The Survival of a Torah
By David Lewin , Sydney
In November 2001, I had the privilege of reading from a Sefer Torah which is known in Sydney as the “Balmain Torah.”
This was a very special moment for me, as this particular Torah has a family history extending back over more than five generations, and maybe there is more than co-incidence in this story…
The story of the Balmain Torah starts with its original location in the Moravian town of Kojetin, which has a centuries-old history of Jewish residence.
Kojetin is a little town located in Czechoslovakia (Czech Republic), lying on the right bank of the Moravia River, about 200 kilometres south-east of Prague.
Jews have been living in Kojetin for many centuries. The oldest records showing definite information of a Jewish community in Kojetin are found in a chronicle in the local seigniorial archives. It is stated that in 1566, there were 52 Jewish families living in the “Judengasse” (the Street of the Jews). These records clearly indicate that at that time the Jewish community was fairly large and it had been in existence for a long time. The chronicle also indicates that the cemetery was being expanded at this time.
After the sixteenth century the community diminished considerably. The major factor of this decrease was the Thirty Year War (1618-1648), although it affected the Christians more than the Jews. Evidence indicates that by 1657 there were only 16 inhabited Jewish houses
However, during the second half of the seventeenth century the Jewish community experienced strong growth due to Chmielnicki raids in Poland. Some of the refugees fleeing the terrible massacre found a welcome haven in Kojetin. In exchange for refuge, they shared their knowledge of the Torah and Talmud, and introduced the Polish prayer Minhag, which was still used until the community was destroyed in the Holocaust.
There was also further immigration from Vienna in the late seventeenth century as a result of the Turkish invasion of Austro-Hungary.
The historical records reveal that in 1727, there were 470 Jews living in Kojetin in 40 dwellings, proof that the population and the number of occupied dwellings had returned to their previous levels. The Jewish community had however become poorer, and its principal business activity was local trade.
According to the 1829 census, there were 76 established families in Kojetin. The period between 1849-1890 was the golden age of the Jewish community of Kojetin. In many families education, sociability, and genuine Judaism were there major values and they were not afraid to show it.
The Kojetin synagogue was built of stone and brick, and was initially designed to hold about 300 people. Evidence indicates that it was renovated in 1614, but it dates from a much earlier period. Before the Holocaust, the community believed the synagogue was over 600 years old.
Still to be found in the synagogue, and in an amazingly good state of preservation, is an extremely valuable brocaded Parochet (Ark curtain) with gold embroidery. The inscription indicates that it dates from the Jewish Year 5442 (secular years 1681-2), and that it was donated during a time of great distress in the community.
Shortly after the arrival of the settlers from Poland, the Judengasse was devastated by an overpowering fire, during which the synagogue lost its roof. Since the community was unable to collect sufficient funds for its restoration, the synagogue remained unroofed for 50 years.
A petition was filed with the Chancellery of the Prague Archdiocese for the restoration of the synagogue on its former location. At the same time proposals were submitted for the selection of a Rabbi and a Chazan, along with other proposals to help the Jewish community. The approval was given and the synagogue was restored. The community, greatly diminished and impoverished by the fire, was now fully reorganized, and despite its small size it became the headquarters of important rabbis.
The synagogue was used until the Nazi invasion of Moravia in March 1939. The building suffered some structural damage during World War II. After the war, it was used as a warehouse and, as there are no known current Jewish residents, it is still used as such.
My great-great-grandfather Leopold Weisskopf was an active and prominent member of the Kojetin Jewish community. He was the vice-president of the Chevra Kadishah and an esteemed senior member of the Kojetin Synagogue. The community honoured him for his hard work and devotion to them.
Of particular significance to this history is my grandmother’s recollection of Festival services conducted in his home, using one of the Kojetin Synagogue Torahs. I have recorded her recollection of this below.
My great-great grandparents Leopold and Miriam Weisskopf lived and worked in Kojetin. They moved there after they were married.
The Weisskopf’s house occupied a large block of land on the Judengasse. On this land were two shops, one with ready-made clothes and the other with materials. Leopold’s other brothers also owned shops nearby; my grandmother remembers that Leopold’s brother Ernst owned a successful shoe shop.
