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Part I – Jewish Museum of Prague & Westminster Synagogue

TAS Holocaust Sefer Torah
Talk presented by Maud Pincus Z''L, TAS Archivist, April 21, 2006

We know why we are here this Erev Shabbat. Together we commemorate the Shoah, the Holocaust. Together we remember the 6 million innocent Jewish souls who perished for who they were.

But we are also here together this Erev Shabbat to strike back at death by offering up new life. Therein lies the heart of the story of our Holocaust Torah. It came to us as a symbol of tragedy, but its life with us is one of rebirth and new life. Before talking about the specifics of our Holocaust Torah #279, we need to understand the unique historical background of the Holocaust Torah scrolls.

By the year 1900 Jewish museums began to appear in a few European cities, one of which was the city of Prague, a city located in what was then called the territories of Bohemia and Moravia. The Jewish Museum in Prague was founded in 1906 as the third of the big, major Jewish museums in Central Europe - one in Vienna, Austria and one in Frankfurt, Germany. So the Prague Jewish Museum was a well-established institution when the Nazis occupied Prague and the lands known as Bohemia and Moravia in March, 1939.

We know that the Nazis plundered everything Jewish in their blitzkrieg through Europe, so it was unusual, and unexpected that the charter of the Prague Jewish Museum would be changed by the Nazis in 1942. This change announced that the "numerous, hitherto scattered Jewish possessions of both historical and artistic value, in the territory of the entire Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, must be collected and stored. So from 153 destroyed Jewish rural communities in Bohemia and Moravia where Jewish life had survived for a thousand years, in compliance with that directive, poured Jewish artifacts of every conceivable type into the Jewish Museum of Prague - everything from decimated synagogues, everything from privately owned property of Jews who were deported to concentration camps, everything from small museums and libraries. No category of possessions was left untouched.

It was the Jewish museum staff to whom the job of sorting and cataloguing tens of thousands of confiscated items including Torah scrolls, synagogue ceremonial objects of silver and gold, glassworks and porcelains, precious metals and textiles, woodwork and oil paintings, manuscripts, furniture, clothing and folk crafts. As though this task was not heartbreaking enough, the Jewish art historians and curators were forced to develop the administrative and exhibition programs for future museum shows depicting the legacy of a doomed people. And they did this under unimaginable work and psychological conditions, under the constant threat of deportation, death and under continual controls by the SS. It was not long before the Jewish museum curators and workers were themselves condemned to death - the final wave of deportation of museum employees took place in February, 1945. Two months later the war in Europe ended - April, 1945.

By war's end in 1945, the Central Jewish Museum filled 8 Jewish community buildings and more than 50 warehouses in Prague. And the Jewish Museum was returned to Prague's Jewish community - those few who had survived and the few survivors who returned. This decimated community had neither the human nor financial resources left to preserve its legacy. Thus in November of 1949, the entire collection, as well as the monuments of Prague's Jewish Quarter, were gifted to and placed in the care of the Czechoslovak Republic. The Museum was renamed the State Jewish Museum.

We must remember that Czechoslovakia was behind the iron-curtain and though efforts were made by western interests to obtain collections, neither the Czech nor Soviet governments would enter into any negotiations with the West. But finally in 1964 a deal was brokered with the Czech government by an English art dealer and an English philanthropist to acquire the entire collection of deteriorating Torah scrolls that were stored any which way in Prague. As we know, Torah scrolls are perishable - the parchment is made from the skin of sheep - we are not talking about metals, wood and glass. In 1964, almost 20 years after the war's end, 1,564 sacred Torah scrolls began making their way to the Westminster Synagogue in London. A decision was made that the Westminster Synagogue would be the repository of the Torah scrolls. Again, the incredible number of 1,564 Torah Scrolls. 153 Jewish communities, 1,564 scrolls or approximately 10 Torah scrolls per community. A Memorial Scrolls Committee was established to draw up the rules and regulations and to administer the vast work that lay ahead.

When each scroll arrived at Westminster Synagogue in London, it was numbered, inspected and a system of cataloguing was devised. To put it another way, the scrolls were triaged by experts and a record made, so far as was possible, of the origin and age of the Scroll, the physical condition of its components and, most important, the state of the writing and defects therein. They were bloodied, torn, tear-stained, some wrapped in tallit - these Scrolls were witnesses to the horror of the times and they looked it. On the basis of the evaluation, the Scrolls were then classified into five grades, from best to unusable. It was then hoped that eventually, with much effort and at great expense, the majority of the Scrolls would be made fit for use in synagogues and other Jewish institutions and schools. Of the remainder, those unusable, would serve as sacred memorials.

The Memorial Scrolls Committee had as its most important objective the distribution of the sacred Scrolls throughout the world wherever they could be of most service. Thousands of requests came from all over the world. The Committee decided that priority would be given to requests from synagogues in immediate need of Scrolls for use in their services.  When a request was granted, the Torah Scroll would be handed over on "permanent loan."  Financial contributions were accepted for restoration and preparation costs.

Part 2 - Torah Scroll #279

Fri, April 12 2024 4 Nisan 5784