Non-Jewish couple donates Holocaust Torah to Virginia university

Uriel Heilman

(JTA) – A non-Jewish couple from Arizona donated a 250-year-old Torah scroll recovered from the Nazis to Virginia Commonwealth University.

The couple, Martin L. Johnson and Olinda Young of Phoenix, are collectors of antiques and art, and an interest in collecting old Bibles led to them to acquire eight Torah scrolls. In recent years, the two have donated Torahs to the University of Pennsylvania, Loyola University in Chicago, Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, the University of Arizona and Arizona State.

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“I’m a plastic surgeon by training,” Johnson told JTA. “I appreciate beautiful things. Four or five years ago I had a cancer situation that has given me a different perspective on life. I’m transitioning now from being a beautician to giving back. Collecting things is not important to me anymore. I’ve been looking for a home for a lot of these different pieces that would allow other people to enjoy them or learn from them or appreciate their historical significance.”

The scroll donated to VCU, where both Johnson and his wife are alumni, was written in Romania around 1750, seized by the Nazis during the Holocaust and later inherited by Romania’s Communist regime. Registration numbers and stamps confirm the provenance of the scroll, which was authenticated by an appraiser of rare books and manuscripts, according to a statement from the university. Johnson bought the Torah from the Bible Museum of Goodyear, Ariz., which also authenticated is provenance. Its estimated value is $75,000.

“We look forward to making this symbol of survival and hope available to our entire community for teaching, learning and remembrance, always with appropriate reverence and respect,” said John Ulmschneider, the VCU librarian.

The Torah will be kept at the VCU Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives, in Richmond, Va. Jack Spiro, who teaches Judaic Culture at VCU, said the scroll will be a great benefit to the university.

“It’s quite possible that most students who take courses in religious studies at VCU, and even those who major or minor in religious studies, have never seen a Torah,” Spiro told VCU News. “Having a Torah on display with the ability of opening it and reading passages from it will be a unique opportunity for students to understand it from a visual and tangible perspective. In addition, it becomes an opening through which they can be motivated to study the Holocaust and all expressions of dehumanization in the world.”

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