Two years ago, philanthropist David Rubenstein offered to buy a Torah scroll for Manhattan’s Central Synagogue. The story of the scroll was as impressive as the object itself: Rabbi Menachem Youlus, a Maryland Torah scribe and Jewish bookstore owner, said he had discovered the sefer Torah in a cemetery in Oswiecim, the Polish town the occupying Germans called Auschwitz.
The scroll was dedicated in a gala ceremony at Central Synagogue on Yom HaShoah 2008. On Rosh HaShanah that year, Rabbi Peter Rubinstein repeated the Torah’s story of survival.
The New York Times also told the story of the scroll.
The story may be a fabrication.
An article that will appear on Sunday in the Washington Post Magazine — written by freelance writers Jeff Lunden and Martha Wexler — raises questions about Rabbi Youlus’ credibility and about the dramatic redeemed-from-the-Holocaust stories he has offered about many of the scrolls he has sold.
While the article, which appeared this week on the Washington Post Web site, does not call Rabbi Youlus — often referred to in terms like “the Indiana Jones of Torah scrolls” in other newspapers’ stories — a fraud, it challenges many of his recollections. The Post cites the suspicions of people who had bought Torah scrolls from him, and states that the rabbi lacks any proof to substantiate where his Torah scrolls came from or how he obtained them.
The emerging controversy over Torah scrolls of unproven provenance touches on an ongoing black market in Holocaust-era Judaica, on possible ammunition for Holocaust deniers and on the spiritual significance of such Holocaust artifacts for which members of the Jewish community are often willing to spend large sums of money.
Representatives of several Jewish organizations reacted with tempered concern this week to the Post report, condemning any possible misuse of the Holocaust’s legacy but withholding judgment until more facts become known.
“We have no evidence one way or the other” about implications that the rabbi made up or exaggerated the scroll’s history, Rabbi Rubinstein says.
David Pollock, associate executive director of New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council and a founder of the Universal Torah Registry project, while declining to comment on the specifics of the accusations against Rabbi Youlus, says most extant, older Torahs “went through the Shoah,” since the majority of Torah scribes lived in Eastern Europe until Israel was created and a flourishing Orthodox community was built in the United States after World War II.
Since the pre-World War II origin of the scrolls repaired and sold by Rabbi Youlus is not disputed, their fate during the Holocaust is less important than their subsequent return to Jewish hands, says Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman, who was a hidden child during the Holocaust. “Most important is their unearthing. One should celebrate the fact.”
The report about Rabbi Youlus follows other incidents in the past decade that have supported the efforts of Holocaust deniers: disclosures that alleged Holocaust memoirs by Binjamin Wilkomirski and Misha Defonseca were fictional, and the admission by survivor Herman Rosenblat that his romantic tale of meeting his eventual wife at a Buchenwald fence was also false.
If Rabbi Youlus’ version of his Torah scrolls’ history is discredited, “it is certainly an assault on the historical effort to maintain absolute fidelity to the truth,” says David Marwell, director of The Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust here. “This adds fuel to those who would deny the Holocaust.”
The Battery Park City institution accepts artifacts for its Holocaust exhibition “only … if we’re convinced of the authenticity and the provenance of an individual object,” Marwell says.
Rabbi Youlus is the founder of Save a Torah (saveatorah.org), an independent foundation that supports his work. The rabbi’s Torahs, according to the Web site, have gone to congregations throughout the United States, Israel and the former Soviet Union. A Torah scroll usually sells for at least $10,000, usually in the range of $20,000-$40,000.
“On his Save a Torah promotional video, posted on the Web in 2007, Youlus says he has rescued 500 Torahs since he began his mission a quarter-century ago,” according to the Post. “The number Youlus gives on this spring afternoon in 2009 has soared to 1,100.”
As recently as two weeks ago, the rabbi took part in a high-profile dedication ceremony for a Torah scroll he had restored to kosher status. “You’re all scribes now,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported the rabbi telling the 50 participants in a dedication event at Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron Ezras Israel in southern Philadelphia.
Rabbi Youlus did not respond to a request for comment from The Jewish Week.
The Post story grew out of a visit Lunden made to his parents in Silver Spring, Md., five years ago. He noticed an item in the bulletin of his family’s synagogue, Shaare Tefila Congregation, about the forthcoming dedication of a Torah scroll that had survived the Holocaust.
Lunden, who lives in Brooklyn, told National Public Radio, where he has worked as a producer.
NPR interviewed Rabbi Youlus. But the story was never broadcast. “They could not confirm any of the facts Rabbi Youlus presented them,” Lunden says.
He and Wexler intensified their research after the New York Times reported on the Central Synagogue ceremony two years ago. He and his co-author, aided by a journalist in Poland, started researching the rabbi’s story. “Nobody” in the area of Auschwitz “was aware of Youlus and him digging there,” Lunden says. The journalists investigated other parts of the rabbi’s stories, then contacted Rabbi Youlus again. “He just changed a lot of the details.”
“In a three-hour interview, Youlus is unable to provide a single name, date, place, photograph or document to back up the Auschwitz stories or any of the others,” the article states. “He says that until Save a Torah was founded in 2004, he kept no records. He refers all requests for documentation since then to the foundation’s president, investment banker Rick Zitelman of Rockville [Md.]. But in a late December meeting at The Washington Post, Zitelman, 54, shows no documentation for any of the scrolls, despite requests. Zitelman says the only paperwork he gets from Youlus is an invoice the rabbi himself writes up for each Torah.”
A Jewish leader with close ties to Poland’s Jewish community who asked not to be identified told The Jewish Week, “Sifrei Torah are being stolen out of the further eastern countries, e.g. Belarus and the Ukraine and then sold here in Poland because of all the visiting Jews, which increases their resell value.”
Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust expert who served as director of the U.S. Holocaust Museum Research Institute, says he was commissioned by the buyers of two Torah scrolls from Rabbi Youlus to authenticate the rabbi’s claims. After extensive checking, “The provenance of the Torahs could not be verified,” Berenbaum says. “There’s no question they are early [prewar] sifrei Torah. I cannot verify that the Torahs are from the Shoah. I could find nothing, aside from the words of the rabbi, to verify the factual [truth] of the rabbi’s stories. The tools of my trade do not allow [the stories’] verification.”
A sefer Torah takes on special meaning when it reputedly belonged to an individual or community who perished in the Holocaust, journalist Wexler says. “It has an emotional pull. It shows that the [vanished] community didn’t die. It is a very powerful symbol of the continuation of the faith.”
Many congregations dedicate Holocaust-era Torahs in elaborate ceremonies, and sometimes keep the scroll in a place of honor in the synagogue.
Rabbi Shoshana Hantman of the Reconstructionist Group of Southern Westchester says her havurah bought a scroll from Rabbi Youlus in 2001 with the understanding that it was found in a Ukrainian mass grave.
The Torah’s actual history “makes no difference” to the members of the havurah, Rabbi Hantman says. “It’s our Torah. It’s a holy object. We love it.”
Similarly, Rabbi Rubinstein of Central Synagogue, says the provenance of Rabbi Youlus’ scroll, one of several owned by the congregation, will not affect its fate at the synagogue.
“We house Torahs,” the rabbi says. “That’s what synagogues are for.” n