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Rick Zitelman, President of Save a Torah, with Rabbi Menachem Youlis at the Torah Dedication, Central Synagogue, April 29. (Photo: Save a Torah) 

Living Judaism

Auschwitz Torah
A synagogue honors a Torah saved from the Holocaust.
-- Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

As we prepared to recite Yizkor for Pesach, we first gave honor to a special Torah that was visiting with our congregation. Here is the story of the Torah and how we came to have it with us on this one occasion. Two days before Pesach, I stopped in the Silver Spring Jewish Book Store to buy some gifts for Pesach, when I saw this Torah which said on the mantle, “Rescued from Auschwitz .”

The owner of the store is a sofer (scribe) and a rabbi -- a very good friend by the name of Menachem Youlus. Rabbi Youlus told me that the Torah was being given to the Central Synagogue in New York City on Wednesday April 30. The Torah was being donated to them by Alice and David Rubenstein and had been lovingly restored by Rabbi Youlus through his Save a Torah organization. I was overwhelmed by being in the presence of this Torah. I could not stop thinking about it. Here was living proof that our Torah is eternal. The Nazis tried to destroy us physically but they could not destroy the Torah.

The next week I mentioned the beauty of this Torah to my friends, Secretary William Cohen and his wife Janet Langhart Cohen and they graciously offered to ask David Rubenstein to lend us the Torah so that we could read it in our shul before it went to New York . David Rubenstein generously agreed. And so we had the honor of reading from the Torah in our synagogue on the last day of Pesach.

Before Yizkor, I told the congregation the story of this Torah. The Torah was recently found in Oswiecim, the city near which the death camp of Auschwitz was located. I had learned about this city and its Jewish life from my rebbe, Rabbi Avi Weiss. He knew this town well because his father lived there till he was 16. It is likely that Rabbi Weiss’ father had actually heard this Torah being read. There was a tradition amongst the survivors of Oswiecim that two days before the Nazis came to burn down the synagogue of Oswiecim the Torahs of the synagogue were taken and buried in separate metal boxes in the Jewish cemetery. The Nazis took a perverse pleasure in destroying Sifrei Torah in terrible ways that purposefully desecrated the symbols of Jewish law.

Torah being restored by Rabbi Menachem Youlus. (Photo: Save a Torah)

Many had tried to find these Torahs and indeed, the spot where the synagogue stood was excavated but no Sifrei Torah were ever found. So Rabbi Menachem Youlus thought that perhaps the tradition told over the years was correct. Maybe there really was a Torah buried in the cemetery. He traveled to Oswiecim to check the cemetery but he did not find even one Torah. When he returned home he was despondent. But then his son told him, “Maybe the cemetery was bigger back then…” Lo and behold the original cemetery was built over and today it is just twenty-five percent of the size that it once was.

So Rabbi Youlus took his metal detector and started searching the original cemetery by looking under the homes where the cemetery originally was. Lo and behold, he found a metal box. He opened up the metal box and found a Torah scroll. There was only one problem…the Torah scroll was missing four panels. Without these four panels, the Torah scroll could not be kosher…. Where could these panels be? He took out an ad in the local paper and asked if anyone had panels of a Torah from before the war. The next day he received a call from a Priest who said he had four panels. The panels were an exact match in pagination, style and content. Obviously they were originally from the Torah he had found buried in the cemetery. Rabbi Youlus learned that the Priest was born a Jew—named Zeev—and was sent to Auschwitz.

Before the Torah had been buried in the Oswiecim cemetery these four panels had been removed and smuggled through Auscwitz by four different people. As each person who had a panel was about to die they passed along the panels. Eventually the four panels made it into the hands of Zeev who guarded them as a Priest for over 60 years. Rabbi Youlus lovingly restored the Torah and made it kosher once again. He added these four panels to the entire Torah. The four panels were all selected for a good reason:

  • The first panel contained the Ten Commandments from the Book of Exodus. The Ten Commandments contain with it the word Zachor—the obligation to always remember.
  • The second panel spoke about the curses that will befall the Jewish people on the day theat God hides His face from us. These curses came true during the dark days of the Holocaust. But we know that since these curses came true, the blessings that Hashem promises us will also come true.
  • The third panel contained the section from Parshat Pinchas that spoke about korbanot—sacrifices, burnt offerings—that were offered to God.
  • The last panel contained the Shema from Deuteronomy. In that same panel was also found the Ten Commandments from Deuteronomy.

The Ten Commandments from Exodus say, Zakhor et hashabbat, remember the Shabbat. Explain the rabbis, Zakhor ve-shamor bedibbur echad neemru, at the same time that remember was said, so was the word shamor, to guard. At the same time that we have an obligation to remember the past we also have an obligation to guard the memory of the korbanot of the shoah—the victims of the Holocaust. When Rabbi Youlus looked at this Torah he noticed that the word shamor (in Deuteronomy) was missing the letter, vav. The Torah had been originally written without this letter included in it. The vav, has a numerical value of 6, but it also represents the six million. Rabbi Youlus added the vav to the Torah and thereby made it kosher. By adding the vav to this Torah he also symbolically made an eternal memorial to the memory of all those who perished from the town of Oswiecim and in Auschwitz . Now that the Torah is kosher it will be guarded and watched by the Central Synagogue, where it will be read from every Yom Kippur. And every other year it will be taken by 10,000 students as they march through Auschwitz on March of the Living. And every time it is used the six million will be guarded (shamor) and remembered (zachor).

Rabbi Peter Rubinstein of Central Synagogue at the Auschwitz Torah Dedication. (Photo: Save a Torah)

After telling this story, Haim Solomon -- a member of our synagogue who is a survivor carried the Torah around the entire synagogue so that everyone could get a chance to kiss the Torah. As he was doing that our Torah reader Yaakov Sussman led us all in singing, “Ani Maamin, I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah.” As he led us in this song, Yaakov shared with us that it has always been his family’s belief that his great-grandfather was led to the gas chambers of Auschwitz while he was singing this song. Then another survivor—Gerry Steinkeller—came to stand next to the Torah as Yaakov read for us the panel from Deuteronomy. He read aloud the Ten Commandments and then together we all said the Shema.

Our President—Scott Reiter--stepped forward to lift the Torah for all to see. The Torah was then lovingly dressed by Paul Taskier whose family came from the town of Oswiecim . By this time we were all weeping. Together we sang etz chayyim hi lamachazikim bah—the Torah is a tree of life for all those who hang on to it tightly.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld is the spiritual leader of Ohev Shalom National Syagogue, Washington, DC. Rabbi Herzfeld has generously supplied us with the original text of his essay, and permitted us to reprint in our journal.

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