It stands about two feet tall, is about 200 years old and comes in a fading green velvet cover. Many people will sing with it and dance with it on Monday night — and likely raise questions about its murky past.
Call it a Torah scroll whose history is a mystery.
During a Kristallnacht commemoration ceremony Nov. 9 at the Hewlett-East Rockaway Jewish Centre, members will dedicate a sefer Torah that was thought to be buried in Germany during World War II and then brought to the United States. During the next two weeks, two boys — Jesse Herrnson, son of Lisa and Rabbi Lev Herrnson; and Adam Polokoff, son of Deborah and Stuart Polokoff — whose East Rockaway families were responsible for the scroll’s return to use in synagogue services, will chant from it during their bar mitzvahs at the congregation.
The families will then take the scroll to Israel early next year for the boys’ symbolic joint bar mitzvah atop Masada, after which it will return here, to the International Synagogue at JFK Airport, its home for much of the last few decades.
The narrative of the scroll, honored for both its spiritual value and historical significance, is a matter of conjecture among members of the Long Island congregation. The main plot points, skeletal as they are and spread by oral history — the scroll is not a part of any Torah registry — are as follows:
It was written somewhere in Germany in the early 19th century; was presented as a gift to a synagogue in a German village by a bridegroom in 1846; remained in that synagogue until the Nazis came; was buried near the village’s synagogue a few days before Kristallnacht 77 years ago next week; was exhumed after the war by a member of the Jewish community who had survived the Shoah; was carried here by plane; and somehow came into the possession of the International Synagogue.
No one at either the International Synagogue or the Hewlett-East Rockaway congregation knows any more about the scroll or who brought it from Germany to the U.S. But someone, it turns out, does, or at least thinks she does.
Rabbi Debra Orenstein, spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, N.J., said the scroll was given in the early 1950s to her grandfather, Rabbi Israel Mowshowitz, longtime pulpit rabbi of the Hillcrest Jewish Center in Queens and a founder, in 1958, of the International Synagogue. Rabbi Mowshowitz, a close friend of the late Gov. Mario Cuomo, died in 1992.
Rabbi Orenstein said she does not know the identity of the survivor who gave her grandfather the scroll. But there are other details of the story she claims to know.
Rabbi Mowshowitz, she said, made a practice of collecting Torah scrolls and having them restored for the International Synagogue and for his own congregation. One day, probably in the 1960s, he took possession of a group of six scrolls, one of which reportedly had been buried in a Jewish cemetery in Berlin.
Rabbi Mowshowitz arranged for that scroll to be repaired; he wanted it to be rededicated at the Hillcrest Jewish Center in a ceremony for all six scrolls.
“He wanted a Holocaust survivor to carry the Holocaust Torah” in the ceremony, Rabbi Orenstein said. He called a survivor who was a member of his congregation, “a Mr. Safirstein,” she recalled. Rabbi Mowshowitz told Markus Safirstein the story of the scroll, and said, “It would be a great honor if you, as a survivor, would carry it.
“Mr. Safirstein hung up on him,” Rabbi Orenstein said.
Fearing that he had offended Safirstein, bringing up painful wartime memories, Rabbi Mowshowitz drove right over to Safirstein’s house and apologized.
“Mr. Safirstein was crying,” Rabbi Orenstein said, based on the recollections she has heard from family members.
Safirstein told Rabbi Mowshowitz that his family in Berlin had lived next door to the chief of police, and his father was on good terms with the officer. The day before Kristallnacht, the chief of police told Safirstein’s father that “something is going to happen. Do whatever you can to protect yourselves or your possessions.”
Safirstein and his father took a scroll from the synagogue where they worshipped. “I buried it with my father,” Safirstein told Rabbi Mowshowitz. “Now the Torah has found me.”
Safirstein had no idea what had happened to the scroll since 1938. “It was a total surprise that someone else found it,” Rabbi Orenstein said, adding that “he did carry it” in the rededication ceremony.
Safirstein’s daughter, Judy Brodsky, who lives in Rockland County, heard a slightly different version of the scroll’s story from her father, who died eight years ago at 87.
She says he told her that he had buried the scroll, alone, a few days after Kristallnacht, taking it by bicycle to the cemetery, hiding it in a raincoat. He survived Auschwitz; his parents and two brothers perished there.
After the war he came to the U.S., where he married his teenage sweetheart, Margot, who had survived the war in England as a member of the Kindertransport. Margot, at 93, still lives in Riverdale.
Safirstein could not confirm that the scroll he carried in the synagogue ceremony was the same one he had buried in Berlin, Brodsky said. “I don’t know how many Torahs were in cemeteries in Berlin.”
Then again, she said, he couldn’t prove it wasn’t the same scroll.
No one can definitively prove the identity of the Torah in question, which was used at the Hillcrest Jewish Center for several years, was donated to the International Synagogue, went into storage and apparently became again posul, unfit for use, forgotten about.
Until the East Rockaway congregation decided to restore it again.
The Long Island synagogue’s upcoming Kristallnacht event at which the scroll will be dedicated, following a fundraising effort for its restoration, points both to the growing interest in obtaining and repairing Torahs that had survived the Holocaust, and to the difficulty in determining any scroll’s provenance.
A scroll that purportedly survived the Final Solution acquires a special aura, and consequently greater financial value than one with a more prosaic provenance, which can lead to fraud.
The most-noted recent case of misrepresentation of a Torah scroll’s background centered around Rabbi Menachem Youles, the owner of a Jewish bookstore in Wheaton, Md., who told tales of rescuing scrolls from the sites of Nazi concentration camps and billed himself as “the Jewish Indiana Jones,” but confessed in 2012 that he had lied about his putative adventures to increase the profits from the items’ sales that he pocketed through his Save a Torah nonprofit organization. Pleading guilty to mail fraud and wire fraud, he was sentenced to four years in federal prison.
