A Jewish scroll brings communities together

The Second World War tore communities and whole nations apart. In the Czech Republic centuries of Jewish history were reduced to a few shattered fragments. Nearly 80,000 Czechs were murdered because of their Jewish origin. The scale of this destruction makes the few fragments that survive so much the more important, and in this programme, we look at how a single object, surviving from the pre-war Jewish life of Czechoslovakia, became the catalyst for creating a new and unexpected bond between two places at opposite ends of Europe. We start with David Lawson:

"I'm part of the Jewish community in Kingston in southwest London. Our community has, on permanent loan, a scroll of the Law - a sefer Torah - which is the five books of Moses, handwritten in Hebrew. It's about a metre tall and I suppose must weigh fifteen kilos or thereabouts, so it's quite a big thing. It comes from Ostrava."

Ostrava, the Czech Republic's third city, and its industrial heartland. Close to the border with Poland and Slovakia, it is a city with a fascinating and many layered history, and a sense of raw energy that you often find in bustling industrial cities.

But Ostrava is not a city that is well known abroad. It is hardly surprising that David Lawson, and other members of his local Jewish community some 2,000 miles to the west, knew nothing about the place where the Torah scroll, which they continue to use at their local synagogue, had come from.

They were aware that it had belonged to a community that had been devastated in the Holocaust, but it was only a few years ago, after the opening of the Iron Curtain, that they decided to explore exactly where the scroll had come from, who the people where, who had used it before it came to London, and how it had come to make the journey across Europe.

David Lawson and other members of the congregation set about looking for people to tell them more. They began their work in libraries, but soon they realized that new technologies could be much more useful.

"We find the internet absolutely invaluable. One of the very early things that we discovered was that somebody from Ostrava had written his life story and published it on the web, and he lived about six miles away from us in Weybridge. So we started to talk to him. Once you meet one person, you immediately get introduced to somebody else, who introduces you to somebody else, and the story spreads. We've now met several people in England and one lady from America, who either come directly from Ostrava, or whose parents come from Ostrava.

"We've also been introduced to a family that still lives in Ostrava. Michael Salomonovic was born in 1933 in Ostrava and lived through the most hair-raising series of situations. He was sent, I think in 1942, to Prague with his mother. The whole family was then sent off to the Lodz ghetto and they lived through that. From there they were sent to Auschwitz, from there to Stutthof, where, I think, his father was killed. Ultimately Michael survived - with his mother - and came back to Ostrava. He has lived there ever since, and continues to live there. He has been an enormous source of help and inspiration as well as information."

Michael Salomonovic's son Radan has also taken a growing interest in the history of Jewish Ostrava:

"Jews came to Ostrava in the 19th century, or maybe a little bit earlier, when the industrial boom started, and like my family they came from different places, mostly poor or poorer places either of the Austro-Hungarian Empire or other countries.

"Actually my family came from Galicia, from Poland, and it's a paradox that they came from Oswiecim - Auschwitz - where many years later many of them were killed. They came because of the boom in Ostrava, the coal mines, the steel industry, the factories etc. Then, after many years, when the situation became more and more liberal, the Jews in Ostrava and the surroundings became more prosperous - there were entrepreneurs, architects, lawyers, doctors, salespeople. In the mid 1930s it was a very prosperous community and life there could be compared to big cities in Western Europe from the cultural point of view and the industrial point of view. It took a hundred years to build up all that and within the next four or five years everything was in ruins."

David Lawson picks up the story:

"In 1939, in fact on the 13th March, the Germans occupied Ostrava, which is the day before the official occupation and establishment of the "Protectorate". They got in early to make sure they got control of the steelworks and the coalmines. By June of that year all the synagogues in Ostrava had been burnt and destroyed, and by 1941-42 all the artifacts and articles and things of value from the synagogues had been collected in Prague, and the scrolls were stored in the Michle synagogue."

