The Czech Torah, also known by its Memorial Scrolls Trust designation MST #666, is one of our most precious artifacts. 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.
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.
In August of 2020 NMHM dedicated a new case for the Torah, donated by the Hammer family of Albuquerque, in memory of loved ones lost during the Holocaust.
More on the Czech Torah scrolls can be found at the Memorial Scrolls Trust website.