Suspended in time and space, a weathered and damaged Torah scroll hangs in its clear, simple case over the exhibition space of the Cincinnati Skirball Museum. At the time of the Nazi invasion in 1939, this Torah’s home was a small town in Bohemia near Prague (now Czechoslovakia). In 1940, the congregations around Prague were closed down or destroyed, and deportations of Jews began in 1941. In 1942, a group of members of Prague’s Jewish community devised a way to bring the religious treasures from the deserted communities and destroyed synagogues to the comparative safety of Prague. The Nazis were persuaded to accept the plan and more than 10,000 artifacts were brought to the Central Jewish Museum in Prague, including about 1800 Torah scrolls. It was the hope of the devoted curators that the Torah scrolls and other treasures might one day return to their original homes. All of the curators were eventually transported to Terezin and Auschwitz. Only two survived, and after the war the Czech Jewish community was too depleted to be able to care for the objects. Their legacy was the catalogue of the vast collection in the Museum, eventually to become the Jewish Museum of Prague.
After the war, the Torah scrolls were transferred to the ruined synagogue at Michle outside Prague. The 18th century stone building became a damp warehouse until 1964, when a deal was negotiated between the Westminster Synagogue in London and the Czech government to purchase the scrolls. On February 7, 1964, 50 years ago this month, 1564 scrolls arrived at Westminster Synagogue and the Memorial Scrolls Trust was established.
The scroll on permanent loan to HUC from the Memorial Scrolls Trust arrived in Cincinnati in 1993. Correspondence surrounding the loan reads as follows: “A great many congregations have participated in a different aspect of our work. They have taken a damaged scroll and have placed it in their Sanctuary and use it on specific commemorative occasions and give it life and purpose in this fashion. It is our sincere desire to place every one of these sacred relics with an organization which will cherish it and appreciate its history.”
To learn more about the Memorial Scrolls Trust, visit www.memorialscrollstrust.org.