In 1980 Rabbi Louis Kaplan brought one of the 1,600 Czech Torah scrolls that survived the Shoah to Congregation Ohev Shalom, where it was first placed in the ark during a Yom HaShoah service. That the scrolls survived at all is remarkable. As Jews were fleeing the country or being deported to concentration camps after the German occupation in 1939, the scrolls had been collected for safekeeping, along with ritual objects, books, and archives, from synagogues throughout the country – a mission undertaken on Jewish initiative (to rescue the imperiled objects) but with approval given by the Germans for reasons of their own (for eventual display of the fossilized remnants of a destroyed people). In 1963 an American art dealer came upon them in a dank storeroom in a Prague synagogue.They were purchased with funds collected for the purpose and transferred in the following year to the Westminster Synagogue in London, where the Memorials Scrolls Trust was established to distribute them to congregations around the world.
The scroll that came to Congregation Ohev Shalom was taken from the town of Loštice (pronounced LOSH-tea-tseh ), about 140 miles east of Prague, in Moravia, the eastern region of what is now the Czech Republic. (Seventy miles further one reaches Pribor, the birthplace of Moravia’s best known Jewish native son, Sigmund Freud.) The town now has a population of 3,100, none of them Jews, though Jews have a history in Loštice that is documented back to the sixteenth century. The Jewish population rose and fell over the centuries, attaining up to 438 by the mid-19th century, but by 1930, well before the German occupation, only 55 Jews were left in the town. The list of Jews deported from Loštice to Terezin and the death camps includes 56 names from 22 families.
A scroll from Loštice is also held by Congregation Hakafa in Glencoe, Illinois. Learning that Loštice mourned the loss of its Jews and had worked over the years to maintain the Jewish cemetery and repair the building that had been the synagogue, in 2005 Hakafa’s rabbi and sixteen of its congregants took the scroll back to Loštice – just for a visit – where they were warmly received by the local community.
Ohev Shalom’s scroll is housed in the ark of the synagogue’s main sanctuary, where it is covered by a memorably powerful mantel designed by congregant-artist Elsa Wachs.