that grasp it” for the Jews of Ostrava.