To a large extent, it was a discussion of Holocaust education. Heppner's thesis is that there is little point trying to tell people about the unfathomable horrors of the Holocaust, or trying to convey the scale of it, because people just switch off. Instead, educators should try to get people to empathize with individuals and small communities, particularly towards the beginning of the Nazi era . This is not entirely a new idea; Anne Frank's diary is very widely read, for example, and films like Schindler's List do just this sort of thing.
But Heppner wants to connect this to the Torah scrolls which were preserved in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, and which now belong to Jewish communities around the world. He suggests that each community that has a scroll should make it their duty to find out everything they can about the community their scroll came from, and tell the world about it. People should adopt members of the destroyed communities who were their age, or share a name, or had the same occupation.
As an example of this, he talked about his own community's research into the town of Kolin, where their scroll came from. Hitler's annexation of the Sudetenland took place in September 1938. At this point most of the Jews of that region fled to central Czechoslovakia (with two days' notice). They stayed with friends and relatives if they could, or else lived as refugees in shanty towns over the winter of 1938-39. There aren't any Czech scrolls that are labelled as coming from the Sudetenland, as the Jews who left in September 38 took all the scrolls with them. The Jewish population of independent Czechoslovakia increased by 50% in three days.
March 1939 the Nazis invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia, and from 1939 to 1942, imposed increasingly harsh anti-Jewish laws. By 1942 Jews in Czechoslovakia were not allowed to own businesses, radios, pets or winter clothing, were not allowed to attend schools, libraries, museums or theatres, and were not allowed to buy fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry, dairy products and a bunch of other fairly necessary foodstuffs. And there were the usual things about having to register with the authorities, curfews (extending up to only being allowed out for two hours of the day by the end), wearing the yellow star etc.
Towards the end of 1942, all the Czech Jews were deported, mostly to Terezin (Theresienstadt). 77,892 were killed. The numbers for how many died of malnutrition, disease and general harsh treatment aren't known as precisely. Most of the deportations to Terezin didn't take place in the cattle trucks which have become emblematic of the Holocaust; there were ordinary trains, and the Jews were led to believe they were going to transit camps, and brought all their belongings with them. The tracks didn't extend for the final three miles, which means that the prisoners had to carry their heavy cases for that distance. They didn't know it was entirely pointless, of course.
Heppner somehow or other managed to be in Czechoslovakia in the late 70s and early 80s. He went to Kolin and found a deaf old lady named Olga, who communicated with him by writing (in German) on a pad of paper. She was the last survivor of the Kolin Jewish community, which had existed continuously in Kolin for over 500 years in 1942. She'd returned to Kolin with the rabbi; they were the only two out of several hundred who survived. The rabbi built a memorial to all the Jews who were murdered, and after he died, Olga stayed in Kolin, the only living Jew, because she "wanted to be with her friends". She must have entertained some hope that someone would come so she could tell the story of her destroyed community, but the Communist regime made it fairly difficult. It was very lucky that Heppner managed to find her; she died only a couple of years after they met.
Olga's husband had died before the war. She added her own name to his gravestone while still living, because she knew there was going to be no-one after her to add it. She took Heppner on a tour of the old ghetto, which was emancipated in the 1880s but the old buildings, including a 16th century and earlier synagogue, remained standing, albeit abandoned and in poor repair. And she told him about the golden age between the 1880s and the 1930s when the Jews were part of ordinary Czech society, with full citizenship rights and taking a full part in all aspects of their culture.
Apparently since the Jewish community in the west started taking an interest in Kolin, the authorities have responded by restoring some of the old buildings (many of which are of architectural and historical, as well as Jewish interest). And the community who have one of the Kolin scrolls, Northwood and Pinner Liberal synagogue, managed to rescue the rather amazing gothic stone arch from the Kolin cemetery chapel and it is now a central feature of their synagogue. There's a not very clear picture of it on the synagogue home page.
It seems a bit facile to see that as a happy ending, though. It is true that the situation is better than it would have been, had Heppner and his community not made contact with the Kolin community. It is undoubtedly a good thing that Northwood and Pinner have done loads of research into the history of the Kolin community and its individual members and go round telling their stories. Remembering a few hundred people is better than forgetting everyone, isn't it?
Anyway, Heppner told us that our scroll comes from a town called Pardubice. We know that the Jewish community of Pardubice and the surrounding areas were deported to Terezin in two transports in December 1942. The Nazis' meticulous record keeping means that it would be a fairly trivial task to find out the names of everyone who was deported from Pardubice; the exact numbers are known, but not by me. Heppner exhorted us, the Cambridge Jewish community to take on a project to research and memorialize the Pardubice community, as his community have done with Kolin.
I suppose I'm contributing a little bit by promulgating the story he told on my blog.