Sunday, November 04, 2007

Mixed Feelings on Rescuing Torahs

At this point I've been to a decent number of non-Ortho shuls, and my experience has been that just about every one has at least one (sometimes several) "Holocaust Torahs." Some of these miraculously survived intact, others were damaged and are for show. Many are kept in the Ark, and at least one, which it turned out, was rescued by the rabbi from his shul during Kristalnacht, was kept on display in a lucite box- there was something very haunting about seeing it, in pieces, suspended there.

As a student and aficionado of Ashkenazic history, and a longtime genealogy buff, I've spent some time learning about my family's towns. And, unfortunately, their demise. I've read about Warsaw and Lodz and Krakow, and seen pictures of Auschwitz and Treblinka and Buchenwald and Markstadt and Gross-Rosen.

So I get the idea behind rescuing Torah scrolls. I really do. Especially in cases where the people who have them don't even know what they're doing with them. But still, after reading this story in the latest CJ, I was left feeling a little uncomfortable.

Some of our students noticed an antique shop and in its corner what looked like a sefer Torah, propped against the wall, open and upside down. Some became very agitated and asked what,if anything, could be done. The staff decided to visit the shop the next morning to see for ourselves. Rabbi Harry Pell, the school’s director of informal education, and I, accompanied by our guides, set out on our quest. We asked the owner of the shop to carefully take the scroll from the window; it was clear to us that the Torah had been there for years. We asked to inspect it. What we first noticed took our breath away. It appeared that the Torah had been rolled – who knows how long before – to the weekly portion of Yitro – the week’s portion. Some suggested that this was a sign, that it was meant for us to come to Poland at this very moment. It was certainly one of those coincidences that make even the most rational among us wonder.

As we inspected the scroll we noticed first the silver engraving on the etzi chaim, the two wooden spindles to which the scroll is attached. We saw that the Torah had been commissioned by children to honor the memory of their father in 1936, just three years before the beginning of the Shoah. We next saw that from Yitro back to Beresheit, at the beginning of Genesis, the Torah was in excellent condition and beautifully written. From Yitro to V’zot Habracha, the last parashah in Deuteronomy, the last book in the Torah, however, was a different story. Although the book of Leviticus was intact, only a few badly damaged columns of Numbers remained and Deuteronomy didn’t exist at all. We had only three fifths of a sefer Torah.

None of us, however, had any doubt about what we had to do. We negotiated a fair price, which included an antique yad for the Torah. We paid, wrapped the Torah in a coat, walked through Old Square in the snow, hailed a cab, and returned with our prize.

The students were eager to hear our story; they were joyous at the news that their class had fulfilled the mitzvah of pidyon sh’vuyim, rescuing one who has been imprisoned. Over lunch I spoke about how Poland is too often a journey of regret, powerlessness, sadness, and anger. But that we had been given the opportunity – the privilege – of taking back for the Jewish people something that had been taken away, and that even more, the responsibility of using our lives for the betterment of our people, our country, and the world was the real reason for our trip.

The frail, half-destroyed and incomplete Torah was a symbol of what our people suffered 60 years ago. But when we will repair this Torah and re-complete it over the months and years ahead it will again be a symbol of strength and hope, continuity and completeness. I explained to the students that this Torah would be their graduation gift to their school – one like no other before or, I suspect, after.

...At services on Shabbat morning, after reading parashat Yitro from a kosher sefer Torah, the students unwrapped the Torah they’d found in Poland. Twenty students divided the aseret hadibrot, the Ten Commandments, which appear first in this parashah, and each read one line. This was the first time in nearly 70 years that this Torah had been read and used.

The Torah is now in the school’s beit knesset, its synagogue. Dr.Spiegel will consult with a professional sofer, a scribe, to learn how best to restore it.

Some have asked about the provenance of the Torah; what is the family name of the children who dedicated it in 1937 and from what community did it come? Alas, this we will never know. The memorial only states that “His children dedicate this Torah on the occasion of our father’s first yartzeit, 5697.” But perhaps this is not a bad thing. I can picture generations of our students imagining just who these people were, what community they might have lived in, and what ultimately befell them. Thus, the mystery of the origin of our special Torah will continue to be a source of inspiration for our students.

Am I the only one discomfited about this story? It's not that the intentions of the rabbis or students are anything but honorable. It's the idea that the best solution to finding a Torah in Poland, or anywhere in Europe, is to bring it back to America. It's the fact that this Torah has ceased to have any identity of its own and has become the SCHOOL'S special Torah. Not to be unkind, but it almost seems somewhat culturally imperialistic. I certainly understand why they might not want to donate it to, say, a museum in Poland (something tells me Krakow in particular probably has a lot of Judaica & ritual objects). But it strikes me as a little strange to be in Poland, find a Torah, decide to rescue it- and have your first impulse be, "this can be our Day School's Holocaust Torah!"

