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Nothing ‘Rare’ About Holocaust Torahs

Nothing ‘Rare’ About Holocaust Torahs

Associate Editor

Friday, August 1st, 2008

I’ve been subscribing to a news alert for the word “Holocaust” (amazing how much news there is about something that ended 63 years ago) and a variation of one headline keeps coming up: “Jewish temple in New Bern receives rare Torah scroll restored after Holocaust.” (That from South Florida’s Sun Journal, July 18, 2008).

About a year ago, I started keeping a file. A year ago someone e-mailed a story idea: “Breaking News. Tell the edtors. “A 250-year-old Torah brought to Israel.” The Torah scroll, according to the e-mail, was “hidden during World War II,” and was found in Krakow, 1998, by a Jewish tourist who brought it to the United States, and now was bringing it to Israel, as that tourist was now making aliyah.

And from The New York Times: “From Auschwitz, a Torah as Strong as Its Spirit” (April 30, 2008). The story begins, “The back story of how a Torah got from the fetid barracks of Auschwitz to the ark of the Central Synagogue at Lexington Avenue and 55th Street is one the pastor of the Lutheran church down the street sums up as simply miraculous. It is the story of a sexton in the synagogue in the Polish city of Oswiecim who buried most of the sacred scroll before the Germans stormed in and later renamed the city Auschwitz.”

This past April, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who thankfully escaped from the Holocaust on the Kindertransport, paid to have a Torah restored, a Torah hidden in Germany by a Roman Catholic housekeeper at great risk. Returned to the family that owned it after the war, the Torah was used by the remnants of a congregation in Haigerloch until it folded, when it was then given to the Hebrew Tabernacle congregation in Washington Heights. In need of restoration to be kosher, this was done in the name of Manfred Westheimer, the late husband of Dr. Ruth, whose name is inscribed on the Torah.

Each one of these stories is more beautiful than the next. One can’t help being moved when imagining where each of these Torahs has been, the little kids who reached up to kiss it on Shabbos mornings lost to history, the people who danced with them on Simchas Torah, and the shuls they once called home.

Just one thing. A Holocaust-era Torah is hardly “rare.” There are more Holocaust-era Torahs that survived the war than there are Conservative (700) and Reform (900) synagogues in North America.

There are 1,564 Torah scrolls in the repository of London’s Westminster Synagogue alone. In 1964, those scrolls were purchased by a London Philanthropist from the Prague museum that was holding Torah scrolls confiscated by the Nazis (intended for a perverse Nazi museum on the Jews, after the Final Solution was finalized). More than 1,400 of those scrolls from that London congregation are loan to various synagogues, most in the United States.

On top of that, there have been numerous scrolls found by private individuals, such as the one found in Krakow and the one retrieved from Oswiecim, and the one restored by Dr. Ruth. On top of that, there are more than 400 other Holocaust-era Torah scrolls found in Ukraine and elsewhere in Eastern Europe that are now being restored in the Baltimore area. According to the Washington Post, more than 2,400 Torah scrolls survived the war.

Charlottesville, Virginia’s Beth Israel Congregation has a page on their web site explaining how they got theirs.

At this point, is there any reader that has not seen a Holocaust-era Torah scroll on display in some synagogue’s glass case?

Most Orthodox congregations haven’t joined this phenomenon. Some reasons might be: The London repository with the largest collection is Reform, and Orthodox shuls would be out of the loop that made these Torahs available; most Orthodox synagogue buildings are urban, smaller than Reform and Conservative buildings, and simply don’t have the room. These shuls are less inclined to display any ritual items behind glass, in general.

An Orthodox Jew might also reason that if a Torah is useable it should be kept in the ark and not rolled open and kept behind glass; and if the scroll is not useable, perhaps it should be buried or retired to a more serious museum setting rather than kept in the casualness of synagogue hallways. If worn-out Torahs and siddurs are to be buried, than this may not be proper burial. It may be more akin to the “Bodies” exhibit, where dead people (how’d they die?) are put on display, their muscular and skeletal selves available for educational gawking.

It is a remarkable story, though, that thousands of Torah scrolls survived the flames of war. May they always have a home.

But the one thing these Torahs are not is “rare.”

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