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News Release — February 28, 2000

The Ransom Center Receives Gift of Unique Judaica

"These books, once in Nazi hands, have been saved and restored to Jewish ownership in blessed memory..."

So reads the bookplate inside a number of Judaic books recently donated to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. This exceptional 485-volume collection comes to the Center from South Africa and includes works in Yiddish, German, and Hebrew. Each of the 485 books is considered rare; the collection is made unique by the presence of several titles once thought to be permanently erased from the written record during the Holocaust.

"Far and away the most moving thing about these books is the existence of numerous volumes we never knew could have survived the Holocaust," said Yiddish scholar and translator Joseph Sherman, who facilitated the gift from his home in South Africa. "I'm very pleased that the collection has been brought to the Ransom Center, where it will be well-cared for and accessible to scholars."

Highlights of the gift include:

  • in Yiddish-- early works published in the mid-nineteenth century after the modern revival of Yiddish as a literary language (the major works of this movement formed the basis of modern Reform Judaism and became the key intellectual and literary texts that profoundly shaped the course of American Jewish cultural life);
  • in German-- first editions of writings by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a major figure in the German neo-Orthodox movement of the mid-nineteenth century; first editions of Theodor Herzl's diaries; and books of Biblical and Talmudic scholarship;
  • in Hebrew-- numerous nineteenth century prayer books, collections of Psalms, and a beautiful volume of traditional prayers for women bound in purple velvet.

The books originally belonged to Jewish refugees who fled war-torn Europe and settled in South Africa. There, the books found their way to the Jewish library in Johannesburg where they were safely preserved and made accessible to the community. By the mid-1990s, however, South Africa witnessed a mass emigration of its Jewish population. This in turn placed severe financial strains on Jewish cultural institutions, and the library realized that it could no longer afford to care for its collection of rare books.

Sherman, who recently won acclaim for his translation of Isaac Bashevis SingerÕs posthumous novel Shadows on the Hudson, was asked to find a new home for the collection. He had been to the Ransom Center to work on cataloging the Singer archive (acquired in 1993) and was impressed by the Center's care for its collections and commitment to Jewish literature. Shortly after being contacted about the books in October 1999, the Ransom Center accepted Sherman's generous offer.

"We are extremely grateful to receive this important collection of Judaica," said Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley. "We will work diligently to catalog the collection so that it is accessible to scholars and students of Jewish studies from all over the world."

The South African Judaica collection joins the Ransom Center's Gottesman Collection of Hebraica and Judaica containing 10,000 volumes documenting the Jewish experience over some three thousand years. Highlights of the Gottesman Collection include:

  • Literature and history-- several thousand books dating from the 1880s to the late 1920s, rare because many books from this period were destroyed during World War II, in Hebrew, German, and Yiddish;
  • Jewish culture-- volumes on early Western European Jewish culture, dating from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, including rare first editions;
  • Bibles, Mishna, Talmud, prayer books-- a large collection of religious books, some dating to the 16th century.

In addition to their importance as research resources in their own right, the Center's collections of Judaica books also provide a basis for the study of the Center's manuscript holdings by Jewish writers. With the acquisition of the archive of Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1993, the Ransom Center achieved international prominence in the field of Jewish letters. Complementing this collection is the archive of Bernard Malamud, who counted Singer among his influences. The winner of two National Book Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, Malamud is best known for his short stories that draw on his Jewish immigrant family background. The Center also has the collection of Leon Uris, including drafts of his popular novel Exodus, about the founding of Israel.

As one of the few research universities offering comprehensive instruction in Yiddish language and courses in Yiddish literature, The University of Texas at Austin has had a strong commitment to Jewish Studies for decades. In 1997, a formal academic concentration in Jewish Studies was initiated, reflecting years of informal student and faculty collaboration among the Departments of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures, Germanic Studies, and English.

The Gottesman Collection and other Ransom Center resources for Jewish Studies attract scholars from universities around the world. Faculty members of The University of Texas at Austin incorporate the Gottesman Collection and other Jewish materials in their teaching for both undergraduate and graduate students. With the expansion of the University's Jewish Studies Program, the Ransom Center's Judaica collections are the centerpiece of a large and growing merger between of teaching and scholarly research in Jewish Studies at UT.

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