B'NAI BRITH -- Judaica from the Smithsonian, through April 22. 1640 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Sun.-Fri., 10-5.

The Holocaust consumed not only whole nations of Jews but centuries of Jewish history and culture.

Throughout Europe and much of the Mediterranean the synagogues, schools and libraries were destroyed. Family records, photographs, relics, letters, local customs and oral history vanished with the human victims into the fire and the "night and fog" of the Nazi regime.

Scholars have been working since V-E Day to piece together the shards that survived. Recently a treasure trove of the Judaica they are seeking was rediscovered in "the nation's attic" -- two Smithsonian Institution collections, long virtually ignored, that contain superb and in some cases unique examples of Jewish art and artifacts spanning several centuries and a dozen countries.

Most of the 550 Smithsonian pieces, contributed by about 30 donors and stored away by two separate museums, never had been displayed. Recently the Institution lent 75 of the choicest examples to the B'nai B'rith Klutznick Museum at 17th and Rhode Island NW, where they will be on public view through April 22.

Judaica from the Smithsonian is limited to religious objects (the Smithsonian has other tantalizing pieces such as a rib from Jonah's whale). The B'nai B'rith Museum display is arranged according to the Jewish festival calendar, and the labels try to explain, without lecturing, the significance of a given ceremony and artifact. This Baptist, for one, wished the explanations were a little more detailed.

What is apparent even to the untutored eye is that while the Jews may be one people, whether resident in their spiritual and now temporal homeland or dispersed to the ends of the earth, for all that they are welded together by tradition, language and law and tempered by persecution, Jews in France are French, Jews in the Netherlands are Dutch, Jews in the East are oriental, and Jews in Germany... were... German.

"We were surprised," said museum director Anna R. Cohn. "This Mediterranean Passover plate, for instance, used in community rather than family celebrations, shows strong Arabic influence in everything from the animal motifs to the elongation of the Hebrew characters."

A half-dozen very different Chanukah lamps -- among them 17th century Italian, 18th century Dutch and 19th century Iraqi -- highlight the same point. All are made of brass and served the same purpose in the practice of the same religion, but each of the lamps is at least as Italian, Dutch or Iraqi as it is Jewish.

Torah mantles from Tunisia, France and Germany, all made to the specifications of holy writ, are as materially and artistically individual as cloth objects of similar size and shape could be.

While most of the objects displayed are formal, ceremonial items, the care -- and occasional earnest amateurism -- with which each was fashioned makes them personal, almost intimate. Marriage contracts. Inscriptions from the memorial candles lit for ordinary people who died of natural causes in obscure places a very long time ago. The talisman of a Tunisian woman who prays she and the coming baby will be all right. A moth-eaten prayer shawl found in the ruins of the synagogue at Rheims after the Nazis had passed....

A visitor comes away with a sense not only of the richness and depth of the culture of "the chosen people" but that they are a people not so apart as Jews and WASPs alike tend to believe.