Why a Canadian archive owns a rescued Purim scroll from WWII

Soldier saved it from bombed-out building in Europe

Many Allied veterans brought souvenirs back with them from the Second World War, but I wonder whether the British soldier who stuck this Jewish Purim scroll into his kit bag realized what he had taken home with him. 

This handwritten Hebrew scroll is actually a Book of Esther, and it is now located on the second floor of the Library and Archives Canada building in Ottawa. The entire story of how it got there remains somewhat of a mystery, but it was donated to the institution in the 1980s.

According to Michael Kent, the senior curator in charge of the Jacob M. Lowy Collection at LAC, the scroll was discovered in a Montreal apartment belonging to a Second World War veteran. After his death, some neighbours went in to gather up his personal effects and found the Megillah of Esther scroll inside its battered silver case. 

As it looked important, they gave it to a relative who worked for the archives. 

“It has a compelling story about it,” Kent said in an interview, adding that it was likely found in a bombed-out building.

While Kent does not know what country the scroll came from, he is pretty sure it was somewhere in newly-liberated continental Europe.


Slight damage

Except for the dents in the case, the scroll itself remained undamaged. While the Megillah does not have any markings on the parchment or other means to identify the scribes or when it was made, curators think it most likely came from the home of a “regular” Orthodox Jewish person, rather than from a synagogue. 

“It’s a standard Megillah,” Kent said.

As to the identity of the soldier who picked it up, Kent doubts the veteran was Jewish.  Otherwise, the soldier might have tried to find the Jewish community in that area to return the scroll, before going home to England. The soldier later moved to Canada, and brought the war souvenir with him. The identity of the soldier is buried somewhere in the paper archives of the LAC holdings. It would be nice to know who he was, should anyone know?

In a blog post, Kent marvelled at the series of coincidences that worked to preserve a precious Jewish artifact, when so much of European Jewry and perhaps even the scroll’s owner disappeared at the hands of the Nazi Holocaust. 

“These unlikely occurrences come together to form a powerful story of survival and a fantastic journey for this scroll that brought it to LAC,” he writes.


Check the LAC website for details on how to schedule research visits during the pandemic.

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