Valuable Jewish manuscripts on show in Prague before return to Wroclaw

12-11-2004

The National Library in Prague is currently exhibiting a fascinating and rare collection of Hebrew manuscripts, part of a larger collection the Nazis stole from a Jewish Seminary in the Polish city of Wroclaw in 1938. Now, under an international agreement, it is about to be returned to Poland.

The Mirror Chapel at Prague's Clementinum is showing part of a huge collection of Hebrew manuscripts that the Nazis stole from the Jewish Theological Seminary in Poland's Wroclaw (Breslau in German). Among the 400 manuscripts and 30,000 prints was a famous collection assembled by Leon Saraval, a Jewish merchant from Trieste who died in 1851.

The Gestapo transferred the material to various locations, including Prague, where the Nazis were preparing a museum of an "extinguished race". It was stored in a vault in the National Library at the Clementinum, where it gathered dust for four decades. The discovery of the manuscripts in the mid-1980s was heralded as a major international find.

The current exhibition features 34 Hebrew manuscripts and five incunabula - meaning very early printed materials - believed to be the most valuable part of the Saraval collection. The texts span seven centuries - the earliest from 1284-1285 - and originated in various parts of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. They reflect Sephardic, Italian and Ashkenazi scribal traditions. One of the scribes was an Italian whose family came from the Czech border town of Cheb (in German Eger).

When the Clementinum exhibition closes on Sunday the Saraval manuscripts will return, under an agreement between the Czech and Polish governments, to their original home in Wroclaw. But - thanks to modern technology and a Culture Ministry grant - they will remain in Prague in digital form.

12-11-2004