The Skirball is proud to announce the recent donation of a very rare Torah ark curtain and valance saved from destruction during World War II.
An American paratrooper during World War II, Seymour Linfield, found this Torah ark curtain in an abandoned synagogue in Austria, which had been in use as a stable. He rescued the curtain and passed it on to his son, Michael, who recently donated it to the Skirball Museum for conservation and posterity.
The curtain depicts the biblical episode of the binding of Isaac by his father Abraham, as portrayed in the Book of Genesis. The curtain and valance feature hand-sewn silk construction and intricate metallic thread embroidery. The Hebrew inscription at the top of the curtain, above the decorative fringe, reads “sound the shofar at the new moon,” which is derived from the New Year liturgy, when the scriptural reading from the binding of Isaac is read. This suggests that the curtain was specially made for the Jewish High Holy Days. The Hebrew abbreviation “Crown of Torah,” as seen on either side of the embroidered crown, refers to the sovereign authority of the Torah (the five books of Moses), which Jewish tradition ascribes to divine origin. The Hebrew inscription below the scene identifies the congregation of origin: Tagendorf (possibly a transliteration of Techendorf, a lakeside village in the south of Austria). The Hebrew numerical abbreviation just below that states the Jewish calendar year 5638, which translates to the secular calendar year 1878.
Before agreeing to accept this object as a contribution to the Museum collection, the Skirball contacted the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. (USHMM), for guidance on accepting items brought home by US soldiers during World War II. According to the USHMM, both they and the Library of Congress accept such items as long as the object is fully documented and thorough provenance research is conducted. Items looted by Nazis or their sympathizers, on the other hand, are repatriated as a matter of policy to community, synagogue, or family of origin.
Upon examining the ark curtain, Judaica scholar and Skirball curator Grace Cohen Grossman noted that the imagery is extremely rare and very similar to a Torah mantle of the same date housed at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian that was also reportedly found in a damaged synagogue—in that case during World War I. Dr. Grossman identified the same artist as the likely creator of a 1875–1876 Torah mantle in the collection of the Jewish Museum in New York. The Skirball is proud to stand alongside the Jewish Museum and the Smithsonian as a caretaker of this unknown artist’s superb handiwork—salvaged by a young American Jewish soldier who saw that it needed saving.
After years of less than ideal storage conditions, the textile was in great need of conservation. Ann Svenson, a textile conservator, conducted an overall vacuum cleaning to remove surface grime and lighten the stains. The curtain backing was replaced to reduce planar deformation. As silk naturally deteriorates over time, there were many areas of loss. Ann stabilized the torn silk by hand sewing silk support fabric, utilizing specialized conservation adhesives, and encasing the damaged areas with protective encasement netting. Finally, Ann created a specialized mount display system utilizing rigid board and Velcro backing to avoid further stress to the textile.
The Torah ark curtain is now on view in the Skirball’s core exhibition, Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America. We invite you to come see this exquisite piece of Jewish—and now American—history and heritage.