By Michael Kent
One of the most exciting aspects of working with rare books is the story of the individual items in our collections. The life an item had before finding its way to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) can be fascinating, and is sometimes as interesting as the content of the work itself. In some cases, the story of an item can share amazing parallels with the work itself. One such example is a scroll containing the Biblical Book of Esther. This scroll is now housed in LAC’s Jacob M. Lowy Collection.
This scroll is handwritten in Hebrew in a format suited for ritual use as part of the Jewish holiday of Purim. The story of how it ended up at Library and Archives Canada was passed down to me through an oral history from previous curators of the Jacob M. Lowy Collection. It is a story too good not to share.
When I show the scroll to visitors, they are instantly struck by its damaged metal case. People often exclaim that it looks like it has gone through a war, and in fact it has. As the story goes, a British soldier found this case sticking out of the rubble of a bombed-out building in continental Europe at the end of the Second World War. Upon discovering that the case contained a scroll, the soldier decided to keep the item as a war souvenir. Later in life, that soldier would move to Canada and bring the scroll with him.
The next chapter in the story of the scroll took place after this soldier passed away. As it has been recounted to me, the soldier had no children, and his neighbours volunteered to clean out his apartment. Through that process, they discovered the scroll, recalling that he had previously shown it to them. Recognizing it was an item of value, they decided to find a home for it. As chance would have it, these neighbours had a relative who worked at the then-National Archives. They sent the scroll to this relative, who passed it off to an archivist. Several years later, the Jacob M. Lowy Collection of rare Judaica was donated to the National Library of Canada. The decision was made to transfer the scroll to that collection so that it would be housed with other Judaica.
So why do I feel that the story of the physical scroll mirrors the story contained within? The answer comes from a unique aspect of the Biblical Book of Esther as one of the two books from the Hebrew Scriptures that does not mention God. The traditional rabbinic explanation to textual oddity is that the name of God was left out of the book to highlight the hidden nature of the miracle contained within the story. It is a story of a series of small and unlikely worldly events that culminate in the survival of the Jewish people.
When I look at the scroll, I too see an item that survived through a series of small and unlikely event. That the original owner would house it in a strong protective material. That the item would survive a bombing. That it would end up in a visible place. That a soldier would stop to investigate it and decide it was worth saving. That his neighbours would volunteer to clear out his apartment after his death. That those volunteers would carefully examine the apartment’s contents and seek a proper home for the scroll. That they would have a connection at the National Archives. These unlikely occurrences come together to form a powerful story of survival and a fantastic journey for this scroll that brought it to LAC.
While I am in no place to offer spiritual reflections on the survival of this scroll, the serendipity is remarkable. This story, and others like it, highlight the powerful past the items in our collections have. These stories go far beyond the written word, and I am always humbled to learn and share them.
Michael Kent is curator of the Jacob M. Lowy Collection at Library and Archives Canada.