Woodacre Torah takes fictional twist on Website

In the five decades since the Holocaust, thousands of survivors have told their stories. Still, there are other untold stories — contained not within people but within the thousands of Torah scrolls seized by the Nazis as they destroyed Jewish communities across Eastern Europe.

If warehoused Torah scrolls such as those found in Czechoslovakia after the war could speak, what stories would they tell? Who worked late into the night to inscribe them by hand? Whose skilled hands adorned the velvet covers? Whose careful calligraphy restored them after years of faithful use?

What were the rabbis like who read from them, and what were the communities like in which the scrolls resided?

Web site author Suzanne Sadowsky has endeavored to answer these questions in "The Woodacre Torah," an online fictionalized life story of her congregation's Czech Torah scroll. The Jewish Congregation of the San Geronimo Valley now meets in the West Marin town of Lagunitas.

The story, written primarily for middle-school children, begins with its inscription by main character Rabbi Shmuel, born in 1820. By portraying a world that was lost in the Holocaust, Sadowsky helps impressionable children tackle a difficult subject. She also makes the last days of the shtetls of Eastern Europe accessible to young audiences.

Web site readers — along with the fictional young rabbi, who is also a scribe — worry whether he will complete the scroll by his High Holy Days deadline, as he carefully copies from an older scroll that his father had inscribed. Readers travel with him as he, his brother-in-law Pinchas, and his father, Reb Shlomo, deliver the new scroll to his uncle's shul in Amschelberg.

Sadowsky's telling of the story — found at http://www.mcjc.org/Mjoldart/woodacre/mjass000.htm — is rich with the details of everyday 19th-century shtetl life. In it, readers will find warm re-creations of the rabbi's Shabbats at home, community matchmaking, and the dangers for Jews who travel outside the shtetl.

The story also evokes quite poetically the rabbi's relationship with his work as a scribe: "When Reb Shmuel finally got to sleep that night he dreamed of the Sacred Torah. Letters of the alphabet swirled in his head as he drifted off to sleep — aleph, bet… lamed danced in the night sky like stars."

As Sadowsky takes readers on the rabbi's journey, she evokes the fear of anti-Semitic violence that Jews then carried with them. The rabbi and his party have to stay with relatives along the way because it was not safe to stay in inns, unless they were Jewish-owned.

Readers also get a taste of what it might be like for a small-town rabbi to pull into the great city of Prague in his horse-drawn cart. Sadowsky's description of the city includes a history of its Jewish community, local folklore and contemporary political debates.

The Torah scroll's arrival at its final destination, Amschelberg, Bohemia, brings out the whole Jewish community for a joyous celebration.

Sadowsky weaves in details of the scroll's current existence, too. In the story, she writes that the mantle of the Torah is dark blue velvet with embroidered words: "It Is a Tree of Life." Interestingly, when this Torah scroll arrived in West Marin, congregants created a new dark blue-green mantle for it, embroidered with an image of the Tree of Life.

Discovered in the early 1960s among more than 1,500 Bohemian scrolls in a warehouse adjacent to a Prague synagogue, the Woodacre Torah scroll was shipped to a synagogue in London. From there, the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust donated the Torah to the Jewish Congregation of the San Geronimo Valley, on permanent loan. Leon Cowen, who lives in England and is the father of congregant Shelley Chadwick, brought it to West Marin on a High Holy Day visit to his family.

"The scroll is a tangible connection for us to the Jews who perished in Europe during this century," Sadowsky says. "It is a great honor for us to be able to give it a new life and a new home in our community."

It might seem a daunting task to write a story that takes place so far from her personal experience. But Sadowsky's own life informs this story.

Born in Brooklyn, she grew up in a strong Jewish community in the 1940s. Although just a child then, she knew a war against the Jews was going on across the Atlantic, and even heard stories of Nazi pamphleteers in Brooklyn.

She also has many memories of her grandfather, a Chassidic Jew who spoke only Yiddish. "My mother said he was considered to be a scholar," Sadowsky recalls. "He spent hours and hours with a glass of tea and sugar cubes, studying the Talmud."

Yet, "in many ways he was an enigma to me because of the language barrier," she says. Despite a rift of time and place, Sadowsky in her writing shows an intimate connection with the old Jewish towns of Amschelberg and Sedicany, where the Woodacre Torah was ultimately confiscated by the Nazis. And her research has increased her interest in those little communities. "I'm dying to go there," she says.

Sadowsky, president and founder of the 6-year-old Jewish Congregation of the San Geronimo Valley, retired early from her position as economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but she hasn't slowed down.

"It's OK to retire," she says, "but there's so much work to do to repair the world."

A resident of Woodacre, she is administrative assistant at the San Geronimo Valley Cultural Center, a nonprofit community center, and volunteers her time single-handedly publishing the Jewish congregation's monthly newsletter.

Her online text — which she says is a work in progress — is complemented by illustrations and photos by Web page creator Robert Evans of Manchester, Menocino County. He also assisted her in designing and laying out the text, which is part of the larger Web site of the Mendocino Coast Jewish Congregation.

The Web site went online in June of this year. Now Sadowsky is hoping for hard-copy publication, and will soon be submitting a manuscript to a publisher.