A “Holocaust Torah” that sat untouched for 36 years in a synagogue display case is to be rededicated Sunday, May 1 by a congregation that not only restored it but also adopted the 480 Jewish residents of the Czechoslovakian community of Kolin that had used it before they were killed by the Nazis.
“This Torah has become a part of us,” explained Judy Nitkin, a member of the Holocaust Restoration Project at the Manetto Hill Jewish Center in Plainview, L.I. “We had people come and speak to our Hebrew school about the Torah. … There is a feeling we’re attached to these people” who once owned it.
The names of all but 15 of the 480 Jews whom the Nazis in June 1942 shipped from Kolin to the Terezin concentration camp are written on a scroll in a display case in the synagogue entrance.
“We know of only seven survivors, and we have been in contact with three of them,” Nitkin said.
The rededication is timed to coincide with Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Most of the congregation’s 160 families donated money to memorialize Kolin’s Jewish residents. Kolin at one time had been the home of a major yeshiva and as many as 2,000 Jews. The synagogue from which this Torah came, Kehillot Kadosh Kolin, is used today as a concert hall.
The idea for the project came from Rabbi David Senter when he visited the synagogue a year ago, while interviewing for the job of leading the Conservative congregation. He noticed the Holocaust Torah in the display case and told congregants that it “was meant to be used.”
Rabbi Senter explained that he had restored a Holocaust Torah in his former congregation in Morris County, N.J., but that he had met resistance when he tried to restore another in a local day school there.
“I couldn’t convince them to even open the case,” he recalled. “To them it was like raiding a grave.”
Sue Moskowitz, co-chair of the Manetto Hill Jewish Center’s Israel and Jewish Affairs Committee, said her congregation’s men’s club had been instrumental in securing the Kolin Torah in September 1975.
“We were told it was not a kosher Torah and couldn’t be used,” she recalled.
After Rabbi Senter was hired, a scribe inspected the Kolin Torah and said it could be repaired and used again. After five months of work, the Torah was returned to the synagogue earlier this month. It will be read for the first time in 70 years on May 7 by a number of adult congregants and youngsters who became bar and bat mitzvah in the last year.
As part of this weekend’s rededication, one of the wartime residents of Kolin, Ishka Lichter, is expected to fly in from her home in Boulder, Colo., to speak to the congregation Friday night.
“I think what they are doing is fantastic, and I’ll help them with whatever information I have,” said Lichter, who is 80. “It’s very important that they do this because what’s happening now is that historians who were brought up under communism have their own view of history that doesn’t acknowledge the wonderful achievements of the Jewish community” before World War II.
Lichter, whose father was Jewish, said she was brought up without any religion. The first time she heard anything about religion was when “someone walked up to me in 1942 and said, ‘You dirty Jew.’”
Her parents separated before the Nazi roundup of the Jews, and only her father, Jan Roudnicky, was shipped to Terezin. He was later transported to Auschwitz and killed.
“I was put to work as a forced laborer at the age of 14,” Lichter said. “That makes me part of the Jewish crowd because I was discriminated against.”
After the war she went to Israel, married a Jewish man from Brooklyn and lived in Jericho, L.I., for 16 years beginning in 1977. She said her three children were raised as Jews.
Another survivor from Kolin, Hana Greenfield, now 87, lives in Tel Aviv and Michael Zelkind, another member of the synagogue’s restoration project, met with her at her home in February. He said he and the congregation’s Hebrew school principal, Helene Ainbinder, recorded an interview with her about growing up in Kolin that they plan to share with the congregation.
“This is another of the different layers of this project,” Zelkind said. “Not only are we restoring the Torah and memorializing the names [of the Jewish residents of Kolin], but we have been educating our 40 Hebrew school children [into what happened] by personalizing it. We know this project will not end May 1 because the Holocaust education is ongoing.”
Finding the names of the Jewish residents in 1942 took both time and perseverance, Nitkin said. The list was assembled using information gathered by Yad Vashem in Israel, a synagogue in Denver that also has a Torah from Kolin and the Czech Torah Network, a group dedicated to connecting synagogues and religious institutions worldwide that have more than 1,500 Czech Torahs.
The scrolls had been stored by the Nazis in the Michele Synagogue in Czechoslovakia and in 1964 were bought by a prominent philanthropist and donated to the Westminster Synagogue in England. It was from there that they were distributed on permanent loan; more than 1,000 went to the U.S. Most have reportedly been restored and are again in use.
“These Torah scrolls were intended by the Nazis to be a memorial to a liquidated race,” Rabbi Senter said. “When I see them stored in a case, it’s like we’re carrying out Hitler’s mandate.”
Nitkin said that as a child of Holocaust survivors whose own children have had children she can attest that “Hitler did not win.”
In addition to rededicating the Torah Sunday, a tree in front of the synagogue will be unveiled in memory of the Jews of Kolin, according to Sharon Dashow, a vice president of the synagogue.
“It has been planted with soil from Jerusalem, Kolin and Terezin,” she said.