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The mystery and mayhem of Cape Town’s Czech Torah

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Every Torah scroll is a work of sacred artistry created by a sofer (scribe) whose work takes about a year to complete. With all this labour and expense, it’s not destined for a museum or library, but for a community, which is where it really finds its purpose.

What brings meaning to the work of the sofer isn’t the scroll being looked at or admired, but the fact that it’s read. You and I, the community that become the custodians of a Sefer Torah, give it life. Although every Torah scroll is far from an ordinary thing, there are certain scrolls that have a fascinating history that make them even more extraordinary. One of these sits in our ark in our Green Point, Cape Town, campus.

It originated in central Europe, and was rescued from the terror and destruction of the Shoah. It’s one of the more than 1 500 Czech Memorial Sifrei Torah which constituted part of the treasures looted by the Nazis from the desolated Jewish communities of Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia. They are, in most cases, the last remnants of the communities that lived there, in spite of the fact that Jews lived there for more than 1 000 years and developed a rich Jewish history and culture.

By 1800, Prague had become a major centre of learning and scholarship as well as Hebrew printing, and for 100 years before 1939, the Jews of the area were free and prosperous. According to the 1930 census, there were 117 551 Jews in Bohemia and Moravia, and 356 830 in all of Czechoslovakia. The Jewish community had become religiously and culturally diverse. Many were highly educated and cultured. Some of the greatest Jewish thinkers, artists, architects, poets, musicians, and composers of the time came from this region.

From 1938, there was systematic persecution of Jews in Czechoslovakia. Boycotting Jewish shops, segregating Jewish people from the rest of society, limits on their freedom and basic human rights were enforced. Eventually, violent terror and the destruction of Jewish culture began. Synagogues were burned together with Jewish books and books by Jewish authors. As time went on, Jews were ordered to leave their homes which had fallen under German authority, and were sent away. Most never returned.

About 81 000 Jews were deported to the Terezin Ghetto, and then onto death camps. About 10 500 survived. The number of children murdered was 15 000. In some towns, it’s hard to see any trace that a Jewish community once lived there. In other towns such as Prague, the old Jewish cemeteries, synagogues, and museum remain. The scrolls could tell us so much, couldn’t they? It really makes one stop and wonder. They could tell us what they witnessed, about the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, who brought them to Prague, and what happened next? But, for now, they are silent.

One of the greatest mysteries of these scrolls is how and why they survived the war at all, in spite of their synagogues being burned and communities destroyed. One theory is that the Nazis wanted to create some sort of museum of the Jews which would include an exhibition of their Judaica. Another is that the Nazis wanted to keep the population calm, and so invited a group of Czech Jews to gather Jewish objects from all over the area, implying that they would be restored after the war. Either way, more than 10 000 artefacts were brought to Prague including 1 800 Torah scrolls. Once in Prague, a team of expert Jewish curators received them, catalogued them, and labelled them with meticulous detail, precision, and loving care.

The scrolls were identified by the town they came from and, in many cases, the age of the scrolls, though the dates may have been based on educated guesses by the curators. The curators witnessed the tragic scene of their own families being deported, and then finally their turn came too. Most of these brave curators were eventually sent to Terezin, and died there or were taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau or another camp and murdered. The scrolls survived, yet they were devoid of the life of the community they served. After the war, they were transferred to the ruined synagogue at Michle, three to four kilometres south of Prague, where they remained untouched until they were brought to London 20 years later. How did that transpire?

In 1963, Eric Estorick, a London art dealer, was informed that there were 1 564 Torah scrolls stored by the museum for sale. He contacted a client, Ralph Yablon, who in turn approached Harold Reinhart, the rabbi of Westminster Progressive Synagogue in London. Together, they asked Chimen Abramsky, a Hebrew scholar, to go to Prague and examine the scrolls. Yablon’s generosity made the purchase of the scrolls possible, and they were transported to the synagogue in London.

They arrived on 7 February 1964, many damaged without beautiful covers (although they each would probably have had one once), and with no adornment of any sort. Some had beautiful binders that held each scroll together, others were wrapped as if in haste with a tallit, a belt, or an odd material. The ink was crumbling in many cases, and they were particularly fragile to handle. They were a tragic but eloquent monument to a brutal past.

