New exhibition documents fate of Czech Torah scrolls

Torah scroll, place of origin unknown, 19th century, photo: Jewish Museum in Prague

Throughout 2006, Prague's Jewish Museum has been celebrating its 100th anniversary with a series of exhibitions, concerts and other cultural events. At the moment it is home to an exhibition called The Second Life of Czech Torah Scrolls. As the title suggests, the manuscripts have had an interesting history; some are being shown in the Czech capital after an absence of over four decades.

The Torah scroll is extremely important to Judaism, with readings from the parchment manuscript the central moment in the Jewish synagogue liturgy.

Before World War II there were very few Torah scrolls in the collections of museums in Bohemia and Moravia. Remarkably intricate, with over 300,000 stylized letters, they were expensive to make and of supreme importance to Jewish communities. In fact, the number of Torah scrolls owned by a community reflected its standing.

During World War II, their owners sent to concentration camps, 1,800 scrolls were saved at the newly established Central Jewish Museum in Prague.

The museum was nationalised in 1950. Over a decade later almost all of the collection was sold off. Here's Dana Veselska, curator of the new exhibition.

"The Torah scrolls had a very interesting fate. They were sold to one place in Britain, the synagogue of the Jewish community of Westminster. That was in 1964. They were bought by a philanthropist called Ralph Yablon. He paid for the lot, which meant that the collection was not broken up. It was complete, and located in one place."

In the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust officials at Prague's Jewish Museum had resisted offers to buy valuable items from its collection. That did not prevent the communist authorities from later instigating the sale of the scrolls, though they did include one proviso.

"One condition of the contract between the Czechoslovak state and the buyer was that the scrolls could not be used for commercial purposes. They could only be used for religious and educational purposes."

A number of the scrolls are today are part of a collection in a small museum in London which commemorates the fate of the scrolls and the history of the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia. But the majority have been lent out on a permanent basis to Jewish congregations, Holocaust memorials, museums and libraries across the world.

"Today the scrolls represent the Czech Republic around the world. They are to be found on every single continent."

The exhibition is on at the Robert Guttmann Gallery and runs until the end of January.