The Czech Memorial Scrolls in New Orleans

Torah scrolls recovered after the Holocaust found new homes at Touro Synagogue and Temple Sinai here in New Orleans.

Top Photo: Czech Memorial Scroll 363. Photo by Jennifer Putnam.

The story of these memorial scrolls begins in prewar Czechoslovakia, where they were used every Friday and Saturday in synagogues across the country. In the interwar period, Czechoslovakia was a relatively comfortable place for Jewish communities. In 1933, there were over 350,000 Jews living in Czechoslovakia, largely concentrated in Prague, Brno, and Ostrava. Though they had previously faced hardships, restrictions of rights, and antisemitism under the Habsburg Empire, from 1918–1935 Czechoslovakian Jews lived in peace. During this time, the newly independent country was led by President Tomáš Masaryk, a progressive politician and outspoken opponent of antisemitism. Under his leadership, Jews were able to participate more freely in the economic, social, and cultural life of Czechoslovakia.[1]

The Division of Czechoslovakia 

This freedom came to an end in September 1938, when Czechoslovakia was excluded from the Munich Conference, where Germany, Great Britain, France, and Italy agreed that Czechoslovakia must surrender its border region, the Sudetenland, to Nazi Germany along with any defenses it had there.

Following the Munich Agreement, the parceling-up of Czechoslovakia continued. In November 1938, the First Vienna Award was signed by Italy, Germany, and Hungary, granting Hungary portions of southern Slovakia. Four months later, in March 1939, Hitler’s troops invaded the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, claiming them as a protectorate of the Third Reich. Slovakia became an independent, Nazi-collaborationist state run by politician and priest Jozef Tiso.

In 1938, before the annexation of Bohemia and Moravia, around 122,000 Jews lived in these provinces, some of whom were refugees from neighboring Germany. Only about 27,000 Jews in the region were able to emigrate before Nazi occupation.[2] Once the Germans invaded, Czech Jews were subject to the Nuremberg Laws, racial laws restricting their access to public spaces, jobs, schooling, marriage, and other facets of social and political life. In 1941, Reich Protector of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) chief Reinhard Heydrich ordered the creation of a ghetto in Terezín, a walled fortress-town north of Prague, where Jews were to be concentrated pending deportation to concentration and death camps. 

The ghetto, called Theresienstadt in German, was overcrowded, unsanitary, and guarded by the SS and Czech gendarmes. Between 1941 and 1944, over 70,000 Jews were sent to Theresienstadt from the Czech provinces, along with over 40,000 German Jews, 15,000 Dutch Jews, 1,500 Slovakian Jews, 1,000 Hungarian Jews, 1,200 Polish Jews, and around 500 Danish Jews. 

Dutch Jews who have just arrived in Theresienstadt are herded through a stone archway into the camp

A large group of Dutch Jews who have just arrived in Theresienstadt are herded through a stone archway into the camp. This photo was taken at the direction of the Nazis to be used as propaganda. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Ivan Vojtech Fric.


When the deportations first began, Jewish community leaders across Bohemia and Moravia came together to discuss the mass relocation of their people, the looting of their synagogues, and the destruction of their religious sites. During this meeting, they debated on how best to protect their culture and heritage. The first suggestion to be enthusiastically accepted was to photograph Jewish buildings and cemeteries as historical documentation. A further outcome of the meeting was the agreement that it would be prudent to ship their communities’ precious religious objects and artwork to Prague for collection and protection in the already well-established Jewish Museum. 

The Jewish Museum in Prague

The Jewish Museum was established in 1906 when the city was redeveloping the Jewish quarter. Developers demolished synagogues and leveled homes, paying little attention to the Jewish culture they were destroying. Community leaders, including activist Eduard Lederer, historian Salomon Hugo Lieben, lawyer Arthur Stein, and Marcus Brückner, pushed for the creation of a Jewish museum to protect the “treasures of the synagogues of the Prague ghetto.”[3] And so, the museum was created and grew steadily until 1939.

In 1939, the museum fell under the watchful eye of the Nazi authorities. Though they were closely monitored, the museum’s staff continued their work of preserving Jewish culture, expanding their focus from Jewish communities in Prague to Jewish communities throughout Bohemia and Moravia, who were now under threat from the Nazi regime.[4] In 1941, the authorities closed the museum to the public, though they allowed the museum staff to remain in their posts. As the staff continued to catalog artifacts and prepare exhibitions, they also secretly coordinated with Jewish community leaders outside of Prague, who planned to ship their precious collections to the museum.

Altneuschul in 2014.