The new custodians embarked on the job of restoration. One day – out of the blue – there came a knock on the front door of the synagogue. Ruth Shaffer, the head of the restoration committee, opened the door to David Brand, a sofer, who asked in Yiddish, “Do you have any Torahs to repair?” She replied, “We have 1 564 – come in!” Nearly thirty years later, he was still working there, bringing the scrolls back to perfection so they could “relive” and be used in synagogue services. Rabbi Thomas Salamon, then rabbi of the Westminster Synagogue, visited sofer Brand in Jerusalem in December 2013. Brand was then 95 years old. When asked how he felt as an Orthodox sofer, working on damaged Torah scrolls in a progressive synagogue, his reply was, “I was doing holy work.”

The vast majority of scrolls are now loaned out to communities throughout the world, and that’s how Temple Israel in Cape Town came to be the steward of Czech scroll number 128. We know precious little about this Sefer Torah except that it came from the small town of Golčův Jenikov near Caslav in the Central Bohemian Region of today’s Czech Republic. It had a significant Jewish quarter of about fifty homes to the south of the town’s central square. The Jewish congregation was founded there in 1870, and it numbered about 300. There is a synagogue building from 1899 still standing, and a Jewish section (since 1884) in the municipal cemetery, but there’s no functional Jewish community there today. The Memorial Scrolls Trust estimates that our Torah was written in 1870 at the time of the community’s founding.

Today, it sits proudly in the Aron haKodesh (ark) in Green Point, and is brought out at Bnei Mitzvah and every Simchat Torah. But what happened to the Czech people who loved and cherished the scroll? Where are they? Where are their children and grandchildren now? Every time we read from that scroll or dance with it around our shul, we honour their memory. Am Yisrael Chai (the Jewish people lives).

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From searching for Sugarman to seeking out a ‘barmi boy’

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Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman once successfully searched for Sugarman (also known as the musician Sixto Rodriguez) and found him, so what are the chances of him finding an equally evasive Barmitzvah boy?

As depicted in the Oscar-winning 2012 documentary, Segerman isn’t one to give up. But he’s now setting his sights on a mystery a little closer to home: the identity of a Barmitzvah boy who appears in a photograph he found at a market in Cape Town a few years ago.

Writing to the SA Jewish Report, Segerman explained how he came across the photo. “I’m originally from Johannesburg, but have been living in Cape Town for the past 25 years. Over the past few years, it has become a tradition for us to go to the Milnerton Market on a Sunday morning to browse through the many different stalls that comprise this huge weekend flea market. There, we can find records, books, magazines, curios, and many other weird and wonderful bric-a-brac and tsatskes, all at reasonable prices.

“One Sunday morning, I was browsing through a stall, and I saw a framed picture of a Barmitzvah boy, seemingly from around the time when I had my Barmitzvah (late 1960s to early 1970s) judging from the suit, thick tie, siddur, haircut, and so on. There weren’t any other Jewish items at that stall so it was just sitting there on its own. I bought it for a few rand.

“It was still in good condition, but had no identifying features on it, apart from the name of the studio where the picture was taken, but the guy in the picture looked strangely familiar. I’m far more familiar with the Jewish community in Joburg, but I did mix with Cape Town Jewish children at Bnei Akiva machaneh, so maybe I had met this guy there.

“Anyway, we put the picture up on the unit in our dining room where all the other pictures of our family members are, and it fitted in perfectly. So much so, that over the years, whenever people came for a meal, they would ask who it was, and we would make up all kinds of different stories about who he was, and then we would tell them the story of how we found the picture. We gave him a few different names over the years. Someone once said he looked like a ‘Milton’, so that stuck for a while, but generally, he was known simply as ‘the Barmitzvah boy’. We told people different stories, like he was a distant cousin or a friend of the family, it changed every time, but we always then told them how he came to be on our unit.

“But, more recently, it has been bothering us, and I decided to try and find out what his name is, where he is, and what his story is. But, in spite of putting the picture on various relevant websites and Facebook groups, I haven’t had any success.” He hopes the SA Jewish Report can help him with his search.

Segerman sees parallels between this search and the search for Rodriguez, “but, contrary to popular reports, I’m not nor have ever regarded myself as a ‘musical detective’ or any other kind of detective. How the Rodriguez story began and evolved is still a source of amazement to me as it wasn’t planned or plotted, it just happened.

