Overview

Torah Scrolls at Bridwell Library

CHINESE TORAH SCROLL, in Hebrew. [Kaifeng, China, mid-17th century]. Parchment, each skin 59 cm in height with 49 lines of text per column, written in brown ink. Modern wooden rollers.

This Torah, written in unpointed Hebrew on a scroll of 68 parchment skins (96 feet long), was number yod-bet (12) of the thirteen scrolls originally at the synagogue in Kaifeng, China, established in 1653. Acquired by the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews in 1851, it apparently was sold by the Society sometime after 1929. In 1955 a bookseller in Pennsylvania, unaware of the scroll’s Chinese origins, sold it to Thomas J. Harrison, a Bible collector in Pryor, Oklahoma. Following Harrison’s death in 1963, the scroll came to Bridwell Library by bequest of the Thomas J. Harrison Trust. It was identified as one of the missing Kaifeng scrolls by Michael Pollak, of Dallas, in 1972.

CZECH TORAH SCROLL, in Hebrew. [Žamberk, Czech Republic, 19th century]. Parchment, each skin 71 cm in height with 58 lines of text per column, written in black ink. Modern wooden rollers.

Bridwell Library’s Czech Torah Scroll was used during the nineteenth century in the synagogue at Žamberk, a village in the northeastern mountains of the Czech Republic, on the Polish border. According to the Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust (2001), Žamberk was home to a Jewish community since at least the seventeenth century. Fires devastated the Jewish ghetto there in 1810 and 1833; it is likely therefore that the Torah scroll dates from after the second fire. The Jewish population of Žamberk diminished in size during the later nineteenth century, and by 1930, only thirty-one Jews still lived there. The remaining Jews of Žamberk were deported by the Nazi government to the Theresienstadt ghetto in 1942, and were sent from there to death camps.

In 1942 the Nazis ordered all remaining Jewish communities in Czechoslovakia to send the contents of their synagogues to the Jewish Museum in Prague. The Žamberk scroll was one of 1,564 Czech Torah scrolls recovered after World War II by the Memorial Scrolls Trust. It was taken to London, where it was designated “Number 915. Czech Memorial Scrolls. Westminster Synagogue 1964-5724.” Many of these scrolls were later distributed to American synagogues. In 1976, with the aid of Norman Alweis and Shirley G. Alweis of Dallas, Bridwell Library Director Decherd Turner (from 1950 to 1980) requested that a Memorial Scroll be deposited by the Trust at Bridwell Library in honor of Dr. Levi A. Olan (1903–1984), Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanu-el in Dallas. The Torah scroll from Žamberk arrived in January 1977, and has been available for study at Bridwell Library's Special Collections ever since.

According to Ann Blackman's Seasons of Her Life: A Biography of Madeleine Korbel Albright (1988), the ancestors of former U. S. Secretary of State Albright may have attended the synagogue in Žamberk, walking four miles from their village of Kysperk to attain a minyan during the period when this scroll was in use.