Iwry, Samuel

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Iwry, Samuel

(b. 25 December 1910 in Bialystok, Poland; d. 8 May 2004 in Baltimore, Maryland), Zionist activist, renowned Hebrew scholar, and revered Near Eastern studies professor whose seminar paper (1940s) and doctoral dissertation (1951) hypothesized the antiquity of the Dead Sea Scrolls, later proved accurate by carbon dating (1991).

Iwry was the first of two sons and four daughters born to Jacob Iwry, a textile supplies business owner, and Deena (or Dinah) Epstein-Hepner Iwry, a homemaker. “Iwry” is the Polish translation of the Hebrew “Ivry,” which the Iwry family traced to the founder of Judaism’s Hasidic movement, Rebbe Israel Baal Shem Tov (1700–1760).

At the outbreak of World War I four-year-old Iwry entered Boyalskys, a private school in Bialystok. Six years later his family fled Poland for Uman in the Ukraine. They returned home in 1922, and Iwry attended a secular gymnasium (secondary school), graduating at age sixteen. In 1926 Iwry entered a yeshiva in Lomzah, Lithuania, where he studied the first five books of Moses, the Mishnah, the Midrashim, the Babylonian Talmud, and the Jerusalem Talmud. He completed three semesters and later recalled the yeshiva emphasis on becoming a scholar “to learn for the sake of learning.”

Iwry continued his development as a scholar at Vilna Teachers Seminary, Vilna, Lithuania (1928–1932), studying secular history and Jewish history. Famous for Jewish learning, Vilna was considered the Jerusalem of Lithuania. Dr. P. Kyle McCarter, professor of Biblical studies and W. F. Albright Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University, recalls of his colleague, “Sam Iwry became a scholar very much in the spirit of the Vilna Gaon.” Elijah ben Solomon Zalmen (1720–1792), known as Vilna Gaon, was considered the greatest Jewish scholar since Babylonian times.

In 1937 Iwry received a master’s diploma from Warsaw University’s Higher Institute for Judaic Studies. After graduation he directed a Jewish school and became an underground resistance leader fighting the German occupiers in Poland. In 1939 his family helped him escape to Lithuania; he continued across Russia and reached Japan in 1941. He was appointed by David Ben-Gurion as the Far East representative for the Jewish Agency for Palestine (an American philanthropic organization). Ben-Gurion sent Iwry to Shanghai as negotiator with the British authorities for Jewish refugees. While there Iwry helped organize a Talmud Torah school, taught at the Shanghai Jewish School, and copied visas to save thousands of Jewish families during the Holocaust. Unfortunately, he could not save his own family in Poland, who were executed by the Nazis. Iwry said he was destined to “wear the dust of war.”

In Shanghai, Iwry was captured by the Japanese occupying forces, imprisoned, tortured for his underground activities, and rescued by Nina Rochman, a hospital administrator who arranged his release to a hospital. In 1943 Japanese authorities ordered Iwry and 17,000 others moved to a “designated area” in Hong Kew, where he remained until World War II ended. In 1946 Rochman and Iwry were married in Shanghai, received visas from an American GI as a wedding gift, and immigrated to the United States. They settled in Baltimore, Maryland, where he accepted a teaching offer at Baltimore Hebrew College (later Baltimore Hebrew University). They had one son.

At this time Iwry also requested an interview with the Orientalist scholar and archaeologist William Foxwell Albright in the Near Eastern studies program at Johns Hopkins University. When Albright discovered that Iwry had studied with the Akkadian scholar Moses Shorr, he admitted Iwry into the department. Iwry began doctoral studies there in 1946. Albright assigned Iwry the Damascus document, a Hebrew text found fifty years earlier that recorded the migration of a group of Jews to Damascus. Iwry continued this analysis the rest of his life.

In 1947, with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Iwry served on a team led by Albright that authenticated the scrolls; Iwry’s work dated them. His comparison of the language of the Damascus document to the Dead Sea Scrolls proved crucial to this investigation. In 1951 Iwry earned his PhD in Near Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Iwry’s doctoral dissertation on the scrolls was the first written on that subject, but upon Albright’s recommendation he left it unpublished. In his eighties Iwry expressed regret that he followed his mentor’s advice.

Upon graduation Iwry accepted a faculty position at Johns Hopkins. A popular professor among his students, he was recognized by colleagues for his expertise in ancient Near Eastern studies, Biblical archaeology, history of the Hebrew language, Jewish civilization, and modern Hebrew literature. He was a lifelong student of languages, using Polish, Latin, Russian, French, English, and Hebrew learned in gymnasium. Iwry was also fluent in five Semitic languages and Greek. At Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he was told that he spoke Hebrew the way it was meant to be heard.

In 1958 Iwry was named New American of the Year, an award especially meaningful to him because of its occurrence at Johns Hopkins University. While teaching a Hebrew literature class, he did not notice a staff person enter with a television set. His students called out “Look here!” as the university president Milton Eisenhower (brother of President Dwight D. Eisenhower) announced the honor.

Iwry served on the Johns Hopkins faculty from 1951 to 1991, retiring as a full professor. Upon his retirement the university newspaper headline was what Iwry called “a great gift.” The Gazette read, “Iwry’s Dead Sea Scrolls Theory Confirmed.” The lead continued, “Carbon-14 Test Proves Professor Accurately Dated Dead Sea Scrolls Forty Years Ago.” Recognizing Iwry’s achievement, his colleague Professor McCarter said, “Sam’s knowledge of Hebrew of all periods was unsurpassed and was critical in proving the antiquity of the scrolls.”

In addition to his tenure at Johns Hopkins, from 1947 until 1985 Iwry served as Distinguished Professor of Literature and dean of Baltimore Hebrew College (now Baltimore Hebrew University), where he received an honorary doctorate of Hebrew letters degree. He was a visiting professor at the University of Maryland in the 1970s, and he taught regularly at the Hebrew universities in Jerusalem and Haifa.

Additional honors included a University of Maryland College Park faculty fellowship fund bearing his name, keys to the city of Baltimore, a Festschrift by fellow scholars (1985), and the Blum-Iwry Professorship in Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins (2002). He was also a vice president and member of the executive committee of the World Zionist Organization.

Iwry died of a stroke at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and is buried in Arlington Cemetery–Chizuk Amuno Congregation.

There is no biography of Samuel Iwry. The best source for his life is his autobiography, To Wear the Dust of War: From Bialystok to Shanghai to the Promised Land, transcribed in his eighties to L. J. H. Kelley, ed., and published posthumously (2004). Obituaries are in the Miami Herald and Charlotte Observer (both 12 May 2004), Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle (both 13 May 2004), Contra Costa Times (15 May 2004), the Gazette of Johns Hopkins University (17 May 2004), and the New York Times (22 May 2004).

Sandra Redmond Peters