The irony is so perfect it seems ordained.
In their zeal to destroy the Jews, the Nazis collected, for their future "Museum of an Extinct Race," what amounts to one of the world's greatest treasuries of Judaica.
Everything they confiscated from the Jews of Eastern Europe -- Torahs, silver goblets, candlesticks, gowns, seder plates, violins, meatgrinders, thermos bottles, enough to fill 50 warehouses and seven synagogues -- the Nazis preserved. The same mad diligence that tattooed numbers on the very bodies of Jews headed for the death camps also catalogued these thousands upon thousands of objects, now exhibited at the State Jewish Museum in Prague.
The story is told in a powerful, modest half-hour film, "The Precious Legacy," to be aired on WETA tonight at 11, two months after its PBS debut and nearly two years after a touring exhibit was seen at the Smithsonian here. One of the writers was author Arnost Lustig of Washington, a professor at American University and a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
Quietly, the camera roams over the things taken from temples and private homes, the elaborately worked brocades and chinaware, the family portraits, the heirloom scrolls and silver pointers, while the calm, accented voice of narrator Jan Triska reminds us once again of the 140,000 Jews who disappeared into Terezin, a staging camp for Auschwitz, of the 15,000 children who entered there, of the fewer than 100 who survived.
We are shown the children's drawings and poems from Terezin, cups and skullcaps and carvings made by the prisoners, a wall covered with the names of the lost. Together, all these objects have something of the impact of "Night and Fog," Alain Resnais' monumental threnody on Auschwitz, with its inventory, to the music of Bach, of what was left behind: the stacks of eyeglasses and toothbrushes, the mountains of hair, the vast piles of crutches and canes and baby carriages. But somehow these new scenes on video are different. There is hope here. The people are gone, but their culture lives on.
Some of the strongest scenes in this film by Dan Weissman and Nelson Breen show Prague today, "the Paris of the East," "the Jerusalem of the West," with its echoes of Einstein, Kafka, Mahler, Freud and centuries of Jewish history. The city came through World War II more or less intact, even the ancient Jewish quarter with its town hall clock whose hands turn left and its Jewish cemetery 12 layers deep.
The Nazis employed Jewish prisoners to curate the collection in the 700-year-old Altneuschul synagogue, people who, as the narrator says, "saw these overflowing buildings as a Noah's Ark of a culture whose people already were headed for destruction."
Czechoslovakia, which once had 153 Jewish communities, now has only two or three big enough for a congregation. Those few, who have to import their matzo and candles, have right around the corner an incredible museum of their heritage. "The Precious Legacy" brings these treasures to the world.