In 1941, in the midst of the chaos and turmoil of World War II, the Jewish communities of Bohemia and Moravia were unceremoniously dissolved by the Nazis and most inhabitants (approximately 88,000) were sent to the Terezin concentration camp. Tragically, almost all were murdered by the Nazis.
This annihilation of the Czech Jewish population began in late 1941 and was completed by July 1943, with the expelling of communal leaders, the last remaining Czech Jews who arrived at the Terezin Ghetto. However, in early 1942, before this terrorising forced evacuation, they bravely enacted a bold plan to rescue Jewish artefacts from outlying communities and bring them to Prague.
Over 100,000 relics were surreptitiously brought to the Prague Jewish Museum and were heroically saved, in the express interests of preserving a record of Jewish heritage and creativity. Among the relics was our Torah, labelled ‘MST-1166’, one of the almost 1800 Torah scrolls rescued in the mission.
Post-war, fewer than 10,000 survivors returned to Bohemia and Moravia with only 50 communities re-established (from almost 350 devastated by the Nazis). In 1948, a Communist coup stifled the revival of Jewish life, and many Czech Jews left permanently for Israel, the United States, Canada and Australia. Most artefacts were kept at the Prague Jewish Museum, but the Torah scrolls were transferred between 1956 and 1959 to a small synagogue in Michle, a Prague suburb.
Here, the scrolls languished and were not properly conserved, until the British Westminster Synagogue purchased the entire collection from the disinterested Communist authorities in 1964. Once resettled in London, the Westminster congregation got to work. Nine scribes under Rabbi Pinchas Toledano spent months determining which scrolls were pasul, invalid, and which were salvageable.
One scribe, David Brand, spent 30 years repairing many of the scrolls. In June 1965, a Solemn Assembly was held at Kent House (where Westminster Synagogue stands), and representatives of the entire Jewish community of Britain gathered before the largest ever collection of Sifrei Torah ever seen in the country.
The Memorial Scrolls Trust was set up in 1965 to lend out and care for these Czech scrolls – and they were made available to congregations all over the world with a legitimate need for a Sefer Torah. In fact, two scrolls were sent to The Central Synagogue in the 1970s … sadly these were destroyed by the 1994 fire.
This particular precious scroll originates from the town of Pribram. Little is known about the history of Jewish life in this town – the earliest known Jewish community was established in 1858. In 1930, the Jewish population numbered only 235 inhabitants.
A request was made to bring this scroll to Sydney in August 1979 and by 1983, with a shift in circumstances, was moved to a garage in the Upper North Shore suburb of St. Ives where it stayed until 2008!
At that time, the Australian representative Dr Joseph Toltz, of The Scrolls Trust, located and retrieved this scroll and deemed it best to store it within a synagogue’s Aron Hakodesh (Torah Ark). Today, this cherished, sacred scroll, labelled by the experts as ‘MST-1166’ is so much more than parchment named with a series of letters and numbers, it is our central guiding light and rests within the heart of our holy Main Sanctuary.