Leopold and Miriam Weisskopf’s living quarters were situated on the top level, where they lived comfortably. In the back of the house was a large lounge room extending to a backyard, where all of the Shabbat and Festival Lunches were held. They also grew a large range of vegetables so they would never have to go to the shops. Their grandchildren had a tree house built for them in the yard, where they would play together.
They had four children, one of whom was a daughter called Frida
Frida grew up in her parents’ home and was educated there until her adolescence. When she was a teenager she was sent to school in a neighbouring town to study bookkeeping, commerce and writing shorthand, as her father wanted her to work in his shops.
When Frida was 23 she married Rudolf Strassman in the Kojetin Synagogue.
Rudolf was born in Vizovice, Moravia. He had worked as a judge for the military services during the First World War. After their marriage in 1919, Rudolf and Frida Strassman moved to the town of Silperg in Moravia, which was not far from Kojetin. There, Rudolf worked as a Chamber Notary (which was a legal professional) and a solicitor.
In 1921 they had a son who was called Felix. Two and a half years later (June 15, 1923) their daughter Kitty, my grandmother, was born. As Rudolf was a very successful lawyer, he was promoted in 1930 to a position in Lipnik, a larger provincial regional city. Fortunately for keeping family connections, Lipnik was only three train stops from Kojetin.
Kitty attended Primary School in Lipnik. She was a good student and so Rudolf and Frida sent her to a Boarding Gymasium (academically selective streamed high school) in Brno, the Moravian capital city, to learn languages, as that was her scholastic strength.
At every available opportunity, Kitty went to visit her grandparents in Kojetin. When possible she went during school holidays and all the Jewish Festivals.
On all of the Festivals, the whole family came to Kojetin. As the house was large Kitty and her family stayed there in one of the bedrooms. Kitty’s grandfather, Leopold Weisskopf, conducted the Seders, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in his home for the big family. He borrowed a Torah from the Kojetin Synagogue and all the family participated. They had an open house and many other friends participated and came for meals. All of the meals and service were conducted in the big yard and lounge room. These were some of the fondest memories Kitty had of her childhood as she spent time with her uncles, aunts and cousins whom she was never to see again after the Holocaust.
In 1933 Leopold Weisskopf passed away. The funeral procession started from his house and he was carried through the streets of Kojetin in a horse-drawn carriage.
After Leopold’s death, Miriam Weisskopf was unable to manage the shops by herself so she gave them over one of her sons, Ernst. Miriam caught the train to my grandmother and her family in Lipnik almost every week. Kitty and Felix were always excited to greet her as she bought them presents; most often these were homemade sweets. My grandmother has never forgot the taste of them, as they tasted so special to her!
In 1936 Miriam passed away after a short illness and was buried next to Leopold in Kojetin Cemetery. With their demise having fortunately preceded the Holocaust, Kojetin faded from the immediate family history. Visits there now only occurred to visit the graves at Yahrzeits, and for rare visits to the extended family,
Most of Leopold and Miriam’s descendants were mostly taken to Terezin and other concentration camps, and my grandmother was the sole survivor of the Holocaust. Miriam Weisskopf’s other brothers and sisters were able to leave to Palestine well before the Germans invaded. When my grandmother went to Israel in 1992 she serendipitously met one of her long-lost second cousins, who organised for her to meet her Israeli relatives. There are over seventy-five members of the family living in Kibbutzim in Israel.
To briefly document my family members who were present last November, I continue my grandmother’s biography.
After the war, Kitty moved to Prague and married Bedrich Fest, another Holocaust survivor from Czechoslovakia. They were married in the Altneuschul in Prague, and had a son whom they named Rudolf (Rudy) after his grandfather Rudolf Strassman. When the Communists overtook Czechoslovakia they emigrated to Australia, and my mother Julie was born here in Sydney.
My family present at the Torah reading was my grandmother, my mother, father and sisters, and my Uncle Rudy’s family.
The “Balmain Torah” currently in the possession of the “Inner Western Chavurah Balmain” community is one of twelve Sifrei Torah from Kojetin and one of the 1564 from Czechoslovakia which survived the Holocaust.
