They were held captive, abandoned or hidden for years, sometimes centuries. Smuggled, ransomed, rescued, restored and rededicated – much like the Jewish people, targeted for destruction across the ages.
Reborn amidst the ruins, each of these sifrei Torah, some over 500 years old, embodies its own miraculous tale of survival.
During the Nazi era, Jewish religious mosdos and organizations suffered unprecedented destruction. The campaign to exterminate the Jewish people included the wholesale effort to obliterate every symbol of the Jewish faith. Shuls were razed to the ground, ritual objects trampled, burned or hoarded as “trophies,” and matzeivos were ripped from cemeteries and used to pave roads.
Sifrei Torah and sacred books were a favorite target of the Nazis and their henchmen. In Germany and throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, Torah scrolls, rare manuscripts, and books were desecrated and torched.
In the town of Fritzlar in Germany, Hitler youth stretched sifrei Torah out on the streets and rode their bikes over the parchment. In Vienna, Jews were forced to wear the scrolls over their backs. In Hamburg, they were forced at gunpoint to tear the scrolls and toss them into the fire.
In other cities across Europe, Nazis made a bonfire with sifrei Torah and forced Jews to dance around it.
Atrocities and abuse of this nature were repeated in almost every country invaded by the Nazis.
In the face of the violent, obsessive hatred of Jewish sacred objects and the frenzied campaign of destruction, the fact that any sifrei Torah at all survived in Nazi-occupied Europe is astounding.
The Sefer Torah and the Mufti
One of the most haunting of these survival tales is that of the Rhodes sefer Torah, which experts say dates back to the 14th or 15th century. This is evidenced by the sofer’s writing style, typical of Spanish-Jewish communities of that epoch.
Further indications of the scroll’s age can be gleaned from the inscription on one of the atzai chaim, “Yaakov ben Abraham Mar Chayim,” a member of a renowned Spanish Jewish family.
In 1492, at the time of the Spanish expulsion, the cherished sefer Torah was borne aloft by its owners, a family or perhaps a kehillah, as they wandered across the Mediterranean basin in search of a new home. The Jews finally settled down on the island of Rhodes in what is today southeastern Greece, joining a thriving Jewish community that resided in its own quarter—the Juderia.
The scroll found its way to Beit Keneset Kehal Shalom, one of six shuls in the city which had been under the rule of the Ottoman Turks since 1522. Like the other Spanish Jewish communities that put down roots in the Mediterranean, the Jewish community of Rhodes spoke Ladino, the language in which the Me’am Loez and other works of this period and in this region were written.
The beloved sefer Torah served the community of Kehal Shalom for 400 years. Generation after generation of Jews read from it weekly, clasped it during hoshanos on Sukkos and hakofos on Simchas Torah. The community thrived and by the 1920s, a quarter of the town of Rhodes’ population was Jewish.
Over four centuries of vibrant Jewish life came to a bitter end in the summer of 1944, when the island was occupied by the Nazis who deported 1,673 men, women and children—out of a population of 2000—to Auschwitz. Only 151 survived.
Just a few days before the July 25th deportation, members of the community were able to smuggle the scroll out of the shul and into the custody of the Mufti of Rhodes, Sheikh Suleyman Kasiloglou. The mufti’s father-in-law is said to have been Jewish, which may explain why the Jewish community trusted him with its most valuable possession.
Kasiloglou hid the Torah under the pulpit of the Morad Reis mosque where the Nazis never thought of looking for it.
Selahattin Ulkumen, the Turkish Consul-General on the island, was able to save around 50 members of the community by stating that they were Turkish citizens. This was only true for a dozen or so but Ulkumen fabricated a lie claiming that spouses of Turkish citizens were citizens themselves. His heroic intervention saved tens of lives, according to the National Library of Israel.
After the war, the Rhodes sefer Torah, badly damaged from its years underground, was recovered from its hiding place under the mosque and returned to the community’s few survivors. It was found rolled to Parshas Pinchos, the parsha read on the Shabbos of July 15th, 1944, shortly after the Nazis had occupied the island.
Fifty-five years later, in June of 1999, the ancient sefer Torah was brought to Israel by survivors Jacqueline and Miriam Benatar, whose parents had been murdered by the Nazis. Visibly emotional, the sisters presented it to the National Library of Israel to serve as a memorial to the kedoshim of Rhodes.
Miracle In Munich
The story of another ancient sefer Torah could have come to a violent end on Kristallnacht or in the ruins of war-torn Munich, if not for the noble deeds of several people whose actions were capped by fascinating twists of fate.
During Kristallnacht, Nov. 9-10, 1938, Nazi barbarians were engaged in frenzied destruction of Jewish businesses and shuls throughout Germany. During 48 hours, 7,000 Jewish schools and business were vandalized, 1,300 synagogues set ablaze, 30,000 Jewish men and boys arrested and 236 Jews murdered.