“I have always been naturally curious, and enjoy finding things like rare LPs, books, or tiny diamonds that accidentally dropped onto the floor of the jewellery factory in Johannesburg where I worked for many years with my father – but never missing people. But, may I add, that once I start looking for something, I don’t usually stop until I find it, no matter how long it takes.”

It was this natural curiosity that drew him to the market. “Since moving down to Cape Town, I always enjoyed browsing through Greenmarket Square and Greenpoint markets for music, books, and magazines for my own collection. But when I got involved with [his renowned Cape Town record store] Mabu Vinyl in 2003 [which has since closed down], I started looking around more seriously for second-hand LPs, 7-inch singles, CDs, books, and DVDs for our shop. Someone suggested that I try the Milnerton Market, and initially I went occasionally, but it soon grew into a regular Sunday morning tradition.

“Over the years, the market grew as more and more private sellers began to set up their little stores as a way to sell off spare stuff from home alongside regular stalls. Because a lot of people enjoy taking a stroll around this large market, it’s quite lucrative for these sellers, so they look for more and more stuff to sell. That’s why one can find such a disparate range of stuff, like this picture.”

So, although he’s not sure if he has a greater or lesser chance of tracking down the barmi boy than Sugarman, “at least with Rodriguez, we had plenty of information and clues from his records. With the barmi boy, all we know is that he was probably from the Cape, and the name of the studio where this picture was taken, which is ‘Brigda Studio’. But I can’t find any reference to it on Google, and even if I did, I doubt it would still be in existence. If it was, I doubt they would remember who this was after more than 50 years. So, that seems like a dead end, and I really have nothing else to go on apart from the fact that my son-in-law said that the siddur that the Barmitzvah boy is holding looks very similar to the one he was given for his Barmitzvah by his shul [in the 1990s].

“But, having said all that, I must admit that if we could find Rodriguez, then we can probably find anyone, including this barmi boy. I think it’s fair to say that, for me, the thrill of the chase, or the challenge of the search, is as important and exciting as the joy of finding what one is looking for.”

Leila Bloch of the South African Jewish Museum’s (SAJM) Jewish Digital Archive Project (JDAP) says that the archive exists for exactly this kind of material to be preserved and hopefully to trace the boy in the photograph or his family. “In fact, we were once given a bunch of letters found at the Milnerton Market, and we traced them back to a famous fashion designer who had written them to his family while he was studying in London. His whole family came down from Israel, and as they pored over the letters, they were so emotional.

“There is so much potential in finding and sharing such material. We collect photographs, film, and other material that is often discarded, and it finds a home in the archive. That’s the beauty of this ongoing archive – we are always discovering new connections. With enough time, we can try help trace the mystery Barmitzvah boy.”

SAJM director Gavin Morris adds: “The sad reality is that a large proportion of our community have left the country, in many cases leaving their parents behind. As their parents age and downsize, many of their treasured family memorabilia are discarded as the cost or hassle of sending it to their children abroad is prohibitive. These items find their way into all manner of junk shops, curio stores and markets.

“Stories of items such as this one are more common than you’d think. The SAJM is constantly contacted about some or other item of Judaica that has been unearthed. Unfortunately the museum is not in a position to purchase, or even safely store these items. For this reason we have launched our SAJMarchives.com website (which includes JDAP), so at least digital copies of these items will still exist for future generations.”

  • To share any information about the mystery Barmitzvah boy, email Stephen Segerman: sugar@sugarmusic.co.za
  • To contact the Jewish Digital Archive Project, email info@sajewishmuseum.co.za

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Focus on Yom Hashoah turns to family

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There is a new international initiative to start a family tradition on Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), in which families will gather to light six memorial candles and recite a pertinent poem and prayer to remember the 6 000 000.

This initiative, called “Generations light the way”, encourages families to recite the traditional mourner’s prayer, Kel Maleh Rahamim, and/or the poem, Nizkor – Let us Remember, by Holocaust survivor Abba Kovner, to impart the memory of the Shoah to the next generation. It is a collaboration between Yad Vashem and Tzohar Rabbinical Association.

“Today, we find ourselves at a crossroads,” said acting Yad Vashem chairperson Ronen Plot. “As the last generation to be personally acquainted with Holocaust survivors, we have a great responsibility to ensure that what we saw, what we heard, and what we learned is passed on to future generations.”

