September 25, 1995
We will soon read from the Akedah narrative in the Torah. The binding of Isaac is a stark description of one of the most important personal journeys in Jewish literature, one in which there is little dialogue. Of the 306 Hebrew words from the beginning of the portion – “some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test” – to its conclusion – “Abraham stayed in Beersheba” – 97 words portray the dialogue between Abraham and God, or with an angel of God….13 words are spoken by Abraham to his servants, though none by them to him…but only 15 words are the total extent of the dialogue to be found in two exchanges between father and son!
What does it feel like to be forsaken? What does it feel like to be redeemed? We arrive at a singular moment in the young history of our congregation. The “Akedah” narrative, a tale of a test, an emotionally searing journey, a story about being forsaken and redeemed – Isaac, bound on the altar of his father’s faith, rescued at the last possible moment by his father’s God – brings us to another story of discovery and recovery…brings us to this time and place to celebrate the sacred, enables us to redeem hope from the ashes, unites us this morning with an “object survivor” of the Holocaust.
Travel with me to nineteenth century Prague, the crossroad of Eastern and Western Europe. For more than a thousand years the Jewish community flourished in Bohemia and Moravia, and the extraordinary City of Prague served as its political, economic, cultural and religious center. Its impact on Jewish and general history is profound: Gustav Mahler was born in Bohemia, Sigmund Freud was a native of Moravia, Franz Kafka spent nearly his entire life in Prague, and Albert Einstein conceived and published the principles of his “Theory of Relativity” while serving as a professor at the University of Prague. Isaac Mayer Wise, the founding father of American Reform Judaism, hailed from Bohemia. Philosopher Martin Buber taught for a time in Prague, and the parents of Louis D. Brandeis were born there.
In this city – this intellectual greenhouse of ideas that would have a profound impact upon Jewish thought and world history, particularly in such academic fields as the natural and mathematical sciences, philosophy, and linguistics – liberal Jewish studies developed a growing respect for various scientific approaches to Jewish history. By the turn of the twentieth century, Jewish museums began to appear in many European cities.
The effort to establish such a museum in Prague was conceived by historian Salomon Hugo Lieben (1881-1942), who taught religion in Prague’s German-language secondary schools. His initial motivation was to preserve the rich inventory of Judaic artifacts from Prague synagogues that had fallen into disuse. In 1906 he created “The Organization for the Founding and Maintenance of a Jewish Museum” in Prague, and as he collected antiquities, he also traveled to rural villages and urban auction houses for rarities that would give testimony to the broad range of Jewish religious life and cultural history. In 1912, Prague’s Jewish community rewarded him by giving him the building that once housed the prestigious Jewish Burial Brotherhood Society. It was here that the Jewish museum strengthened its professional reputation, adding not only more high-quality art objects, but also a curatorial staff. Fourteen years later, in 1926, in acknowledgement of the momentum of its development, the community gave Lieben a larger building, The Ceremonial Hall in the heart of Prague’s Jewish quarter. A scant seven years later, in Germany, events were set in motion that would sweep the Jews of Central Europe into the vortex of the Holocaust. During this terrible era, Jewish art directors, historians, curators, and architects joined together in a desperate effort to make The Prague Jewish Museum a symbol of Jewish survival in an era of utter devastation.
Paradoxically, the Nazis became the overseers of a project that resulted in one of the world’s greatest collections of Judaica. On January 28, 1940, Hitler ordered the creation in Frankfurt of the Hohe Schule (“Academy”) which was to be “The Center of Nationalist-Socialist Doctrine and Education”. By March of 1941, a branch of the Hohe Schule was created, called the “Institute for Exploration of the Jewish Question,” thereby activating throughout Nazi-occupied territories a massive plan to confiscate Jewish libraries, archives, religious artifacts, and personal property. By the middle of 1942, Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s Chief Officer with protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, had established the Central Bureau for Dealing with the Jewish Question in Prague, as well as full authority over the newly re-titled Central Jewish Museum which was to become a Museum to an Extinct Race that would justify to the world the “final solution to the Jewish question”.
The new charter of the Museum announced that “the numerous, hitherto scattered Jewish possessions of both historical and artistic value, on the territory of the entire protectorate, must be collected and stored”. The outside world was told only that property was being taken into temporary custody until it could be returned to its “rightful” owners. But, as we now know, acquisitions were corollary to deportations of the “donors” – first to captivity and then to extermination.
