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A rare find at Costa Rica synagogue

From the print edition

By Leni Friedman Valenta |  Special to The Tico Times

Call it serendipity. My husband, Dr. Jiri Valenta, and I had just completed the first two chapters of his memoir when we attended services at B’nei Israel’s trilingual Reform synagogue in San José, and learned the amazing story of the holocaust Torahs. 

One of these Torahs, dated 1850, is on permanent display there thanks to the efforts of synagogue elder Marvin Sossin, 79. It was he who gave us Philippa Bernard’s history of the Torahs, “Out of the Midst of the Fire.”

Originally from Toronto, Canada, Sossin, a prominent entrepreneur, told us he was attracted to Costa Rica by its island-of democracy status in a sea of dictatorships, and its history as a refuge for three waves of European and Latin American Jewish immigration.

Arriving here in 1982, he set about helping to found the first Reform Jewish community of Costa Rica, an effort which encompassed a visit from his hometown rabbi, the late Gunther Plaut. It was prayer-book author Plaut, one of the world’s most famous rabbis, who told Sossin about the holocaust Torahs. 

The Torahs have a Czech origin, as does my husband, Jiri. He was born in the former Third Reich protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia on April 9, 1945, a month before Liberation. His Jewish mother gave birth to him while hiding in the basement of her Christian future in-laws. Because of the Nuremberg laws, she could only marry his father after Liberation. 

Tracing his roots, I learned that the only Jews who survived were either Mischlinges (mixed-race Jews),  Jews married to Christians or those who escaped abroad. Yet, with defeat in sight, the Nazis accelerated Hitler’s plans to “cleanse” Europe of every drop of Jewish blood, taking even Christians who refused to divorce their Jewish spouses. 

That wasn’t all they were doing. Incredibly, a Jewish museum in Prague was carefully preserved by the Germans, and thousands of Judaica from looted and burned synagogues all over the country were added to its collection. Why? The prevailing theory is that, in an act of Aryan self-glorification, the Nazis were seeking to build a future museum about an extinct, subhuman race. Meanwhile, all the looted artifacts, ceremonial items, silver, apparel, violins, textiles and manuscripts were sorted, recorded, wrapped and annotated by doomed Jewish prisoners.

Among the thousands of artifacts collected were 1,564 Torahs, some dating back to 1700. Warehoused in a small synagogue-turned-church near Prague, they lay hidden for 20 years until the providential visit to Czechoslovakia of a Jewish art dealer from London, Eric Estorick. Invited to view the floor-to-ceiling scrolls by the organization overseeing the Jewish Museum in Prague, Estorick was dumbfounded. To Jews worldwide, the Torah is sacred as the first five books of the law received by Moses from God. Their creation or repair requires special animal skins and parts, rare inks, quills and precise measurements in order to be deemed kosher. The profession of Torah sofer (scribe) is so arduous, it is often hereditary. 

Estorick immediately contacted Jewish philanthropist Ralph Yablon, and with his help, the Torah scrolls project soon amassed sponsors, contacts, experts, workers and fascinating anecdotes. In 1964, Yablon purchased the scrolls for $30,000, whereupon they were transported to his Reform Westminster synagogue. A Memorial Scrolls Trust was formed to oversee their repair and dispersal. The trust’s decision was to permanently loan – never sell – the scrolls to Jewish communities worldwide. Donations are accepted to offset shipping costs.

Upon the delivery of the 1850 scroll to B’nei Israel, Sossin and the synagogue’s cofounders were inspired to work on founding the Union of Jewish Congregations of Latin America and the Caribbean, in what famous Rabbi Dov Marmur called in 2001 “the most isolated region of Jews in the world.” It still holds conferences connecting Reform and Conservative synagogues.

Meanwhile, to Jiri, whose life was conditioned as the child of holocaust survivors, the story of the Torahs also provides a special inspiration. In the midst of the most unthinkable circumstances, 1,564 Torahs, badly needed by post-war synagogues worldwide, were preserved by the Nazis. Thus was the sacred miraculously rescued from the profane.

The holocaust Torah, jewel of its kind in Central America, is still on display at B’nei Israel, in San José. The synagogue is located on the old road to Escazú, southwest of San José, from Pops in La Sabana, 800 meters west. For more, contact B’nei Israel President David Feingold at 2231-5243 or visit

Writer and Yale graduate Leni Friedman Valenta is a principle of the Institute of Post-Communist Studies with her husband, Dr. Jiri Valenta. Read more at


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