During World War Two, 1564 Torah Scrolls were taken from Jewish communities across the Czech Republic and were sent to Prague, along with thousands of valuables and pieces of Judaica. These items flooded into Prague and were stored in dozens of warehouses across the City.
Previously, it had been thought that the Czech Torah scrolls and other Jewish ceremonial objects had been collected by the Nazis. This would have been part of a plan to set up a “museum of an extinct race” after the war. As it turns out, there is apparently no documentary proof for this theory, and the scrolls and other ritual objects were saved by members of the Jewish community, starting in the 1930’s.
As the war progressed, the Prague community realized how dire the situation was becoming. Eight curators of the Czech State Museum and Prague Jewish community staff working at the museum saw an opportunity to preserve the movable assets of the Jewish communities under the rule of Nazis by using the museum as a repository to keep them safe during the war. It is thanks to the efforts of these Jews – people like Tobias Jacobovits (former librarian of the Prague Jewish community) and Josef Polak (the chief curator) – that the scrolls for which we care survived to tell their story. The scrolls were catalogued with information on the communities they came from. Many were damaged by fire and water and some had despairing notes written inside by the communities from which they came.
Most of the staff members of the Museum were deported to the death camps by 1943.
After the war, the scrolls were stored in the Michle Synagogue outside of Prague. In 1964, Erik Estorick, an American-born art dealer who was living and working in London at the time, was approached by the Czech Communist government to purchase the Scrolls. Ralph Yablon, a member of Westminster Synagogue in London, arranged to finance the sale of the scrolls and negotiated with the Czech authorities. The scrolls were shipped to London and donated to the Westminster Synagogue, which, in turn, created the Memorial Scrolls Trust to allocate these scrolls to Jewish communities and intuitions around the world.