Cantor Julie Yugend-Green was the first member of the Oak Park Temple B’nai Abraham Zion (OPT) to see the Holocaust Torah Scroll, which was transferred to the care of the Oak Park synagogue last month by the Memorial Scroll Trust in London, UK.
“The first time I opened it,” she recalled, “I saw how beautiful it was, and I thought about how many hundreds if not thousands of people have chanted and told stories from it. I felt those voices. I felt the history.”
Scholars believe the scroll, which contains the first five books of the Bible, formally known as the Torah, was created sometime during the last half of the 19th Century and was used in worship for decades in a synagogue in what is now the Czech Republic.
Then at the start of World War II, the armies of the Third Reich invaded the country, shipped Jews to concentration camps, and looted synagogues before they were burned. Along with other priceless Judaica, many Torah scrolls were stored in the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague.
Green pointed out the irony of the Nazis saving Torah scrolls at the same time that they were burning synagogues.
“I think there is some mystery,” she said “as to why the Third Reich was hoarding or collecting Judaica.”
That is why temple members refer to this set of nine scrolls as a “Holocaust Scroll,” and why Green said, “When I saw it I felt the history. I felt the lost generations, all those communities which are no more.”
Max Weiss, the temple’s rabbi, said the scroll will be used as a “teaching tool” along with being chanted at Shabbat services.
Weiss recalled that, when he was growing up, many Holocaust survivors were around to tell stories of that nightmare in person. As that cohort disappears, it is his generation’s responsibility to keep the story of the Holocaust alive.
Using the metaphor of a building, “The Story” is built on the foundation of the stories in the Torah but each generation adds a “story” to the structure. If the Exodus is one of the main chapters in the foundational Torah story, the Holocaust is certainly a major chapter in the current and ongoing story of the Jewish tradition.
“This scroll,” said Rabbi Weiss, “is a way for us to honor the memory of the people who perished in the Holocaust, a way for us to honor the memory of a community that doesn’t exist anymore.”
At the end of World War II, the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague was unable to house all of the scrolls in their care, so they were shipped to London to be cared for and distributed by a nonprofit called the Memorial Scrolls Trust.
Oak Park Temple’s Holocaust Scroll was sent from London to a newly organized synagogue in Buffalo Grove named Temple Chai in May of 1973. Green said the scrolls distributed by the Trust are not owned by the synagogues, which only care for and use them. Temple Chai was therefore a “custodian” of the scroll. So when the Buffalo Grove synagogue closed, it was technically if not literally returned to the Trust, and Oak Park Temple applied for custodianship.
Weiss used the word “holy” to signify the importance of the scroll to the congregation. Every scroll, he said, is meticulously copied by hand from an existing one, and every letter must be right.
When archaeologists uncovered 2,000-year-old texts after World War II, which became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the parts that contain sections of the Torah are nearly exact matches for the nine individual scrolls now at Oak Park Temple.
Green added that the sofers, or scribes, use a quill usually made from a turkey feather, with special ink, and parchment made from the hide of kosher animals like cows or deer.
Rabbi Weiss noted that the Holocaust Scroll is being held in honor of Cantor Green, who retired this month.