For the people who supported the German scroll’s restoration, their motivation was purely theological and altruistic. “We know it’s a Holocaust survivor” who delivered the Torah, said Rabbi Bennett Rackman, who served as chaplain at the International Synagogue from 2001 to 2015.
Both Manny Weiss, who has served as the International Synagogue’s president for a dozen years, and Joel Zeitlin, a retired customs broker at JFK Airport and member of the International Synagogue’s board who brought the scroll to the attention of members of the Long Island congregation, told the same story about the scroll. Their story featured its burial on the eve of Kristallnacht.
But Michael Berenbaum, a prominent Holocaust historian and author, said that while the scroll likely emerged from Nazi Germany, he disputes some parts of its accepted chronology.
“It is not plausible that it was buried [a few days] before Kristallnacht,” Berenbaum said. The violence of Kristallnacht took place immediately after the assassination in Paris of Ernst vom Rath, a German embassy official, by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Polish Jew whose family was expelled from Germany, which would have ruled out prior warning of the pogrom. “Nobody knew about it” in advance.
On Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass on Nov. 9-10, 1938, 267 synagogues in Germany and annexed Austria were destroyed, hundreds of Jewish businesses were ransacked and thousands of Jewish men were arrested in an orchestrated pogrom; the outside world refused to stand up for the endangered Jews. Kristallnacht is widely considered the rehearsal for the Holocaust.
Could the scroll have been buried in the days after Kristallnacht, or taken into someone’s home as a precaution against further damage? Could it have been brought to the U.S. by a Holocaust survivor?
“That’s 100 percent possible,” Berenbaum said. “There are plenty of cases like this.”
The details don’t reduce the scroll’s symbolism as a holy artifact with Holocaust roots.
“Most people don’t know where their sefer Torah comes from,” said Daniel Wigodsky, the Torah scribe who repaired the International Synagogue scroll. “That’s a common story.”
Unlike artists, Torah scribes don’t sign or date their scrolls; it’s anonymous work.
The writing style and the deterioration of the scroll lend credence to the oral history that surrounds it, said Rabbi Wigodsky. A scribe who lives in White Plains and has repaired “hundreds” of scrolls over the last 12 years, he inspected it at the International Synagogue when contacted by Rabbi Herrnson a few years ago; its writing style was consistent with the type of sifrei Torah written in Germany or Czechoslovakia at least 150 years ago, he said. “It had a lot of wrinkles that were damaging letters.”
The JFK Synagogue Torah is a minority in the world of scrolls that survived the Shoah. There is no official count of the number of sifrei Torah that existed before World War II in Germany and its allied and occupied lands (most estimates put the figure in the tens of thousands) and how many emerged from the war intact or in various stages of disrepair. Most remained in their home countries, the property of their respective Jewish communities or of the national or local governments.
Most of the so-called Holocaust Torahs that traveled in subsequent years to the United States or other Western nations did so under the aegis of the Czech Torah Project of Westminster Synagogue in London. In the early 1960s, the London synagogue purchased some 1,500 scrolls from the Czechoslovakian government, ones that had belonged to synagogues in the provinces of Bohemia and Moravia. The scrolls, some of them as old as 250 years, had been collected and catalogued under Nazi watch during the war, became the property of the communist government after the war and were stored in Prague.
Employing a chasidic scribe from Israel, and other scribes after he retired, Westminster Synagogue had more than 1,000 Torahs repaired. Then they were "allocated on Permanent Loan" to congregations and other Jewish institutions around the world that wanted to house such a historic artifact; some scrolls that were beyond repair went to Jewish institutions to be put on display.
Several scrolls from the Czech Torah Project are now located in the Greater New York area.
A smaller number of Holocaust Torahs left post-war Europe in private hands — like those of the German Jew who purportedly came to Idlewild Airport, as JFK Airport was known in the early 1950s, or Satmar chasidim from Europe who immigrated to this country with scrolls they gave to their new synagogues.
Dealing in stolen Torah scrolls has become big business; many are stolen each year, and then sold for tens of thousands of dollars. Since the scrolls bear no readily apparent identifying marks — an individual Torah can rarely be identified by the untrained eye — an international Torah registry program (universaltorahregistry.org), developed by the Jewish Community Relations Council here, keeps a computerized databank of thousands of scrolls that feature a code of microperforations invisible to the naked eye.
The registry of “close to 10,000” scrolls “gives Torah owners the ability to put halachically approved IDs on Torahs,” said David Pollock, associate executive director of JCRC, who coordinated the development of the registry’s innovative technology. “Because we were founded in 1982, our registration records now span generations. Several times a month owners contact the UTR for help in establishing the provenance of their Torah, and our records often can help to settle disputes.”
The German scroll, which has an uncertain past, has a more certain future, as the second sefer Torah in the International Synagogue. The arc of its history will continue in the synagogue’s ark, and will be welcomed in a formal ceremony “as soon as we can,” said Rabbi Ari Korenblitt, the synagogue’s chaplain.
In the meantime, in the days after Kristallnacht, two bar mitzvah boys will hold the scroll in their hands and read from its sacred words, the same words that boys their age read in past decades, in past centuries.
“We are giving life to the scroll,” said Rabbi Herrnson, who serves as chaplain at Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Center, L.I., who researched the scroll’s history and coordinated the restoration effort, which has the support of the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Long Island. “We are giving voice to those who died.”