One of the Torah scrolls in our ark has rather special significance. It originates from the community of Vlašim, a town in the Central Bohemian Region of the Czech Republic, 70km south-east of Prague. Vlašim has around 11,500 inhabitants and is situated on the Blanice river. Today Vlašim is known for its castle and English style park with many pieces of romantic architecture such as the Chinese pavilion, Old Castle and its three gates.
We received this scroll from Hammerson House in 1994, who in turn acquired the scroll on loan in perpetuity from the Memorial Scrolls Trust.
The Jews of Vlašim
The first mention of Jews in the local chronicles of Vlašim dates from 1570. By 1724, a small community was living there permanently. In the early days, most of Vlašim’s Jews were distillers and tavern-keepers; some were active in the phosphorus industry. After Austria emancipated its Jewish citizens in the mid-19th century, they tended to move toward the urban centres of the Empire to pursue careers in commerce or the liberal professions. Most of Vlašim’s Jews lived lives of domestic obscurity. Some achieved a measure of external fame. A painter named Salomon Benesch was born there in 1867. He made his career in Vienna whence he was deported to the Terezín ghetto in June of 1942. Three months later he was murdered at Treblinka. In 2010, one of his watercolours sold at auction for 1,800 Euros. The family of the composer Gustav Mahler came from nearby. Indeed, the first person to bear the family name (until then Jews did not have family names) was the composer’s great-grandfather, Abraham Mahler. This Mahler was a synagogue cantor who also earned his living as a kosher butcher. In 1881 the young Gustav returned to Vlašim, where his mother’s sister still lived, on summer holiday from his studies in Vienna. It was there that he first fell (tragically) in love.
In 1893 the town’s Jewish population was 210; we know that in 1921 there were still 87 Jews in Vlašim. By 1930 the Jewish population had dropped to 67 (of a total population of 3,625). On December 11, 1942, Vlašim’s 63 remaining Jews were deported to Terezín together with the Jews of Prague. We know the names of those people; they have been etched into the stone at the synagogue in Prague. From Terezín most were sent to the death camps of Poland. Only four of them survived.
Memorial Scrolls trust
In 1942 a devoted group of eight Jewish historians and communal leaders devised a way to bring the religious treasures from the deserted communities and destroyed synagogues in Czechoslovakia to the comparative safety of what had become the Central Jewish Museum in Prague. The curators laboured under appalling conditions to preserve these holy objects that had previously been at the mercy of vandals and plunderers. Each one was meticulously recorded, labelled and entered on a card index by the Museum’s staff with a description of its origin. The curators hoped that these treasures would be protected and might one day be returned to their original homes. All of the museum’s curators were eventually transported to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, with only two survivors.
After the war, with fewer than 8,000 Czech Jews having survived (from a population of more than 100,000 before the war) the objects remained warehoused in an unused synagogue. The surviving remnant of the Prague Jewish community lacked the resources to maintain the museum, so it came under the control of the Czech state authorities. The 1,564 Torah scrolls in the collection could not effectively be displayed as museum exhibits, and they would eventually deteriorate if they remained rolled up and unused. In 1963, Ralph Yablon purchased the scrolls and entrusted them to Westminster Synagogue, which in turn distributed the scrolls to various synagogues, educational institutions, and other bodies wishing to have a memorial to the communities destroyed in the Shoah. (Credit is due to Rabbi Jonathan Cohen of Mishkan Torah Synagogue for the above information)
The Torah scroll that is now at Belsize Square is identified as MST #1222. We are honoured regularly to use this scroll in our services, especially during the High Holydays.
There are no Jews in Vlašim today but other scrolls from there are at Mishkan Torah Synagogue of Greenbelt, Maryland, Temple Judea of Palm Beach Gardens and Temple David of Mount Lawley, Western Australia. All our communities are linked with each other and to the martyred community of Vlašim. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Cohen of Mishkan Torah Synagogue:
We carry on for them. May we be worthy of perpetuating their memory in the way by which we honour their most sacred possession and live its lessons.