Dr. Jeff Ellison, 
8th Grade Humanities Teacher

ur Torah is only one of 1,564 Torahs to survive the Shoah in all of Czechoslovakia. Like the human survivors of Auschwitz, our Survivor Torah has a number and that number is 1089. This Survivor witnessed much in its lifetime and now we will share the story of its life from the Torah's point of view. 

Once in Czechoslovakia, there was a town called Rychnov. Perhaps 12-13,000 people lived in my town and among them were a few hundred Jewish families. Though I do not know the exact date of my birth, I was born around 1850. I lived in a small, but beautiful synagogue and my room consisted of a magnificent ark, where I lived with my brother and sister Torahs. 
Then, something terrible occurred. A dark storm that was unprecedented in all of human history passed over my land. Almost all Jews perished in this storm. The only way I survived was being sent to a larger town, where people could care for me. If you had seen me, I stood proud and tall, but inside I wept. Even after this storm was over, I still felt lonely and afraid. For you see, the Jewish people needed me, and I also needed them. The conditions where I lived were nothing like my beautiful synagogue. Instead, I was housed in a warehouse where dripping water, mice and rats ate away pieces of my precious scroll. 

But after many years, my darkness turned to light. A group of people from England discovered my location and saw my sickly condition. They made a huge decision and raised money so I and my fellow Torahs could be shipped across the ocean to a synagogue in England. In that synagogue, kind and wise people tended to my wounds. They stitched me back together as best they could. They tried to help me recover from all that I had gone through. But because they were wise, these people understood one important thing—I needed a real home, because I truly only come to life when I can serve my purpose—as a teacher and educator. 

On November 11, 2022, something extraordinary happened. I was boxed up and shipped to Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School in Chicago. In the months since I arrived, the 8th grade students have served as my guardian angels and the other scrolls at the school have provided some comfort and solace for me.
You might ask, will I ever return home to Rynchov? The answer is I can never go home again: Today, no Jews live in my hometown of Rychnov. But that is not the end of the story—now I have a new ark, curtain and garment to wear here at Bernard Zell. Most importantly, I have new children to speak with and who can learn my timeless lessons. At last, I am home.

On Thursday, May 25 (5 Sivan), we came together as a school and community to officially celebrate and welcome our Rychnov Torah to Bernard Zell. Arriving this past November, this sacred Torah from Rychnov in the Czech Republic survived the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, and we—the Bernard Zell Community—have been entrusted as its sacred guardians.   

Art, history and Jewish tradition came together on the morning of Erev Shavuot, the holiday in which we commemorate the Jewish people receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai. Our 8th grade students led the BZ community in welcoming a Holocaust Survivor Torah, originally from the town of Rychnov to its new home here at Bernard Zell, placed in an ark designed by the students. The room was bursting with ruach (spirit), joy, song and dance, while the entire community sang from the Torah. We’re honored to bring renewed life to this Torah, and grateful for the profound experience our community shared!

Each year, Bernard Zell 8th grade students collaborate on their Interdisciplinary Project that showcases their historical knowledge of the Holocaust. This project is unique in that it weaves skills from their history classes, the arts, Jewish studies, and reading/writing workshops into a culminating experience that is a hallmark of our school. 

The foundation of this year’s project is a Torah from the small town of Rychnov, in the Czech Republic, which miraculously survived the Holocaust. This Torah, Survivor #1089, is one of 1,564 Czech Torahs that was entrusted to the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust, originally housed at the Westminster Synagogue in London. In November of 2022, the Torah arrived at Bernard Zell—on permanent loan from the Memorial Scrolls Trust—to its new home, right here at Bernard Zell. 



Gili Sherman, Middle School Art Teacher

sing an interdisciplinary model that combined art and history classes, the eighth-grade class of 2023 designed an ark, a curtain, a mantle and even a binder sash for our Torah. In groups and individually, students researched the history of Jews in Czechoslovakia, before, during, and after the Shoah and then created these designs. The designs were inspired by photos and information that was kindly provided by historians who work at the reconstructed synagogue in Ruchnov. Without their help this project would have been near impossible. The design of the ark, the curtain, and the mantle and binder, represent a journey through centuries of Jewish life in Czechoslovakia: 1.) The ark represents the thousand-year life of Jews in Czechoslovakia before the Holocaust and 2.) The curtain represents the Shoah and finally 3.) The Torah mantle represents Jewish ‘life’ in Rychnov today and tomorrow.

