The Czech Memorial Scrolls were originally collected up by the Jews of Prague, in the wake of Nazi devastation. As the Jews of Bohemia disappeared, the Prague Jews collected up their scrolls to keep them safe, hoping to give them back to their owners after the war. But their owners were all murdered – and then the Prague Jews were murdered too. After the war, the Czech government didn’t want them – so Westminster Synagogue bought 1,564 sifrei Torah and brought them to London. Their website is really excellent and a fascinating read (see also the USA associate site).

sev-flaking Now many of the scrolls have been given foster-homes in the United States, and their new communities want to make them part of the family – so they look at the possibility of having the sefer repaired, so that it can be read from once more. That’s where I come in.

The story is usually the same – it was clearly a beautiful sefer once, but the Holocaust left its mark on it. Time has dried out the parchment and ink so that now the letters are just crumbling into nonexistence with the barest touch, even just the touch of the parchment as the scroll is rolled and unrolled. The little black splots in the picture are ink crumbles. (The orange colouration is rust. See below.)

I think these Holocaust sefarim are like the father character in the book Maus. They’re so damaged by the Holocaust that they simply aren’t really capable of functioning normally any more. Just like people, it’s normal for all sifrei Torah to age to a point beyond which it’s no longer practical or kind to keep fixing them up so they can stay at work, but it’s so much sadder with the Holocaust ones.

oldrepairsOver time, most sifrei Torah go a bit flaky in places. When it’s just a few letters here and there, we apply another coat of ink to the scuffy parts – like that hey in the top line, you see where it’s just a bit white? We’d colour those bits black, and continue as normal.

You can see, in places, where this Holocaust sefer has actually had that kind of repair, years and years ago – look at the brown letters; see how they’ve got black patches on them? The brown will be what remains of the original ink, gone reddish because of oxidisation in the iron compounds – rust, in other words – and the black is a more recently-applied coat of ink, applied where once the letter was just a bit scuffy in the middle.

But now it’s not just a letter here and there, it’s basically all the letters. You can restore a sefer in this condition, but it’s difficult to do well because they’re so very flaky. Either you have to remove all the flakes and basically start over, or you have to apply a stickier ink than usual to try and glue the remaining flakes into place; both of these are rather delicate processes.

One can try using fixatives such as artists use, to hold what remains in place and retard decay, but they’re limited in their effect, they make the sefer much heavier than it already is, and you still won’t have a kosher sefer unless you put in all the time repairing the poor flaky flaky letters.

There are people who will re-ink every letter on a sefer like this, spray it with fixative, and tell you to come back for a checkup in five years, at which point you’ll probably have to do a lot of it over again. This course of action is sometimes appropriate, for instance in a community that really can’t invest in a new sefer, or a sefer which has enormous emotional significance to the community in some way. It’s still often exceedingly expensive, say upwards of $5000, if the sefer is starting out in very poor condition, like this one. And it seems to me that – especially with these poor sad Holocaust scrolls – that it’s often just kinder to accept that this sefer has aged and sustained damage beyond telling, and instead of applying severe restorative therapies to make it “normal” again, let it have a dignified retirement.

Which was the advice I gave this community, sadly enough.

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February 2017

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