Torah Scroll Displayed at Standish Room

A Torah scroll rescued from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and given to the Center for Jewish Studies is now on display outside of the Standish Room in the Science Library. The scroll and its protective case were unveiled at a ceremony on Sunday, May 6, 2012, attended by faculty, students, administrators, as well as members of the community who provided the support to make the installation possible.

The scroll, which likely dates from the mid-19th century, was among the approximately 1,800 Torah scrolls taken to Central Jewish Museum in Prague in 1939. Upon arrival, the scroll’s description and place of origin – Hořovice, a small town outside of Prague - was recorded and indexed along with 100,000 other Jewish religious items. It remained stored at the museum for almost 20 years, quietly surviving the end of World War II and the Communist coup of 1948. The scroll was transferred with the rest of the collection to a synagogue in Michle, a suburb of Prague, in 1956-59 where it remained until 1963. At that time, London-based art dealer Erick Estorick arranged for philanthropist Ralph Yablon to move the remaining 1,564 scrolls to London’s Westminster Synagogue which created the Memorial Scrolls Trust, an organization dedicated to the preservation and distribution of the scrolls. According to Professor Barry Trachtenberg, Interim Director of the Center for Jewish Studies, the Memorial Scrolls Trust sent intact scrolls to synagogues all over the world for use in worship. Those that were not suitable for religious use, such as UAlbany’s Scroll 1204, were acquired by other organizations for educational purposes.

Scroll 1204 was a gift to the University from Warren and Hedy Schwartz Bagatelle (’60), who made arrangements to acquire a scroll in 2002. The scroll was first unveiled in November 2005 at a ceremony attended by the late Mrs. Bagatelle. She said that the scrolls were originally kept in Prague in the hope that they would be returned to the Jewish communities from which they were received, “But at the end of the war in 1945 there weren’t any Jewish people to come home.”

After the 2005 ceremony, the University put Scroll 1204 into the vault at the M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives to await further preservation and a case that would protect it from decay. Dr. Trachtenberg enlisted the help of Mr. Robert Schwartz, who is a member of the Center for Jewish Studies Advisory Board and the University at Albany Foundation Board, to secure the funds necessary to create a permanent display; Mrs. Bagatelle was also Mr. Schwartz’s sister. The display is made possible by the generosity of private donors, many of whom are from the Schwartz and Bagatelle families. Through windows next to the display one can see the Hedy Schwartz Bagatelle Courtyard of the Science Library, which was dedicated in 2009 in honor of her many contributions to the University at Albany.

Observers can use the mirror inside the display to take note of the seams and repair marks on the back of the parchment, leftover from the painstaking preservation process. The text that is visible in the display is The Song of Moses (Exodus 15: 1-27), sung by the Israelites in celebration and praise after they had escaped the Egyptians through the parted Red Sea.

Dr. Trachtenberg has already used the scroll in his teaching of Holocaust history. Instead of simply using slides and pictures as his main course materials, “Why not show them the real thing?” One of his students, Moira LaMountain (’12), even presented a paper she wrote on the history of Hořovice and the Memorial Scrolls Trust at the May 6th ceremony.  Dr. Trachtenberg thinks that, like his students, all observers will be able to connect with history and find inspiration from the scroll and its journey.