Altneuschul in 2014. Øyvind Holmstad, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


In 1942, it became clear that the secrecy could not continue. Nazi authorities were taking a closer interest in the museum and its activities, forcing Jewish leaders to ask for permission to send their collections to the museum. The Nazis agreed, but because there are no documents from their meeting, it is difficult to say with certainty why they agreed. Some have speculated that they sought to create a museum to the “Jewish race” after the war, particularly as they had flagged the Altneuschul, the oldest synagogue in Prague, as an ideal museum location. Another potential explanation is that it allowed them to amass valuable items in a central location with little effort and expenditure on their part.

Regardless of the Nazis’ plans, the curators and museum staff had different ideas. They cataloged every object, documenting where it came from and how it contributed to Czech Jewish life, and writing histories of these communities. They also reached out to the Trust Office, where looted Jewish items were held, to acquire art, documents, and photographs for their collections, ultimately saving them from being destroyed or sold.[5]

Within two months, museum staff had amassed over 7,500 objects, from pianos and chandeliers to Torah scrolls and menorahs. Roughly 2,000 Torah scrolls were collected from synagogues throughout Bohemia and Moravia, testifying to the destruction of their communities. Some congregants had written notes and rolled them up in the Torah, begging, “Please, God, help us in these troubled times.”[6]

As they cataloged and carefully stored each of these items, the staff of the museum came under threat. Some, like Josef Polák, were arrested for their anti-Nazi activity and killed. Others, like František Zelenka, were deported to Theresienstadt ghetto, then Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were killed. The only senior staff member to survive the war, Hana Volavková, was the last of this group to be deported to Theresienstadt in February 1945.[7]

Of the over 140,000 men, women, and children sent to Theresienstadt, 88,000 were sent to concentration and death camps, and roughly 33,000 died in the ghetto itself. When the ghetto was liberated in May 1945, only 16,800 people remained. When liberated Jews from the Czech provinces returned home, they found their hometowns devoid of Jewish life. Only 14,000 Jews in Bohemia and Moravia survived the Holocaust.

After the War

As the only surviving museum leader, Volavková took on the challenge of directing the museum after the war. The collection was now unmanageably large; there were 200,000 items across 50 warehouses.[8] One of Volavková’s first priorities was to return the items in the collection to the communities from which they came. Though many communities had been completely destroyed during the Holocaust, by 1949 Volavková and her staff managed to return items to 53 communities in Bohemia and Moravia. If items were received from individuals, the staff attempted to contact the owners or their surviving heirs.[9]

In 1948, when the Communist Party took power in Czechoslovakia, the museum faced further threats to its existence. Antisemitism was again on the rise, and Jews faced new restrictions on their religious practices and political participation. In April 1950, the museum was nationalized, and its name was changed to the State Jewish Museum of Prague.[10] The remaining museum staff were restricted in what they could show in their exhibitions, and research effectively came to a halt.

The former Michle Synagogue, now a church.

The former Michle Synagogue, now a church. VitVit, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


In 1950, some of the buildings the museum had used to store their vast collection were appropriated by the government, leaving the museum with tightly packed warehouses that leaked, did not have temperature control, and proved unsuitable for protecting the delicate items in the museum’s collections. Their vast collection of Torah scrolls was first held in an administrative building in the former Jewish quarter, then transferred to a building across the river, far from where the staff regularly worked. In October 1955, the scrolls were transferred to the abandoned Michle Synagogue.[11] The space was drafty and too small for the scrolls, which were stacked on top of each other, floor to ceiling.[12]

Move to England

The scrolls remained in the abandoned Michle Synagogue until 1963, when British art dealer Eric Estorick was visiting Prague. At a shop in the city, he was approached by two Artia officials (Artia was a Czechoslovakian government agency that dealt with the import and export of cultural commodities) who asked him if he was interested in purchasing Judaic collections. He enquired as to the objects and was taken to Michle Synagogue, where he saw the Torah scrolls piled up in the derelict sanctuary.

Moved by what he saw, Estorick reached out to Ralph Yablon, a philanthropist and founder-member of Westminster Synagogue in London who was immediately interested in acquiring the scrolls. Suggesting that they house them at Westminster Synagogue, Yablon asked Rabbi Harold Reinhart for permission, and the deal was made.[13]

When they arrived in London, Rabbi Reinhart inspected and classified each scroll, assigning them index cards with details of their conditions, origins, and repairs needed. As he went through each scroll, he found further evidence of the pain and suffering that they had witnessed. Messages appeared rolled up with the holy words, along with blood stains, burnt edges, and water damage. He also found indications of the loving care that people had taken to protect the scrolls: personal clothing wrapped around them and prayer shawls holding them together.[14]

 A display at the Memorial Scrolls Trust Museum

 A display at the Memorial Scrolls Trust Museum showing Sofer David Brand’s restoration tools and an image of him at work. Courtesy of Jeffrey Ohrenstein, Memorial Scrolls Trust.