When the Germans approached Munich’s main synagogue, the non-Jewish janitor persuaded them it would be foolish to burn it down and risk damaging the famed Munich Opera House nearby. He even convinced them to spare the interior and instead use it as a horse stable.
Risking his own life, the janitor whisked two sifrei Torah from the aron kodesh and buried them in a non-Jewish cemetery. After the war, the janitor exhumed the scrolls and returned them to survivors, but years in the ground had badly damaged them. They were deemed irreversibly posul and the community decided to bury them.
Survivor Shaya Kleinberg, who was saved by the legendary Oskar Schindler and became the chazzan of Munich’s survivor community, objected to the burial of one of the scrolls and took it home with him. He kept it for almost 40 years, eventually bringing it to Detroit when he moved there in 1989, according to an article in Detroit Jewish News. He joined the Detroit Kollel and became a fixture there for two decades, until he passed away in 2013.
During that time, the sefer Torah was carefully preserved in a cedar closet belonging to one of his children.
Growing up in Michigan, Kleinberg’s granddaughter, Aliza (Blumenfeld) Chodoff, remembers seeing a sefer Torah from the “alte heim” wrapped in blankets in her parents’ basement. All she knew was that the scroll was unusable. “My grandfather has been told that the Torah was either beyond repair or that it would cost too much to get it done,” said Chodoff.
She never gave it much thought until moving to Israel with her husband sixteen years ago. An inspirational idea occurred to her one Simchas Torah, as she watched the mispallelim joyously dancing with the sifrei Torah.
“I thought, wouldn’t it be really nice if my grandfather’s Torah could be read and danced with in Eretz Yisrael instead of lying forgotten in a basement in Michigan,” she recalled in an interview with Anglo File.
Chodoff discussed the idea with her husband and her father-in-law, who agreed to fly to Detroit and bring the scroll over. They took it to Jerusalem’s Machon Ot, where expert sofrim studied the parchment and ink. They determined the sefer Torah was at least 400 years old.
It was indeed possible to restore the ancient Torah and render it kosher again, said Machon Ot’s co-director Rabbi Yitzchak Shteiner.
It took six years plus $10,000, but on December 9, 2011, the hilltop community of Eshchar in the Galil welcomed the fully restored Torah with a jubilant hachnosas sefer Torah ceremony. It was a fitting tribute to the faith and determination of Shaya Kleinberg who had rescued it and eventually, through his descendants, brought it back to life.
“When they actually started reading from the sefer Torah, it was surreal,” recalls Chodoff. “I couldn’t believe it was happening. My family legacy and the legacy of so many generations before me all merged…. My heart was leaping out of my chest.”
A Debt Repaid
Ernst Brager felt the ground burning under his feet. He had already been arrested twice by the Nazis and imprisoned in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, once for writing an anti-Nazi caption for an illustration in an exhibition. After a short jail sentence, he was released with severe warnings.
The second time was after Kristallnacht, November 10, 1938, when shuls, Jewish businesses and homes were burnt to the ground, hundreds of Jews killed and thousands—including Ernst—were arrested.
Incredibly, he had been freed again. Hitler had issued an order one day that Jews who had been awarded the Iron Cross during WWI for fighting for the Fatherland should be released from concentration camp.
But Ernst understood that the lunatic at the helm of the Third Reich was capable of changing his mind in an instant, which Hitler later did. With the help of a forged passport, Ernst managed to flee Germany, carrying a small amount of personal belongings, as well as two sifrei Torah.
He reached Paris safely, meeting up with his wife who had fled Germany ahead of him. Their dream of emigrating to the United States was dashed as the last ships to America had sailed, rendering their visas worthless.
With the Vichy government threatening French Jews, England held out the only possibility of refuge but with ironclad conditions few refugees could meet.
The British government demanded a financial guarantor who would vouch for the refugees’ ability to support themselves, and not burden the government in any way. Ernst desperately turned to Bernard Jacobson, an acquaintance from Hamburg, Germany, who now lived in London, who compassionately agreed to be their guarantor.
The grateful young couple thus reached British shores and started their new life in Golders Green, London.
Many years later, upon Ernst’s death in 1986, his son David found both sifrei Torah in his parents’ home and brought them to a sofer. One scroll was found to be irreparably posul and the second one needed extensive repairs.
When David and his wife Susan made aliyah shortly after, they brought the unrepaired sefer Torah with them. A sofer in Jerusalem explained that it would be possible to cover the cost of restoring the scroll by lending it for 15 years to a new congregation who would shoulder the cost of the repairs.
David acquiesced. A contract was drawn up, and a new congregation in Rechovot was delighted to receive the now-kosher Torah.
The years flew by. David thought often of the sefer Torah, wondering what became of the minyan that had rented it so many years ago. He sensed the rental time must be over but he could not find the contract. The sofer who worked on the sefer Torah remembered David but had no written or computerized record of his work, and therefore could not match it with the Torah he had repaired.
