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Two 'Survivors' ​Occupy Special Place at Shul

April 23, 2009 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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There's a special pair of Holocaust survivors at Temple Brith Achim in King of Prussia. Originally from small Czech towns, the two spent the war in Prague before moving to London in the 1960s and arriving in Chester County in the early 1980s. Their story -- and that of thousands of others -- has affected countless lives around the world.

But they're not congregants; they're Torah scrolls.

Those two scrolls are among more than 1,500 catalogued by the Memorial Scrolls Trust at Westminster Synagogue in London, which since the early 1960s has served as a clearinghouse for scrolls saved from Czech towns during the Holocaust. The ones at Temple Brith Achim have been on permanent loan from the group for nearly three decades, thanks to the work of a congregant no longer at the synagogue.

The center's research director, Michael Heppner, 72, spoke this week at the temple's Yom Hashoah service and regaled the audience with tales of his trips behind the Iron Curtain in search of more information on those thousands of scrolls.

Meticulously indexed along with thousands of other pieces of Judaica during the Holocaust, many Torahs like those at Brith Achim were acquired by London's Westminster Synagogue in 1964 for $30,000 when the Communists, then ruling over Eastern Europe, thought it might be profitable to sell the scrolls, said Heppner. One of them wound up at his own shul.

Thus began Heppner's foray into history, which started on Yom Kippur 1978, when his rabbi offered a sermon on their congregation's Czech Torah.

The rabbi, who himself had been curious to know more, consulted the scroll's certificate and asked congregants who might be traveling to Prague to stop at Kolin -- about 38 miles east, where their Torah had originated.

As it so happened, Heppner's business travels often took him to Prague, and during a trip in March 1979, he got bored and decided to investigate.

He met a local Holocaust survivor who helped him explore Kolin, while Heppner took photos and uncovered more about his congregation's Torah. He also met a man involved with the town museum who assisted him in getting documents and building an archive of information.

None of this was anything Heppner had planned; he said he "was trapped, because every time I got there, there was something to do next."

In between his trips, he ran seminars on the history of the Czech scrolls.

He called himself simply a man who blundered into Kolin, and ended up going back two or three times a year for the next 15 years.

Heppner continued to travel back to the Czech Republic for a few years after the Cold War, but he explained that he eventually stopped when his business interests there dried up due to deflated prices in the post-Communist period.

But he said that he does plan to make another trip this fall when, along with other congregants, he will return a London scroll to Kolin for Simchat Torah.

As for the scrolls at Brith Achim, one of which hails from Kolin, they're used regularly by congregants, especially for Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies.

Said Rabbi Eric Lazar: "The goal is for the children who read from these scrolls all the time to understand that this is living history." 

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