The museum board is pleased to announce that we are official caretakers of the antique Czech Torah on display in the museum. A new loan agreement is in effect between our museum and the Memorial Scrolls Trust in London, which owns the entire collection of scrolls rescued from the Czech Republic after World War II. Our scroll, known by the trust as MST#666, will stay on display as a way to educate New Mexico school children and community members not only about Torah scrolls and their place in Jewish beliefs, but also the history of the Czech Torah scrolls and how they survived WWII.
Before WWII, these scrolls were in use in Jewish communities throughout Bohemia and Moravia, in Czechoslovakia. In 1930 there were 356,830 Jews living in Czechoslovakia, and some 350 synagogues in Bohemia and Moravia. Fifty of these synagogues were destroyed during a pogrom in 1938, and most of their contents lost.
When the Nazis occupied Prague in 1939, Jews in the city recognized that many religious objects in communities throughout Central Europe would be destroyed. In an effort to save as much as they could, they made a plan to move thousands of objects to the Jewish Museum in Prague where they could be better kept safe, and managed to convince the Nazi occupiers to agree. The plan went to work in 1942, and more than 100,000 religious texts and objects poured into a museum that had previously only had some 800 objects in its collection. Dr. Josef Polak oversaw the arrival and cataloguing by the Prague Jewish community. His museum staff worked 12-hour days to account for and preserve what they could before all were transported to Terezin and Auschwitz. Only two staff members of the original 50 survived. Dr. Polak ultimately joined the resistance, was arrested in 1944, and vanished into Auschwitz in 1945.
During the war more synagogues were destroyed, and those that were not, were left empty, abandoned, and decaying. Yet the objects they had sent to Prague survived safely inside the museum. After the war they were moved to a ruined synagogue in Michle, where some of the collection was sent out to congregations that were reestablishing themselves around the Czech Republic. In 1948 Communists took over the government, and the synagogues were closed again, and all their possessions went back into storage at the reopened Jewish Museum in Prague.
In 1963 1,564 scrolls were offered for sale to a London art dealer by the Communist government. His client, Ralph Yablon, donated the money to buy and move them into the care of Westminster Synagogue in London, under Rabbi Reinhart, where the Memorial Scrolls Trust was established and began to send the scrolls out to synagogues and organizations around the world. MST#666 first came to Albuquerque in the care of Congregation B’nai Israel, and in turn it was loaned to the museum so more people would be able to view it and learn its history.
There are now only about 4,000 Jews living in the Czech Republic. The rich Jewish culture that had existed in Bohemia and Moravia before the Holocaust has mostly been lost. Somewhere in the frantic rush to save the scrolls, the records attached to MST#666 were lost, and we do not now know which community our scroll even came from. Yet it survived, despite it all, and still exists today due to the efforts of the rescuers, who decided that their final, defiant act before transportation would be to give this Torah a shelter in the hope that it would outlast them.
More on the Czech Torah scrolls can be found at the Memorial Scrolls Trust website.
We wish to thank Thera McAvoy for writing this article, which originally appeared in our Spring, 2017 newsletter.