“The Shoah shows us how important every Jew is,” said Rabbi David Stav, the founder and director of Tzohar Rabbinical Association. He recalled an incident when an entire unit of Nazi soldiers stayed on a small Greek island for more than two weeks just to find one Jewish family.

“We need to realise how precious a Jewish life is. So much of our history has been forgotten. From the crusades to the pogroms of 1648 to 1649, to the Spanish Inquisition,” he said.

“We cannot let that happen with the Holocaust. It’s not just because the Holocaust is recent history, it’s important to remember because it teaches us that it doesn’t matter how you label yourself, we are all am echad (one people).”

Tali Nates, the director of the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre, agrees. “We need to be aware of the past and how evil is allowed to grow if we hope to prevent more atrocities. And we need to recognise it quicker,” she said.

“The radicalisation of Nazi Germany didn’t happen in a vacuum. The world was facing an unprecedented economic crisis. Europe was still picking up the pieces of World War I. People were suffering and looking for easy answers to difficult questions. Extremism is born out of crisis.

“When people are suffering, they start looking for someone to blame. More often than not, blame falls on the Jews,” said Nates. “Today, we face another unprecedented world crisis. COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. We are facing a global economic and health crisis that we have never seen before. Again, born out of this crisis, we are seeing an alarming growth of extremism around the world. The open rise of nationalism and white supremacy is now leading to an increase in violence against those that look and sound different.”

Nates said there were many lessons to take from the Holocaust. “Remembering the Shoah is so important. Starting from our young generation and going beyond just the Jewish community, to all of humanity, it has a huge educational value.

“It’s a warning for us all to be vigilant and recognise the warning signs,” she said. “When words of hate turn into discrimination, racism, xenophobia, and violence, it ends with mass murder and genocide. The first thing is education – to connect the dots and try to prevent it from happening again.

“You have to make sure you fight antisemitism, racism, and xenophobia. These are the first signs. We need to educate about the dangers of those words and actions. We need to start with ourselves, on a personal level, to be consistent when we are with our friends, family, and neighbours. We need to educate each other that racism, however casual, isn’t acceptable. And we need to be active to avoid the same mistakes made during the Holocaust and other genocides, which unfortunately are still taking place today.

“Because we are in South Africa, we should focus on how we as South Africans can remember the Holocaust,” said Nates. “I would love South Africans to spend time thinking about their own families. A lot of them come from Latvia and Lithuania, certainly they have relatives who were murdered. I would like for the Jewish community to really think about where they come from and what happened to their relatives who couldn’t come here.

“We need to try and collect those names so they won’t be lost forever. Yad Vashem has only four million out of six million names. We need to ensure the other two million names don’t become lost forever. The Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre together with the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and the Memorial & Information Centre in Mauritius have called on our communities to collect the names by sending in the names of family members that don’t have a grave. For us, that’s a start.”

Said Stav, “The only way to ensure that we pass this on to our children is to talk about it often. I speak about the Shoah with my family and community at least once a month.

“Evil doesn’t care what we look or sound like. We have passed on the torch of faith, resilience, and morality for more than 3 000 years. The story of the Holocaust is the story of the Jewish people. We have been murdered, prosecuted, and expelled from our homes. And yet, through it all, we managed to survive. We always find a way to come out stronger. Those of us who know a survivor personally have experienced this first hand. Rebirth and resilience is our story. It’s up to us to pass this torch to our children so they can continue to light the way.”

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Beware of antisemitism in corona conspiracies, warns educator

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The appropriation of antisemitic tropes, including by protestors against government policies to fight COVID-19, needs to be taken seriously, says Holocaust educator Dr Matthias Haß.

“When looking at our world today, don’t look for the big, horrific crimes, look at the smaller events and the smaller crimes. That’s why current forms of antisemitism and conspiracy narratives are so troubling,” said Haß, who serves as the educational director of Wannsee House in Berlin. This estate is the location where Nazi officials met on 20 January 1942 to agree to the co-ordinated mass murder of European Jewry. It now serves as an educational centre.

Haß was speaking in an online webinar about this meeting and its relevance, hosted recently by the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre in partnership with the Memorial and Educational Site House of the Wannsee Conference.

He cited the example of recent demonstrations against anti-corona measures by the German government as containing troubling antisemitic elements.