Liturgical books, popular novels, portraits, ritual objects, silver Judaica, furniture, kitchen utensils, clothing, synagogue implements, all were collected and catalogued. Items arrived first from the provinces, as Jews in small towns and villages struggled to meet the terms of the Nazi mandate to centralize and inventory all Jewish property in Prague. By August 1942, post offices throughout Bohemia and Moravia overflowed with packages in all shapes and sizes. Jewish art historians, responsible for cataloguing tens of thousands of confiscated Jewish items, also were required to develop the administrative and exhibition programs of a museum dedicated to depicting a rapidly diminishing Jewish population.
In all, 153 Jewish communities from Bohemia and Moravia sent items to the Central Jewish Museum. The coincidence of the dates of shipments arriving at the museum with the timing of their owners’ deportation is apparent. On one day, for example – November 30, 1942 – transports from 14 communities carried 1,355 men, women and children to Terezin, the concentration camp near Prague. Museum records show that between August 17 and November 30, 1942, shipments of objects arrived from each of these communities.
Since our people had been prohibited from public worship by the Nazis, the seven religious institutions that lined the winding streets of the Jewish quarter were turned into sites in which to show Judaica, ironically enough, in context. Jews expelled from professional work in the arts and letters were readily available to undertake the momentous task of sorting, labeling and cataloguing the vast amounts of materials as they arrived on a daily basis. As communities perished, keepsakes and artifacts, ritual objects and notable literature accumulated. The Nazis, who cared nothing about Jewish lives, were busy commemorating memories and preserving Jewish history….for their own nefarious purposes.
Ultimately, however, this exhibition was never mounted. The Central Jewish Museum became a warehouse for material remnants of a doomed people. Thousands of historical objects continued to arrive for the Prague collection even after there were no museum professionals to catalogue them. As the outcome of the war became evident, the most valuable confiscated property – gold and jewelry, coins, banknotes, and even thousands of gold teeth – began to flow from Auschwitz into the Reichsbank. At the end of April 1945, Adolf Eichmann arranged for this hoard of twenty crates of gold to be transferred from Prague to Austria. The “final solution to the Jewish question” that he had supervised nearly achieved its purpose when the Russian Army liberated Terezin on May 8, and over the next year Prague’s Jewish Museum received its final bequest – drawings, diaries, photographs, and clothing from the victims of that camp and others. Among those remnants was the scrapbook of SS Officer Walter Bernhard: titled “Memories from Auschwitz,” it contained 263 photographs documenting in meticulous detail the process by which countless innocent men, women and children had been annihilated.
By the spring of 1945, the “Central Jewish Museum” filled not one Jewish community building but eight, as well as more than 50 warehouses that stretched across an entire quadrant of the old city of Prague. Virtually overnight, the museum had become the repository of an entire people’s spiritual culture. To this day, Prague gives us two legacies: one is that of a great historic site, presenting intact a centuries-old Jewish quarter that paints a vivid picture of the Jewish experience, and the other legacy is a haunting reminder of the totality with which humankind can ennoble life but also wreak destruction. (“The Precious Legacy-Judaic Treasures from the Czechoslovak State Collections”, edited by David Altshuler: Summit Books, 1983; pp. 17-38)
Lawrence Langer, author of the recently published and critically acclaimed book called “Admitting the Holocaust – Collected Essays”, writes the following in a chapter titled ‘The Literature of Auschwitz’: “Inversions cancel meaning here, and then challenge its rebirth in the desolate and arid moral soil of Auschwitz. Liberators “oppressed” by compassion; victims shamed by the crimes they witnessed, but did not commit; the innocent feeling guilty, the criminal unashamed; but most of all, the visible failure of good to carry out its historic mission of unmasking and overwhelming evil.”
Langer’s words carry the seeds of an imperative: to correct “the visible failure of good to carry out its historic mission of unmasking and overwhelming evil.” Is that “historic mission” any closer to being accomplished 50 years removed from the Holocaust? Is the “criminal unashamed” still a fixture in our midst? How, then, might we redeem hope from the ashes? In the face of intolerance, and its evil twin, indifference, what might inspire us…what might give us hope….what might instill in us the passion to “unmask and overwhelm evil”? Fifty years later, is Germany liberated from its responsibility for the Holocaust simply because she desired to build a monument in Berlin commemorating its victims?
Who will be the guardians of the past? Who will choose to remember? And to what end? Who will be the curators of memory, and who will be the creators of memory? Who will redeem history from the ashes, and who will rewrite it, revise it, deny it? In his opening comments on February 15, 1979, at the first meeting of ‘The President’s Commission on the Holocaust’ which would result in the dedication and opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC in April 1993, Elie Wiesel said, “We have been entrusted with an awesome legacy, and we are being judged by invisible friends, brothers, teachers, parents and they are all dead…we hear the Kaddish of a community in the Ukraine, a community that did not live long enough to complete the prayer. We hear the whispers of thousands and thousands of human beings, wailing in nocturnal processions toward the flames…we hear the battle orders of ghetto fighters. We hear the mute laments of abandoned children. We hear Bergen-Belsen. We hear Treblinka. And we hear Chelmno. And we are seized by Maidanek. We shiver because of Auschwitz and we burn because of Auschwitz.”