The artifacts were carefully documented by members of Prague's Jewish community, all of whom themselves were later sent to the death camps. It is sometimes said that the Nazis wanted to create a "Museum for a Dead Race", but that has never been proven. What we do know is that of the estimated 10,000 Jewish people in Ostrava before the war, only around 200 came home in 1945. The artifacts - scrolls, archives and other documents connected with the religious life of the communities - remained in the Michle synagogue in Prague. David Lawson picks up the story, as he has pieced it together through his research:

"They just stayed there and were literally rotting, until in 1963 a London Jewish art dealer, Eric Estoric, was in Prague negotiating with the Czech authorities about his business. And they said, 'You're Jewish, aren't you?' 'Yes, I'm Jewish.' 'Well, we've got a whole collection of scrolls and we don't know what to do with them. Do you want to buy them?' And with the aid of one of his Jewish London clients, Ralph Yablon, who was a wealthy textile merchant, he said, 'Yes, we will buy them.' And in 1963/4 1,564 scrolls came from Prague to London - in fact to the Westminster Synagogue, where they were - effectively - dumped in various stages of disrepair. On this basis the Czech Memorials Scrolls Trust was established to look after them. Those scrolls which were still usable were then leant to various communities around the world, those scrolls that could be repaired and restored were repaired and restored, and then leant out, and those that were so badly damaged that they couldn't really be used, were sent to various museums, including some still in the Westminster Synagogue. One of the scrolls is in the White House, and they're in various places around the world as a memento and memorial to the Czech Jewish communities."

And that is how the Ostrava scroll found its way to the leafy London suburb of Kingston. In the meantime, Ostrava's few Holocaust survivors became increasingly isolated. Only fragments remained of their thriving pre-war community. Radan Salomonovic's story is typical.

"I was brought up like any other Czech child, and I didn't actually care too much about my Jewish origin. And my father was smart and wise enough not to push it, because at certain times it was quite dangerous, in the sense that you could have problems with the local authorities or with normal people, because the basic anti-Semitism was there and still is here, although it is much less than in many surrounding countries."

It was only after the fall of communism, that Radan was able to explore his family's Jewish past. But it is almost too late for the Jewish community of Ostrava.

"Nowadays the community is practically dying, because there are not enough young people who either are available generally or want to be members of the community, or are even interested in doing anything like that. Unfortunately there are just a few last elderly people who can talk about this and can pass the information to the rest of the world."

This is a gloomy picture, but perhaps, says Radan Salomonovic, the interest and enthusiasm of people like David Lawson can make a real difference.

"When I met David Lawson for the first time it was a real burst of enthusiasm and energy, which is not very common here. I believe that there is a potential. Maybe we can gain something more than the planned permanent exhibition in Kingston about Ostrava and its Jewish community. Maybe we can revitalize a little bit the life of the community of Ostrava, and somehow close the cycle between present and past. Maybe honorary membership of the Jewish community of Ostrava should be offered to those who were actually living in Ostrava - to those Jews who are now in London or wherever and come originally from Ostrava, or their children who are interested in the history of Ostrava. In such a way we can improve the life of the community as the origin of all that, and help them. Maybe it's a kind of threshold, that if we breach we can turn the fate of the community towards some future. I don't know.

"It is a subject we should discuss perhaps with those people, with David Lawson and maybe with some experts. This is just an idea, but I would definitely love to see those people coming to Ostrava and talking to other people, and telling their memories, whatever. With their enthusiasm they could push the community forward a little bit."

And David Lawson shares these hopes:

"We are hoping very much that this is not just an interesting pastime for a couple of years, but will be a valuable educational basis. So far we have been talking to groups of people about our work on Ostrava and we are planning particularly to talk to the schoolchildren in Kingston about what we have found, because the story is, as far as I can see, one of a wonderful, multi-cultural, tolerant, prosperous society totally destroyed in a couple of years, and there must be lessons to be learned, which we hope to pass on. And we hope to establish ongoing contacts, not just with the Jewish community in Ostrava, but with the whole of the community of Ostrava."

This is especially important. Most people who live in Ostrava today probably know as little about their city's Jewish past as David Lawson and other members of the Jewish community in Kingston did before they started their research. David Lawson:

"I suspect that is right, although there are one or two people, particularly the people in the city archive who were extremely helpful and are very interested in the history of the community. I had the pleasure of meeting the deputy mayor of Ostrava while I was there, and one of the things that he stressed very much was that Ostrava now is in a way as Ostrava was before the war - a commercial, forward-looking, welcoming and enlightened city. He accepts that the Jewish community played a huge part in the economic development of Ostrava and he hopes that in future again it could play such a part."