What about, say, donating it to a congregation in Europe? Or better yet, Poland? Like these folks:

Marie and Harley Lippman are planning their daughter’s bat mitzvah. Her name is Juliet and she and her family wanted to add special meaning to her lifecycle event and were casting around for ideas. They read an article about Israeli teenage girls who were in Poland and discovered a street peddler selling paper dolls, dolls he called "Jew dolls." When the girls looked closely, they saw the dolls were made from scraps taken from a Torah. They asked the peddler where he got them, and he directed them to his uncle, who had found a scroll in the house of a Jew who "disappeared in the war." The girls bought what was left of the Torah, managed to get it to Israel, restored it, and presented it to a synagogue in Jerusalem.

"That," said Harley recently, "is the story that inspired us."

The Lippmans, who live in New York City, found Rabbi Adina Lewittes, a Bergen County rabbi, who helped them locate a reparable Torah scroll through a broker on the Lower East Side. The scroll they chose had been written sometime in the 1870s in Strasbourg, France, and was sponsored by a wealthy Polish family.

..."When we planned the Hachnosat Sefer Torah [the welcoming of a Torah to a congregation, a festival that resembles a wedding in many ways], we expected a small crowd to celebrate our simcha with singing and dancing in the streets of Warsaw. Instead there was a miracle, because more than 170 Israel Defense Forces officers who happened to be in Warsaw joined us in our jubilation. We danced through the city’s main park, an area that had been off limits to Jews during the Holocaust, and our event took place on the anniversary of the day that Jorgen Stroop told Hitler Warsaw was Judenrein and that the ghetto was destroyed. The irony of our celebration was not lost on anyone!"

...Here’s what Friedland and Fissel discovered on their hunt: "We knew from the spindles that the Torah was written in 1876 in Strasbourg by a scribe named Avraham Schwab and commissioned by a couple named Avraham Zev and Beila Schwab and their six children; we also knew from the scribe on the Lower East Side that it had been found in Poland and brought to New York.

Schwab was buried in the main Jewish cemetery in Strasbourg 13 years after the Torah was written. By studying the history of Alsace, we discovered that the Schwabs’ descendants had disappeared, though they would almost certainly have lived in the vicinity of the scribe and that the Torah would have served the local community.

"All the rabbis and scholars in Strasbourg and Poland agreed that the only imaginable way the Torah would have landed in Poland was by accompanying its community on a deportation to Auschwitz during the Holocaust. The fact that this Torah had survived when its community members had not seemed to us to multiply in spiritual value the initial tzedakah of Harley and Marie Lippman in donating it to a living and needy Jewish community."

Friedland and Fissel, who have recorded many family journeys to Europe to trace roots, say this story is different from most of the stories they’ve covered.

Fissel told the Standard: "It is significant that the Lippmans purchased the Torah. But unlike other folks who purchase and donate Torahs, they did not send it alone on a plane to Poland; they accompanied it as if it were a family member. They spent several days meeting Jewish community members in Poland and visiting community institutions, and they were center stage, surrounded by 170 members of the IDF visiting the country at that time as well. In addition, many members of the Jewish community from around all of Poland came to join them as they marched and danced through the streets of Warsaw to dedicate the Torah and give it back to a European Jewish community."

To me, this strikes me as a much more meaningful gesture and way to honor the Torah- not by having it become one of countless Holocaust Torahs sitting in American synagogues (many of which often have more than one), but by bringing it back to Europe, to Jewish communities still in the area that need and will use it.

As happy as the first story is, there seems to be a not-so-subtle bias present in it that the Jewish future (or at least present) is in America, not the rest of the Diaspora, and so it makes perfect sense that a recovered Torah in Poland should go to a school in New York, as opposed to say, Poland. Granted, the school paid for it, it's theirs. But I still find it a sad commentary on where the focal points of Diaspora Judaism, especially for American Jews, are. There are Jews around the world struggling to keep their communities together, or to start them in the first place. And, like it or not, a Torah scroll is often an important step, made all the more so because of its expense.

While the ongoing efforts to find, repair and save Holocaust Torahs is nothing short of admirable, maybe we would do better to try to go one step further and look for international Jewish communities we could support rather than continue to stockpile as many Holocaust Torahs for our own shuls as possible. If you're going to take a Torah from Poland, at least make sure it will go somewhere it's needed, not left to gather dust under its special mantle in your overcrowded ark.

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