Washington — They call it ''The Precious Legacy'' because its treasures, from jeweled Torah crowns to an antique Moravian cradle bearing the star of David, are virtually all that's left of centuries of Czechoslovakian Jewish culture after Nazi occupation.
''The Precious Legacy'' exhibit, culled from more than 145,000 relics from the Jewish Museum in Prague, has just begun a two-year national tour with a Washington opening. It runs through Jan. 1 at the National Museum of Natural History as part of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, and will then tour other cities (see itinerary at end of article).
In a twist of history the collection, originally destined by Hitler's Nazi invaders as ''a museum to an extinct race,'' now lives on as a testament to the continuity of the Czechoslovak Jewish communities slated for total extermination in the Holocaust.
Mark E. Talisman, the man who spent 15 years organizing this exhibit, stands against the mock-granite Gothic arches of its entrance, where photomurals of Prague's historic Jewish quarter set the scene. Mr. Talisman, a compact man in a navy blue suit, is the chairman of Project Judaica. As chairman he is the dedicated force behind the 15 years of negotiations with the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic which resulted in this collection rich in Judaic history and heritage coming to the West. In Prague, the museum draws more than 1 million visitors a year.
''Hitler intended it to be a museum for a dead race, and instead it became a living, vital reminder of them . . . and a memorial to the thousands of Czech Jews who died and the eight curators who made it all possible'' Mr. Talisman says.
He explains that the Nazis spared the lives of eight Jewish curators of the original Prague Jewish Museum, opened in 1912 by Salomon Lieben, a historian. They were clinically to catalog the artifacts in what Hitler intended to be a Central Jewish Museum, a propaganda institute providing perverse rationale to the world for extermination, ''The Final Solution to the Jewish Question.'' Instead, they preserved and catalogued the heritage in ''the highest form of resistance, right under the Nazis' eyes,'' Talisman says. He notes that six of the curators were eventually deported from Prague and liquidated at Auschwitz and of the remaining two, only one survives.
Amid the glitter of silver, gold, and brass Hebrew relics, some of the most memorable objects in the ''Precious Legacy'' collection are starkly simple. There is one small, battered, black leather and cardboard ''transport suitcase'' with a rusted lock, all that was allowed to carry the possessions of Otto Schwarzkopf, Prag I, passport number AAL 351 X, Krasnohors, on his final journey to the Prague ''transit camp'' Terezin.
A special section in the exhibit is devoted to Terezin, where 33,000 Bohemian and Moravian Jews were killed, and where 88,000 more were transferred before Auschwitz and other death camps. More than 15,000 at Terezin were children under 15, of whom only 94 survived the Holocaust. Examples of their art are also among the most unforgettable items in this exhibit: a drawing of the interior of a Terezin barracks, with blood-red bunk beds, by 9-year-old Hana Grunfeld; a ''Wedding of the Butterflies,'' or a joyous pastel sketch by 12-year-old Ilona Weissova.
As Moravian and Bohemian Jews of 153 communities were rounded up and herded into camps, all their family possessions, religious objects, and treasures were systematically funneled into Prague for the Nazi museum. Eventually 50 warehouses and dozens of synagogues converted to warehouses brimmed to the ceiling with grosses of everything from Torah scrolls and Passover plates to wedding rings, violins, and clothes.
The exhibit is divided into the four categories of history, community, family and home, and tragedy and transcendence. It also includes more personal, sometimes homely, items, for instance a 1900 star-of-David and heart motif Passover plate in delft blue and white which serves as a logo of the collection.
Many of the items in the exhibit are detailed in a handsome catalog of ''The Precious Legacy'' edited by David Altshuler, professor of Judaic studies and consultant to the US Holocaust Memorial Council. Looking professorial in a tweedy brown and gray jacket, he led a press tour of the exhibit on opening day.
''The Nazis so meticulously confiscated objects from Jewish homes and families,'' he pointed out, ''that they took objects of no value whatsoever . . . in the warehouses were shelves full of used candles. . . . We liken what the Nazis did to a form of pathology, not only murdering people but dissecting the remnants, degrading and defiling the society and the remnants of it.''
Earlier, in a separate interview, we spoke of a neo-Nazi rally in the Washington area two days before the exhibit opened. ''None of us who worked on this project . . . are unaware of the persistence of what is now called neo-Nazism, both here and abroad. We believe that this exhibit documents and illustrates the beauty and vitality of a civilization the Nazis nearly succeeded in destroying. And for us it's not so much the perseverance of this fringe minority of fanaticism, but survival of the precious legacy of faith, that is the most significant fact in contemporary history.''
The 350 items in the ''Precious Legacy'' collection on view here include a dazzling variety of beautiful objects as well as useful ones. They include a 1913 Torah crown, as big as a basketball, made of silver studded with amethysts, topaz, and other jewels; a 19th-century Torah curtain from Salzburg, of rose-beige silk used in Moravia, glittering with metallic gold threads in which are woven golden griffins and flowers; a 1530 Pentateuch, its ancient pages with passages from the prophets pale yellow from time.; an 1870 synagogue clock of mahogany with a turquoise face, gilt dial, and several smaller dials for telling the time of daily synagogue services.; an antique matzoh rolling pin with porcupinelike spikes.
There are also dozens of historic oil portraits of Jewish men, women, and children which add a personal dimension to the exhibit: like an 1850 portrait of a smiling Prague matron with roses in her cheeks and roses decorating her white tulle headpiece. She is Hana Volovkova, now 96, who has described their efforts as a ''Noah's ark of Jewish culture.''
After leaving the National Museum of Natural History, the exhibit will be at the Bass Museum of Art, Miami Beach, Jan. 21-March 18; the Jewish Museum, New York, April 15 to Aug. 26; San Diego Museum of Art, Sept. 22 to Nov. 18; New Orleans Museum of Art, Dec. 15 to Feb. 10, 1985; the Detroit Institute of Arts, March 12-May 5, 1985; and the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford Conn., June 3 to July 29, 1985.