“A Twig Plucked From the Fire”
The Story of Congregation Shevet Achim’s New Sefer Torah - Article by Eli Genauer
Our synagogue received a unique gift before Rosh Hashana this year. It was a Sefer Torah donated by two of our members, Rich Gilmore and Marc Silverman, in memory of departed relatives. But this was no ordinary Sefer Torah. It was one which had been saved from destruction during the Shoah, held hostage under Communist rule for over fifty years, and finally repatriated by the Lithuanian government to Israel. There, it was lovingly restored by an expert Sofer who was commissioned by Marc and Rich. The next stop in its long journey was the Beis Medrash of our synagogue on Mercer Island, Washington where it is appreciated and used on a weekly basis.
It is impossible to trace the exact history of this particular Torah. When they are written, Torah scrolls do not contain an introductory page which gives information as to the date and location of its creation, or the name of the scribe who wrote it. And without a Torah covering, called a Mantel, there is no way to know who commissioned its writing or the synagogue to which it belonged. To make things even more complicated, our Torah is pieced together from 3 different Torah scrolls. But we do know the general story of Torah scrolls such as this one, and it is a story that deserves to be told.
In his recent book “Stolen Words- The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books”, ( Jewish Publication Society, February 2016) Rabbi Mark Glickman describes the systematic attempt employed by the Nazis to not only annihilate European Jewry, but also to plunder property and religious objects from individual Jews, synagogues and libraries under their domination. The Nazis employed two special sections to collect and analyze Jewish religious texts to determine which ones had “value” and deserved to be saved. All the rest were destined to be destroyed. In many cases, host countries such as Poland and Lithuania eagerly helped the Nazis with their plans. When I asked Rabbi Glickman specifically about what happened to Torah scrolls he responded as follows “ I have a feeling that the Nazis treated the Sifrei Torah differently than the rest of the regular bound books … only because I saw very little mention of such scrolls in any description I read of the looting process. That said, I know there was a “Torah Room” at the Offenbach Archival Depot, so certainly the scrolls were part of the big picture.” As far as figuring out exactly what happened to our Torah he concluded “The problem in researching this stuff is that, with such a huge chaos of material, telling the story of any particular piece – or even of any kind of looted material – becomes very difficult.”
After the war, a great debate raged as to what to do with the religious objects recaptured from the Nazis or those that were somehow saved from destruction. The people and communities to which these items belonged in many cases no longer existed. In the end, many of these objects ended up in Jewish libraries all over the world, with the vast majority being sent to the newly created state of Israel. However, there were still many religious items which had stayed in their host countries, and ended up being trapped under Communist rule. Our Torah was one of these precious objects, a veritable hostage in Soviet controlled Lithuania.
After the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, Lithuania regained its independence. At that point, a concerted effort spanning a decade was made to repatriate those Jewish objects stored in Lithuania to the Jewish people. Finally, in October of 2000, the NY Times reported the following:
VILNIUS, Lithuania, Oct. 3— The Parliament voted today to return hundreds of Torah scrolls to Jewish communities around the world, ending years of debate over the texts.
The decision was made as a forum gathered here to measure assets lost throughout Central and Eastern Europe in the Holocaust. About 370 texts, mostly fragments, were recovered in Lithuania after the Holocaust and were hidden away for decades of Soviet rule.
The Torahs are among the last remnants of a community of 220,000 Jews that flourished before World War II.
It then took another two years for the scrolls to actually be returned to Israel. It was reported that even President George W Bush was involved in pressuring the Lithuanian government to allow these precious scrolls to be reunited with the Jewish people. The scrolls were taken to Heichal Shlomo in Jerusalem and examined by expert Jewish scribes. Many were damaged beyond repair and were given a dignified burial, but some were repairable. Thankfully, ours was created by combining and repairing the useable portions of three separate scrolls. The process of repairing a scroll which has been hidden away for over fifty years is not easy. Every letter has to be examined and many need to be fixed. The Sofer that Rich and Marc employed to fix our scroll, Rabbi Shmuel Rosenfeld is such an expert. This description of him in a recent article in Ha’Aretz tells the story.
“Shmuel Rosenfeld is a man of letters. With his white quill, this 59 year-old Jerusalem sofer, or religious scribe, has been crafting Biblical passages with Hebrew letters for nearly 30 years. It's precision work, he says, requiring intense concentration in the fulfillment of a Divine commandment that mandates the writing and dissemination of God's law.”
The prophet Zechariah (3:2) describes one saved from destruction as an “אוּד, מֻצָּל מֵאֵשׁ”… “a twig plucked from the fire”. This expression is used in modern Hebrew to denote a survivor, usually a survivor of the Holocaust. Our new Torah certainly fits into that category. We all have tremendous gratitude to Marc and Rich for allowing our Shul to make use of this wonderful Torah.