These Torahs were perversely saved by the Nazis and warehoused in Prague, where they were to be preserved in the “Museum of a Dead Race.” This was intended to be a museum to show future generations what the Jews whom Hitler had destroyed were like. The Germans had kept meticulous records of the items collected, and so the provenance of this Torah is well documented.
After the war the Torahs were collected and restored by curators of Westminster synagogue in England. The scrolls had been found burnt and damaged and there David Brant, a Sofer, repaired them to the best of his ability. He used remnants of old Torahs to patch up the damaged sections and replaced one of the Atzei Chaim (poles) of the Balmain Torah. Even so, the Torah is incompletely restored and is Pasul, so it cannot be used for Orthodox religious services.
Balmain resident Helen Zigmond, whose father was an official of the Westminster Torah Restoration Project put the Chavurah into contact with the organizers. The community had grown, and wanted to acquire a Sefer Torah to use in its services. To qualify for one of the Kojetin Torahs, the Chavurah had to prove itself as a suitable community. This is harder than it sounds, as the community doesn’t have a formal institution, synagogue or rabbi. However after a year’s correspondence, they finally proved themselves qualified to get the Torah provided that they met out insurance and export costs.
In 1989 one of the Chavurah members travelled to England to get the Torah and flew it to Sydney. Even this was an adventure, as a Sefer Torah must travel as hand luggage, and the Torah bearer had difficulties with airline security: the guards thought he was a terrorist with a double-barrelled gun!
The Inner Western Chavurah use the Torah regularly, and numbers of members’ children read from it for their Bar- and Bat-Mitzvahs. They are considered to be the guardians of the Torah, in perpetual trust.
In 1998, the Sydney Powerhouse Museum staged an exhibition entitled “Precious Legacy: Treasures from the Jewish Museum in Prague” and the Balmain Torah was displayed there on loan, as the principal “local” exhibit. When I saw this exhibition with my family, my grandmother speculated that it was noteworthy that there was a Czech Torah surviving in a Jewishly obscure part of Sydney, but the story still has a little way to go.
Sydney film-maker and member of the Inner Western Chavurah Balmain Rodney Freeman was making a documentary on the Holocaust for the Sydney Jewish Museum, and had previously been in contact with Avi Steiner in Jerusalem. Avi had researched the Kojetin Jewish community, from which he was descended and was aware of the Balmain Torah’s history through Rod.
Rod interviewed my grandmother as part of the oral history for his documentary, and when the subject of her roots in Kojetin came up, he put her into contact with Avi Steiner in Jerusalem. Apparently, she is the sole survivor of this once thriving Jewish community.
Avi and my grandmother had correspondence, and as she was able to tell him of the community, he told her that the Balmain Torah was originally one of the Kojetin Torahs.
And so… a meeting of the Inner Western Chavurah was set up at Rod Freeman’s where my grandmother was to be the guest of honour to tell her story of Kojetin.
On Sunday 11th November 2001 at Rod Freeman’s house in Balmain, my family and I went to meet the Chavurah and to see the Torah. It was an unexpectedly emotional meeting. We were all prepared for my mother and uncle to give a little of my family’s history coming to and growing up in Australia, and for Grandma to give the highlight speech, recounting her childhood memories of Kojetin.
The Torah was then brought out and carefully unwrapped and opened on the dining room table. It was packed in the same box, as it was when it was given to them. It was a fairly large Torah and had a big red cover with the words “From the people of Kojetin to the Inner West Chavurah” embroidered on it. It was rolled to where one of the children was to read for a Bat-Mitzvah in a couple of weeks, and not far from my Bar-Mitzvah Sedra, Vayechi.
I was asked if I could read a little as the community aren’t greatly exposed to people reading from the Torah. We rolled the Torah to the beginning of the Parashah and I began to recite it. The Torah relates here of the completion of Jacob’s life, after all his troubles, surrounded by his children and descendants.
And here was my grandmother listening to the same story in real life: her grandson reading the story of blessings and reconciliation from probably the very same Torah that she had heard read, as a small child in her grandfather’s house in Kojetin so long ago.