As a result of a worldwide plea in 1988 calling for donations of “documents, letters, diaries, original works of art, articles of clothing, photographs and other objects that were created in the camps, in ghettos or in hiding,” over ten thousand items – called “object survivors” by the Museum’s curatorial staff – were donated to the Museum. By August 1992, the Museum had acquired approximately 32,000 “object survivors”. The Torah scroll in the ark before you is an “object survivor” of the Holocaust. Its parchment bears the fingerprints of history. It speaks of journeys to Sinai and beyond. Written in Northern Italy or Southern Germany some 350 years ago, it tells us the stories of Moses and Aaron, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Esau, stories handed down to their descendants in villages, shtetls and ghettos. This Torah, which we will soon dedicate in the midst of Congregation Kol Ami, in the midst of our People, was cared for and treasured by generations of our people…people turned to dust before their time, while this Torah gathered dust in the Central Jewish Museum of Prague during that terrible time.
From Prague in 1993, the scroll made its way to Israel where it was examined by the Chief Rabbi to determine whether it was one of its kind from a particular era, written by a renowned scribe, or came from a famous synagogue in Europe. Some Torah scrolls that arrived from Prague into the hands of Israeli scholars were deemed to have such remarkable historic significance that they found themselves displayed in Israeli museums. The vast majority of the scrolls, however, did not find homes in museums, but were periodically released in small numbers in the hope that they would be redeemed by Jewish communities throughout the world to find their rightful places in synagogues in which they could be read and studied. Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrants would mark their passage into Jewish adulthood reading or chanting from them. Couples about to be married would say blessing over them on the Shabbat preceding their ceremonies. The Torah is both a historical text and a living document.
In November 1994, I received a call from David Sloviter, a member of our Board of Trustees – his name is listed in the dictionary next to the word “indefatigable” – asking me to join him at a Judaica exhibit here in Philadelphia. David had met the exhibitor in the summer of 1994 at an antique exhibit in Fort Washington and, learning that he would be at a Judaica exhibit in the Fall, David made a note to himself to meet him there. It was at the Judaica exhibit that we first saw what is now Congregation Kol Ami’s Torah. We learned of its history from Jeff Robinson, a consultant in the field of Judaic artifacts and ritual objects. David and I were transfixed by the moment…by the rush of history as we tenderly held the Torah in our hands, unrolled its parchment, surveyed its letters, and tried to fathom the significance of standing next to a sacred scroll that was intended to be part of a “museum of an extinct race”. David would often comment about the supreme irony inherent in the fact that while the Nazis consigned Jewish lives to the flames, they were busy salvaging Torah scrolls and Jewish ritual objects from the embers of Europe.
A year ago, immediately after our first High Holy Day services, Byron and Gay Schader, members of Kol Ami, approached our president, Stuart Appel, and told him that if we found a Torah scroll for our congregation, they would see to it that the necessary funds would be made available to ensure its presence in our midst. In retrospect, I think that we were so busy bringing the vision of Kol Ami into reality – finding a place to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as a synagogue in which to hold Shabbat services and attending to the myriad details required to develop programs – that the reality of having our own Torah must have seemed a distant dream. But now, as in so many instances of timing meeting the nexus of need, this “object survivor” of the Holocaust arrives in our midst on the second Rosh Hashanah of our existence to help us celebrate the meaning, miracle and grandeur of Jewish existence…enables us to turn what was intended to become part of a display of “an extinct race” into a precious legacy which we will lovingly use to remember our past, to enrich the present, to carry us, as we do it, into the future.
You will soon meet the four people who have been instrumental in bringing us to this moment: Byron and Gay Schader, who enabled the dream to become reality, who acquired this precious legacy for our congregation – the sacred scroll and the beautiful silver Judaica which adorn it – the breastplate of American craftsmanship dating to the 1920s, and the crowns, from Austria, 1850s; David Sloviter, who led us every step of the way – from our initial discovery of this Torah scroll, to meetings and discussions with Byron and Gay, numerous conversations with Jeff Robinson, traveling to Baltimore with the Schader family to bring the scroll home to us, and personally designing and building a storage case for its safekeeping; and our president, Stuart Appel, an integral part of all the discussions and meetings, and who, like all of us, must be in awe of this moment and abundantly grateful for it.
Rabbi Elliot J. Holin