Rabbi Reinhart continued to give these scrolls loving care. He hired a sofer, a highly trained scribe, to repair the scrolls. David Brand, the sofer at Westminster Synagogue, found that many of the scrolls were beyond repair or were not kosher. While Jewish religious law states that unusable Torahs must be buried in a cemetery, Brand felt very strongly that these scrolls must be treated differently. They were not simply scrolls that had been used to the point of disrepair; they represented Czech Jews who had been murdered in the Holocaust.[15]

One of the scrolls at Touro Synagogue

One of the scrolls at Touro Synagogue, showing the wooden rollers. Photo by Jennifer Putnam.

Even the rollers, the Etz Chaim (“Tree of Life”), showed signs of these people’s lives. They were worn and damaged, both from their journeys and from constant use. Painted decorations, adornments, and Hebrew inscriptions were faintly visible on hundreds of the scrolls.[16] A craftsman was also hired to repair the rollers. 

Dispersal throughout the World

Once a number of the scrolls were fit for use once again, the Memorial Scroll Committee at Westminster Synagogue prepared them for another journey. They were never meant to be kept permanently at Westminster but instead redistributed to active synagogues throughout the world. They would once again be read, held high, kissed, and honored. 

There were and are some conditions on the permanent loan of these scrolls. First, they are allocated on permanent loan. Receiving institutions are asked to make a contribution toward the cost of repair and transportation. Additionally, they are required to dedicate one Shabbat service to the community from which their scroll came. This final condition is perhaps the most important. It is the reason these scrolls were saved and redistributed: to memorialize those who were killed. It also breathes new life into the scrolls, showing that Jewish life did not end with the Holocaust. Hitler was not successful. 

Priority for allocation of these scrolls has, of course, been given to communities in the Czech Republic. As Ruth Schaffer, one of the Committee members, writes“We have often been asked if we have available a scroll from a particular town in Czechoslovakia, as either the rabbi or members of the congregation have been survivors of that community, and in a number of cases we have been able to find a scroll from that town; sometimes there has even been a familiar name written on the binder or the rollers.” The scrolls have played an important part in revitalizing Czech Jewish life.

Priority is also given to congregations who do not have a scroll, and to whom this loan would make the greatest difference. Scrolls often also go to retirement homes, hospitals, and youth groups, as well as museums and institutions that memorialize the lives lost in the Holocaust.[17] The largest number of scrolls have been sent to the United States.[18]

The Scroll at Touro Synagogue

A few of the hundreds of scrolls sent to the United States are here in New Orleans. One of these is at Touro Synagogue. Labeled 363, the scroll is considered an “orphan,” meaning that it lost its original label, and its origins cannot be identified. 

In June 1968, Touro Synagogue Rabbi Leo Bergman wrote to the Memorial Scrolls Committee on behalf of one of his congregants, Babette Golden, who wanted to give a scroll to Touro in honor of her late husband, Dr. Abe Golden. She wrote asking for “a small one […] so that the children could use and handle it easily for their Bar Mitzvahs.” It took some searching to find a usable small scroll, but the request was approved, and Scroll 363 arrived at Touro in March 1969.


The scroll now resides in the smaller sanctuary at Touro, nestled in the Ark with the two other scrolls, but it does not gather dust. As Mrs. Golden had hoped, the scroll is used for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, Shabbat services, holiday services, and more. It is regularly taken out, read, and cherished. The scroll is once again part of a vibrant Jewish community.

The Ark in the smaller sanctuary at Touro Synagogue

The Ark in the smaller sanctuary at Touro Synagogue. Photos by Jennifer Putnam.

The Scrolls at Temple Sinai


There are also two Czech Memorial Scrolls at Temple Sinai in New Orleans, as well as another Holocaust scroll. The other Holocaust Torah is a beautiful scroll, clearly held in high regard among the congregation at Temple Sinai. The synagogue’s historian, Cliff Kern III, PhD, beamed as he told the story of its rescue from Germany, where it was found lying in the gutter, battered, spit on, and kicked.

Rabbi Julian Feibelman, who served as the chief rabbi at Temple Sinai from 1936 to 1967, reportedly brought the scroll to New Orleans himself. Fifteen years ago, an anonymous donor paid for the scroll’s repairs, finally making it usable. Though it is only taken out and unrolled from time to timewith great enthusiasm from Kernthe scroll occupies the center place in the Ark. 

The Ark at Temple Sinai.

The Ark at Temple Sinai. Photo by Jennifer Putnam.

When I visited the synagogue, Rabbi Daniel Sherman took the scroll from the Ark and unrolled it on the bimah. As he opened it, he was struck by the phrase in the middle of the parchment, “May G-d protect you and keep you” (Numbers 6:24). He smiled and said, “I think it’s no accident it opened to that spot.” In representing the community from which it came, the scroll has taken on a personality of its own.

