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In 1994, Ohr HaTorah Synagogue was blessed with the opportunity to adopt a rare and precious Torah scroll, one of over 1,500 scrolls saved from the Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic during the Holocaust. MST#37 is an Orphan scroll: a term used for those scrolls that had lost their identity tags before they were received in London in 1964. However, we do know that it came from a community in Bohemia called Prestice, written in the middle of the 18th century (almost 300 years old!).

The Torah is wrapped in a Binder embroidered with a message that reads, "This is the donation of the dear and exalted, with the help of G-d, of Meir Ben Eli Lederer from Prestice for his son the boy Michal Leib who was born with good luck (B'mazal tov) on Wednesday Vav Adar 1849, Kadosh and G-d will help him grow up for the Torah and Chupa and to do good deeds".

The journey of survival this scroll has taken to find its new home in our community is not just an interesting tale of history; it is an important reminder of our rich dark past, one we must never forget.


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Lost Communities
Jews had lived in Bohemia and Moravia for more than a thousand years, over that time developing a rich Jewish culture  throughout the country. Following the Nazi invasion in 1939, historical congregations were closed down and their synagogues destroyed or deserted. There were at least 350 synagogues in Bohemia and Moravia, over sixty had been destroyed in the War, with the remaining 300 abandoned and left to decay, and when the Communists came to power eighty of these were demolished. According to the 1930 census, there were 117,551 Jews in Bohemia and Moravia (356,830 in all of Czechoslovakia). Today, the population of the Czech Republic is ten million, with only 4,000 Jews.

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Saved Communities
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 100,000 artifacts were brought to the Museum.  Among them were about 1,800 Torah scrolls.  

After the war, they were transferred to the ruined synagogue at Michle outside Prague where they remained until 1963.  Some fifty congregations re-established themselves in the Czech Republic and were provided with religious artifacts, not necessarily from their own communities.  When the Communists took over the government in 1948, Jewish communal life was again stifled, and most synagogues were closed. Their possessions went to the newly re-founded Jewish Museum of Prague.


Who Saved the Scrolls: Prague
In the years after the War a legend grew that the Nazis had planned to create a ‘museum to an extinct race’.  This has little foundation in fact.  We do know, however, that a devout band of Jews from Prague’s Jewish community worked to bring artifacts and Jewish possessions of all kinds to what had become the Central Jewish Museum in Prague.  Here they labored under appalling conditions to preserve what little remained of Jewish communities, previously at the mercy of vandals and plunderers.  This Jewish initiative was directly responsible for the subsequent conservation of the Scrolls.

The Jewish community hoped it that these treasures would be protected and might one day return to their original homes.  All the curators at the Museum were eventually transported toTerezin and Auschwitz.  Only two survived, and the Czech Jewish community after the war was too depleted to be able to care for them.  Their legacy was the catalog of the vast collection in the Museum, eventually to become the Jewish Museum of Prague.

Who Saved the Scrolls: London
In 1963 Eric Estorick, a London art dealer, was offered the opportunity to purchase the 1,564 Scrolls of the Law, stored by the Museum.  Through the generosity of Ralph Yablon, the scrolls were bought and transported to the Synagogue where they were stored on the lobby’s marble entranceway floor. The Trust’s only resident sofer (scribe), was looking for work and one day knocked on the front door of the London synagogue, an elderly Orthodox Jew asked in Yiddish, ‘Do you have any Torahs to repair? The receptionist replied, ‘We have 1,564; come in!’. Mr. Brand stayed to work on these rescued Scrolls for twenty-seven years. Through the vision of Rabbi Reinhart and the meticulous administrative work of Ruth Shaffer, they were sent out to synagogues and organizations across the world.  

The full story of how the scrolls came to London can be found in the book Out of the Midst of the Fire by Philippa Bernard.


To Learn more about:
The Memorial Scroll Trust, please visit their website.
The lives of the Jews of Prestice, where our scroll is from, please click here.

Sun, September 26 2021 20 Tishrei 5782