“Some people, who feared mandatory vaccinations by the government opposed it by marking themselves with the yellow star [originally used by the Nazi regime to identify Jews],” said Haß, who is a political scientist by training. “The protestors added in the inscription ‘ungeimpft’ [unvaccinated], very clearly minimising historical events by putting themselves in the role of the victim.”

He mentioned another situation where an anti-lockdown protestor compared herself to Sophie Scholl – a German resistance fighter who was executed for her work against the Nazi regime.

“There have been other strange and disturbing comparisons. Something is going on here where current events are directly linked to the Nazi past. Antisemitism is at the ideological centre of many of these issues, no matter how constructed, absurd, and crazy the arguments are.

“To be honest, a few years ago, I would never have thought that the kind of antisemitism and conspiracy narratives that we are facing today still existed.”

It’s a “painful learning experience” to see this reality, and contemplate what it means for the work of the Wannsee House centre, said Haß.

He said he had issued a warning about seemingly “small incidents” of antisemitism precisely because of the extreme outcome of the Wannsee House meeting. This outcome was possible only because of decades of antisemitic propaganda that had seeped into German society long before the Nazi regime came into power.

As crucial as what was discussed at the meeting was that which wasn’t seen as necessary to debate. “There was no longer a need to argue why the Jews are the enemy. It was a common understanding at all levels of society. Clarity about hatred of Jews didn’t come suddenly or surprisingly, but grew over time, and was deeply engraved in the minds of these men [at the meeting] and in the minds of millions of ordinary Germans.”

Haß evoked the chilling ordinariness of the proceedings, organised by the head of the Reich Main Security Office, Reinhard Heydrich, at the luxurious villa on the lake.

“Heydrich wanted to dominate the meeting. That’s why he chose a place outside Berlin where he could show off. He served food; he served drink; it was a loose atmosphere.”

At the time, the Nazis believe they were winning the war and as such, saw the need to plan for a “racial new order of Europe. It’s not about finding compromise or a peaceful solution. [It was about] creating a new world,” Haß said.

The 15 Nazi bureaucrats who gathered discussed mass murder as a “logistical issue”.

“These weren’t people on the political level of the regime, they were the permanent secretaries in the ministry, the ones who were competent and really running the show.”

While mass shootings had already been carried out under their jurisdiction, the meeting was designed to co-ordinate these efforts into standardised practices.

“What filled their minds [when it comes to the killings] were issues of efficiency, money, time, the use of one bullet per person, the procedure after arrival [of deported Jews], and what to do with the bodies. The Nazis wanted the killings done in an orderly way.

“What do these men have in common?” pondered Haß, in detailing that the officials gathered had an average age of 42, that 10 of them had been to university, and eight had doctorates.

“What we saw was that they were pretty average, they were very young, they were well educated, and they were convinced of Nazi ideology. Other than that, there was nothing special about them.”

A year and a half ago, it was also established that a secretary attended in order to take notes. “This gave us insight into the fact that this entire procedure wasn’t something completely different. It was a secret meeting but this wasn’t so unusual. It was part of the daily work routine.”

All in all, it took just 90 minutes for the officials to agree decisively to kill the 11 million Jews that they believed to be alive in Europe at the time.

“Everybody was willing to co-operate, nobody hesitated and looked for a way not to participate in the genocide.”

Haß said that while they couldn’t openly object to the “final solution” proposal, if they had any misgivings, they could have played on notions of a lack of capacity or overworked staff. Instead, “they were all happy to be part of this”.

The language used by Adolf Eichmann in drawing up the final-protocol document of the meeting is “coded” in its euphemistic summary of the results of the discussion. Terms such as “parallelising procedures” are used in reference to extending mass murder across the continent and “natural reduction” when it comes to ensuring that they work the Jews to death.

It reflected how bureaucracies allowed perpetrators to distance themselves through language, suggested Haß. “Here, it was present in the most extreme way.”

The use of language as a key tool of power, in the case of the Wannsee House meeting, ignited a genocide. Yet language, even in very different contemporary situations, continues to play a role in prejudice and oppression, said Haß.

“Words matter. Public discourse matters. The few that start spreading hatred and lies need bystanders and enablers – those who remain silent. If nobody speaks out, their ideology can spread and conspiracy narratives gain ground.

“To engage in public debate; to call out the liars’ ideology cannot start early enough. It’s not enough to call them fools and lies. As we see in our world, there is a risk of the nonsense, the hatred, divisions, and violence becoming powerful forces in our societies.”

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