Before you lies the torah scroll from the town of Kostelec nad orlici, a small town east of Prague, in the Czech Republic. The scroll was inscribed in 1830. None of the people who used it could ever imagine it would play two important historical roles: together with other objects from Bohemia and Moravia, it helps disprove the myth that the Nazis preserved Jewish objects in order to create a museum of them once they had obliterated Jewish people from the Earth. And it stands as an example of the efforts individuals made to save their heritage even when they could not save themselves.
Although the Nazi regime intended to create the 'Museum of the Extinct Race', they never attempted to salvage the thousands of scrolls from Bohemia and Moravia that some people think they salvaged. On the contrary, a group of Prague Jews recovered thousands of Jewish religious texts and ritual objects in an unprecedented effort.
These people recognized the Nazis would likely loot and desecrate many religious objects of great historical value. They developed a plan to persuade the Nazis to allow them to collect and transfer the contents of the deserted provincial synagogues and congregations to the Jewish central museum in Prague. There was perhaps no better location in Central Europe to execute the plan. The first Jewish Museum in Prague was founded in 1906. When the Germans occupied Prague in March 1939, the Museum held 800 objects in its collection. For whatever reason, the Nazis accepted the Jewish plan.
In June 1942, scrolls from 136 Jewish communities began arriving along with many other artifacts. The museum staff faced the tremendous task of cataloging over 200,000 items. The Prague Jewish community appointed Dr. Josef Polak, a professional musicologist and former director of a museum in Kosice, the capital of eastern Slovakia, to direct this ambitious cataloging project. Dr. Polack and his staff of fifty experts worked twelve hours a day in an oppressive and grim reality. While they raced to save Jewish holy objects, the Jews themselves were disappearing. Dr. Polak and his staff continually lost curators to ongoing deportations.
They created 101,000 cataloging cards. Those cards are now the core source of information in the modern Jewish Museum in Prague. We can regard their work as an act of defiance, not only for themselves but for posterity. These individuals used any means available to prolong their own existence; not only for their own good but so they would better preserve and protect Jewish religious and cultural artifacts.
The Torah scroll on display here has been loaned to our Museum by the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust, located in London. The Trust rescued 1564 Torah scrolls and 400 Torah binders, many of which were preserved by the Jewish Central Museum, in Prague. Listen to prompt 106 to learn more about the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust.
As for Dr. Polak, he joined the resistance movement. The Gestapo arrested him in August, 1944. In 1945, he disappeared in Auschwitz without a trace.