Alongside this scroll sits Czech Memorial Scroll 1338. A large, delicate scroll, its identification papers list it as coming from Moravská Ostrava, a neighborhood within Ostrava, home to one of the largest Jewish communities in Czechoslovakia before the war. Written in 1870, the parchment shows its age and the tragedies to which it has borne witness.


Though the scroll received repairs to the text and rollers in London, it is still extremely delicate, and is used very sparingly and with caution to prevent further damage. Nonetheless, it is one of the only surviving remnants of the Jewish community of Ostrava and held in high regard. It is brought out every Yom Kippur to celebrate with the congregation.

Scroll 350, another orphan scroll, is smaller and, much like the small scroll at Touro, used for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. It is lightweight, and, despite the small size of text, the scroll is a favorite of Rabbi Emeritus Edward Cohn, who often borrows it for trips to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where he gives sermons. Scroll 350 has seen much of the world, both in sorrow and joy, having traveled from its home synagogue to Prague, London, New Orleans, and Hattiesburg. In its new life here in the United States, it frequently welcomes children into adulthood and is a beloved member of its community, as all the memorial scrolls are.

Sources and Footnotes

  • Berger, Natalia, “The Jewish Museum in Prague,” in The Jewish Museum (Leiden: Brill, 2018), pgs. 195–253.

  • Bernard, Philippa, ed., The Czech Memorial Scrolls Centre: A Historical Account (London: Memorial Scrolls Trust, 1988).

  • Laddie, Miles, 1564 Scrolls: A Legacy of Jewish Life in Bohemia and Moravia (London: Memorial Scrolls Trust, 2023).

  • Memorial Scrolls Trust, Czech Memorial Scrolls, 1964–1995 (London: Memorial Scrolls Trust, 1995).

  • Petrášová, Markéta, “Collections of the Central Jewish Museum (1942–1945),” Judaica Bohemiae, 1 (1988), pgs. 23–38.

  • Pick, Joseph C., “The Story of the Czech Scrolls,” in The Jews of Czechoslovakia, ed. by Avigdor Dagan, Gertrude Hirschler, and Lewis Weiner (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America), Vol. III, pgs. 584–610.

  • Seifter, Pavel, “Memorial Scrolls Trust,” European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe, 2 (2005), pgs. 77–81.

  • Volavková, Hana, “The Jewish Museum of Prague,” in The Jews of Czechoslovakia, ed. by Avigdor Dagan, Gertrude Hirschler, and Lewis Weiner (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America), Vol. III, pgs. 567–583.

[1] Desider Galsky, “The Jewish Communities of Czechoslovakia,” trans. by Ota Adler, in The Czech Memorial Scrolls Centre: A Historical Account, ed. by Philippa Bernard (London: Memorial Scrolls Trust, 1988), pgs. 14–15.

[2] Ibid., pg. 15.

[3] Natalia Berger, “The Jewish Museum in Prague,” in The Jewish Museum (Leiden: Brill, 2018), pg. 206.

[4] Ibid., pg. 230.

[5] Ibid., pg. 233.

[6] Martin Gilbert, “Preface,” in 1564 Scrolls: A Legacy of Jewish Life in Bohemia and Moravia, by Miles Laddie (London: Memorial Scrolls Trust, 2023), pg. 7.

[7] Record for Hana Volavková, Database of the Terezín inmates and persons deported to the Łódź and Minsk ghettoes and to the Ujazdów labor camp, Terezín Memorial, accessed via: 

[8] Miles Laddie, 1564 Scrolls: A Legacy of Jewish Life in Bohemia and Moravia (London: Memorial Scrolls Trust, 2023), pg. 68.

[9] Berger, “The Jewish Museum in Prague,” pgs. 243–244.

[10] Ibid., pg. 246.

[11] Laddie, 1564 Scrolls, pgs. 70–71.

[12] Berger, “The Jewish Museum in Prague,” pg. 247.

[13] Laddie, 1564 Scrolls, pgs. 80–81.

[14] Ruth Shaffer, “The Story of the Scrolls,” in The Czech Memorial Scrolls Centre: A Historical Account, ed. by Philippa Bernard (London: Memorial Scrolls Trust, 1988), pg. 8.

[15] Laddie, 1564 Scrolls, pg. 100.

[16] Brand and Bernard, “Repairs and Restoration,” pg. 22.

[17] Ruth Shaffer, “The Story of the Scrolls,” pgs. 9–10.

[18] Memorial Scrolls Trust, Czech Memorial Scrolls, 1964–1995 (London: Memorial Scrolls Trust, 1995), pg. 3.


Jennifer Putnam, PhD

Jennifer Putnam is the Research Historian at the Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at the National World War II Museum.

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