The students translated their ideas into imagery and symbols. After working in small groups, they came together as a whole class to present their ideas to one another. Then, the students worked to distill the ideas of each of the different groups, to the most essential and most communicative. Hearing the students talk in such a thoughtful manner, about what their images symbolized was powerful and moving!



Through research we landed on two themes connected to Jewish Czechoslovakia that reoccur in all three objects: the Ark, the curtain, and the mantle.The first theme is a clock. We chose to use a clock as a symbol because a clock with Hebrew letters stands atop the Jewish town hall in Prague probably the only such example in the world. The second theme is the Golem because legend has it that the story of the Golem, a mystical protector of the Jewish community, was created by Rabbi Lowe in Prague during the 16th century. Both of these themes show a feeling of sadness and darkness during the holocaust and turn into a reprise as if we were lifted by the golem and were able to fix the broken clock.

For the ark, which represents pre-Holocaust life, we decided to  inscribe the Amida prayer, “kadosh-kadosh-kadosh.” Below the arch are the words “We Remember - Zahor,” emphasizing that we will not forget this history. The hands of Golem point to the Hebrew word Zahor. Vibrant leaves climb up the sides of the ark and are interspersed with a few wilted leaves, conveying the dichotomy of calm vs fearful times, yet again. The hands of the clock are set at 10:10. Over the centuries, Jews loved, married, had children, and yes, experienced joy in their lives. Life went on. This was symbolized by the rays of light emanating from the sun on the doors of the ark. We also chose to show the moon and a few stars for the night because, sometimes, times were uncertain and darkness prevailed.

The ark curtain shocks us with the horror of the Shoah itself. The Golem is bowed over and distraught. Flames send sparks into a black night sky. The expired Prague Clock has stopped ticking at “yud-bet,” midnight. The Dali-esque clock melts into the flames. The Hebrew letter “hey” (representing God) is falling off the face of the clock and the Magen David has fallen off the synagogue roof, as the once vibrant village is turned to rubble.

The Torah mantel depicts the aftermath of the Shoah. The few that survived were not welcomed back. Thus, the houses of Rychnov are depicted as faint outlines. In the absence of Jews, the synagogue after reconstruction was then recommissioned as a meeting hall and learning center by the town locals. The mystical Golem is reborn and climbs up a magical ladder to replace a missing piece from the Prague Clock. Like in a Chagall painting, the Golem’s ladder teeters from the synagogue roof reminding us of Jacob’s dream. The Golem holds a bucket with the letters “yud-hey” (a symbol of God). The colors of a new dawn light up the sky and the hands of the clock point to the Hebrew letter “aleph,” signifying a new beginning.

In order to welcome the Torah home officially, we want to read the v'ahavta and specifically read our schools mission statement: veshinantam levanecha which means “to teach them diligently.'' This torah is meant for all of us right now, and in the future which is why we decided to read these familiar words together as it is something that everyone here can partake in. When thinking about our Torah, it is crucial that we pass on the memories of the people of Rychnov who sat in their synagogue, and said these same words, so as to never forget them. Please join us.

When we first heard about our school getting a Torah from Rychnov Czechoslovakia we were excited and nervous to take on the responsibility of having one of the few Torahs that survived the Holocaust. This Torah came to symbolize our dedication to learning about the Holocaust. To have responsibility for this Torah means holding on to our past, holding on to our heritage, and holding on to the Jews that lost their lives fighting for Judaism. Thinking of this Torah makes us travel to the past, and think about how frightened they were to even speak its words. How lucky we are to safely sit here altogether, as a Jewish community, and have this artifact in our presence. The Torah is so much more than just an artifact, it symbolizes how we as Jews will always persevere, adapt and survive.

I think I speak for the whole 8th grade when I say that this Torah was a bigger gift than any of us could ever imagine receiving. As you heard from Josie, Jackson, Fabi, and Maya we got to design a safe place for this Torah to stay when not in use. 7th graders, 6th graders, and even fifth graders, you will have this Torah as your responsibility very soon. We ask you to understand how meaningful it is to have this specific Torah in your hands. This is not like a responsibility of doing homework or writing a paper, this is the responsibility of holding onto the life and culture before the Holocaust. This Torah is a real historical artifact that is in 8th graders’ hands. Don’t be scared to take on this much responsibility, be excited to get the opportunity to have this much responsibility for something that we all care so much about; Judaism, our culture. Our only request is that you who follow, care and respect it in the same way we have this year. Now, we would like to ceremonially pass the Torah from the eighth grade to the seventh graders. 




We are grateful to The Magda Brown Fund for Holocaust Education supported by The Lucas Family, and the Arkes Family in memory of Aron Derman, for their generous support of this initiative