Our Czech Torah
JRC is privileged to be the caretakers of a Torah rescued from the Holocaust. This special Torah represents a link between our past and the continuing story of Jewish life unfolding.
The saving of the Jewish treasurers of Bohemia and Moravia can be credited to a devoted group of Jews from Prague’s Jewish Community and to what had become the Central Jewish Museum in Prague. The Jews working in the community hoped that these treasures would be protected and might one day be returned to their original homes. All the Museum’s curators were eventually transported to Terezin and Auschwitz, with only two survivors. Their legacy and their gift to the Jewish world was the vast catalogued collection in what later gain became the Jewish Museum in Prague.
Following the war, the Torahs became the responsibility of the Czech government. Although they did not do anything further to desecrate the Torahs, through neglect the Torahs continued to decay. Many had fire or water damage. In 1963, the Czech government secretly contacted an American Art Dealer who had been working quietly behind the Iron Curtain collecting antiquities, and asked if he would find a party to remove the Torahs from Czechoslovakia. By the end of 1964, 1,564 Torahs had been quietly transported to the Westminster Synagogue in London, the costs underwritten by Ralph Yablon, a London businessman.
The Czech Memorial Scroll Centre was established at Westminster Synagogue in 1964 to catalogue the place of origin, age and condition of each scroll, repair them when possible, and distribute them to synagogues around the world. Many of the Kosher Torahs were distributed to synagogues that could not afford the cost of a new scroll. Others such as ours were deemed beyond repair, and suitable for commemorative use only. The Torahs are not sold, but remain on permanent loan to each synagogue from The Czech Memorial Scroll Centre.
At the time we chose our Torah, only 100 remained. Of those 100, only 3 had provenance. Ours was one of those three. Our Torah dates to 1876, and came from Prestice, a small town approximately 100 km southwest of Prague.
The Jewish community in Prestice dates back to the 15th century. The Jewish population of Prestice reached a maximum of around 750 in the mid 1800s, and by 1930 had dwindled to around 300. The prevailing occupation of the Jews in the district was in small business, mainly in grocery, dry goods, haberdashery and in the villages around Prestice, cattle business. Prestice was home to Leopold Weisel (1804 – 1873), a prominent collector and editor of Jewish legends. Weisel is credited by some sources as the first to publish a story of the Golem of Prague, in 1847. The Prestice Synagogue was built in 1910; it was destroyed by the Czech authorities in 1974.
The concentration of Czech Jews in the ghetto of Terezin began in November, 1941. From there they were deported to extermination camps. Before the deportation of the Jewish Community of Prestice to Terezin, 152 documents and 212 religious items of the community were transferred to the Central Jewish Museum in Prague.