The Beth Am Czech Torah Story

In 1987, the membership of Congregation Beth Am, then in Wheeling Illinois, learned that scrolls were available to congregations in need of them, through the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust in London. The congregation’s founder had visited London and had seen the scrolls at the Trust. Later, the congregation’s president began negotiations to acquire one of the scrolls. Each donation of $10 purchased a tiny envelope with a silver footprint on it. The envelope could be printed with the name of someone being honored or memorialized and it was placed on the map. The footprints stretched from Czechoslovakia to London and across the ocean to Chicago. The goal was to collect $700 to pay for the donation required for a scroll.

Some investigation went into the history of the scrolls. A fund was established under the Title “Footsteps to Freedom”. A wall was converted into a map of Europe, the Atlantic Ocean and the United States. Czechoslovakia, England and Chicago were highlighted on the map.

Constant publicity within the congregation, cantor’s articles, etc. was utilized to gain the attention of the members. Everyone was extremely excited about the project. In the end, a total of over $5,000 was donated; some to be used for the donation to the Trust, some to be used to dress the scroll and some went to an ongoing project for a new ark. Cantor Arnold E. Schultz and his wife Susan went to England as part of a visit to friends who live there and the scroll from Kojetine was picked up.

This scroll, written in 1840, was transported back to Chicago with the help of British Airways who donated a seat for the scroll so that it would not travel as freight. When the scroll was picked up in London, Mrs. Shafer, the trustee, was handed a check for $2,000.

On a Shabbat a few weeks after the scroll came to Beth Am, the entire congregation along with visiting Survivors filled the sanctuary to overflowing. When the time came for the Torah service, the undressed scroll was brought down the center aisle by the Cantor and then passed hand to hand past presidents to the current president and then to the Rabbi who placed the mantle onto the scroll. Not a dry eye could be found in the entire sanctuary. Everyone wept for the souls who were lost from that town. Later, a speaker from the local Holocaust foundation spoke of her time as a teenager in Prague before and after the Nazi onslaught. As time went on, more and more information was gathered about the town, its inhabitants and the fate of those Jews. With help from contacts both in London and in Washington D.C., a picture was formed of the town’s history and those souls who lived there during the war. A great deal of research went into this particular scroll and its former owners. The congregation made a concerted effort to not forget that this scroll was special. Children vie for the honor of reading from this scroll on their B’nei Mitzvah. Since the scroll is difficult to read, students must try extra hard to gain enough skill to do it honor. At every service, when mourner’s kaddish is read, the “Jews of Kojetine” are added to the list of those names read out for Yahrtzeits and S’loshim. The students in the school are exposed to the history of that scroll as part of the curriculum. The Cantor relates the history of the Czech scrolls and the history of the Jews of Kojetine. The list of names and ages of the people from that town along with their occupations are handed out and the children see the names of children their own age that perished. The impression those 58 names make is so much greater than a nameless 6 million. Students who wish to “twin” their B’nei Mitzvah with one of those children from Kojetine, in addition to the proper Hebrew skills, are required to write a biography of that person as if they lived, thus giving life to an innocent that perished.When the congregation moved to a much larger building in Buffalo Grove, a village contiguous to Wheeling, a Yahrtzeit alcove was built to house the Yahrtzeit lights.

In that alcove is a section on the Jews of Kojetine including the certificate from the Scrolls Trust, a photograph of the interior of the Kojetine sanctuary circa 1930, a plaque commemorating the deportation of the Jews and a listing the names of those who perished.

Each June, on a Friday night closest to the date of the deportation, the congregation remembers the people of Kojetine. Fifty-eight Yahrtzeit candles are placed in the front of the sanctuary and the first fifty-eight people who arrive are each given a card with the name and age of someone from that town that perished. Those people light a candle prior to the beginning of Shabbat services. During the service, the scroll is removed from the ark and read and the story of the Jews of Kojetine is related including any recent information that had come to light during the previous year. At the time of the mourners kaddish, with the reading of Yahrtzeit names and those who died in the past month, each person with a card stands and reads aloud the name and age written there.

Cantor Schultz has lectured to the members of the Cantors Assembly, the worldwide organization of Conservative cantors, on the Czech scrolls and how to research and use them.

In early 2001, friends in London discovered a scroll at a closing home for Jewish elderly that was marked for burial. A request was made of the Scrolls Trust for Beth Am to acquire that scroll as well and, with the proper donation, that acquisition was approved. Once that scroll was brought to the congregation, a member who is a professor of history at a local college, embarked over a summer to research the history of that town, Roudnice. With help from Yad Vashem and the curator of the museum in Roudnice, a picture of the history of the Jews of Roudnice and their experiences during the Holocaust was developed including a detailed history of the deportation and the fate of those people. Both of the Czech scrolls and the people from the towns from which they came, are constantly remembered by the members at Beth Am. The people of Beth Am have adopted the scrolls from the towns with great history but no congregants. This insures that those souls and their history will not be forgotten and the congregation that now keeps the scrolls in trust will be enriched with that history. Cantor Schultz is now semi-retired and holds the position of “Emeritus” at Beth Am, but he is still very much involved in the Czech scrolls and continues to lecture the children each year on their history. Cantor Schultz also continues to lecture on the Czech scrolls to organizations in the United States. *** This was taken from ““.