With just a photograph of the mantel he had made for the Torah, indicating that the sefer Torah had been saved from the Nazis by his father, David embarked on a wide-ranging search. He wandered from shul to shul, speaking to the mispallelim and showing the photograph, but failing to gain any leads as to the Torah’s whereabouts.
Eventually, after much frustration, he located it in a yeshiva in the Shomron. The first congregation that had hosted it and paid for its repairs had passed it on to a new community in the Shomron, probably having no idea that it was on temporary loan. With the help of the sofer, the matter was cleared up and the sefer Torah returned to its rightful owner.
David now sought a new home in which the precious Torah would be needed and appreciated.
When a friend told him of a yeshiva catering to bochurim from England that had just opened and was in need of a Torah, David suggested they contact him. Shortly afterwards he received a call. A voice on the line introduced himself as Rabbi Moshe Jacobson. A strange intuition made David’s heart flutter.
“Was your father or grandfather by chance Mr. Bernard Jacobson of London?”
“Yes indeed, he was my grandfather. Did you know him?”
The unexpected stroke of hashgacha robbed David of all words. Bernard Jacobson’s generosity had helped rescue not only David’s father but the sifrei Torah from which he couldn’t part. Now one of those Torahs would be used in a yeshiva in Israel led by Bernard’s own grandson! Who but the One Above could have brought this story full circle?
The Torah scroll’s long journey ended on Sunday, March 6, 2011, Rosh Chodesh Adar Beis, when it was brought to its new home at Yeshivat Keter HaTalmud in Ramat Eshkol, Jerusalem, accompanied by exuberant singing and dancing.
David and his family were introduced to rabbis and students of the yeshiva, many of whose parents and grandparents had befriended Ernst and Gretel Brager during their postwar years in London.
The Brager family’s debt of gratitude had at last been paid.
Smuggled From Baghdad
When most of Iraq’s Jews fled to Israel after 1948, they were forced to leave behind their sifrei Torah. The Iraqi government banned Jews who were leaving the country from taking their property and seized assets from those who left.
Yet a sefer Torah thought to have been smuggled out of Baghdad is being used today by Israeli diplomats in the Foreign Ministry. The scroll, estimated to be 150 to 200 years old, is believed to be from the region of Kurdistan.
The ministry would not say just how the scroll arrived in Israel, but in 2006 or 2007 it ended up in the Israeli Embassy in Jordan.
After a chaotic incident in September 2011 when the Israeli Embassy in Cairo was attacked by a huge mob, the ministry decided to remove all non-essential items from its embassy in Jordan in case of similar incidents.
Among those items was the Iraqi sefer Torah, which was brought to the ministry in Jerusalem.
In November 2013, Amnon Israel, the new manager of storage and supplies for the foreign ministry, noticed the scroll in a storage room on his first day. He sought out a sofer who is expert in Torah restoration, and after six months of work it was ready for use.
The government selected a case for the scroll that originally belonged to the Jewish community of Aleppo, Syria, and was itself over 100 years old. The special dedication at the Foreign Ministry took place in January 2015 with Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef in attendance.
Holocaust Sifrei Torah Bear Witness
On Yom Kippur, 1940, while Rav Moshe Yosef Rubin, a prominent rabbinic figure in Romania, was leading the vibrant kehilla of Cimpulung in prayer, local fascist thugs stormed in and demanded that he sign – at gunpoint – a document accusing the local Jews of planning to revolt.
When Rav Rubin refused, he was dragged outside, harnessed to a wagon, and forced to pull it through the streets of town, while being beaten and forced to witness the beating of his son.
The rov survived this atrocity by a miracle and fled with his family to Bucharest, where he managed to avoid arrest and deportation for the duration of the war. Before leaving Cimpulung, he visited his shul a final time and took several sifrei Torah with him to Bucharest.
In Bucharest, he founded the city’s first Vaad Hatzala to aid Jews deported to concentration camps in Transnistria and served as the head of Agudath Israel in Rumania.
After the war, the communists came to power in Romania. Their hostility to all manifestations of religious belief convinced the rov there was no hope of keeping Yiddishkeit alive there. He decided to rebuild his and his family’s life in America.
Still holding the precious sifrei Torah, the family settled first in Long Beach and then in Borough Park, where Rav Rubin drew many followers. Suffering the wear and tear of many travels under primitive conditions, the condition of the beautiful sifrei Torah deteriorated to the point of being posul.
In 2012, the meticulous task of restoring two of the sifrei Torah was undertaken by Geder Avos, endorsed by Rav Rubin and his family.
One Torah was dedicated to Chabad of Larchmont and Mamaroneck, New York, where it now rests proudly in the shul’s aron kodesh. The second Torah was dedicated to Anshei Cimpulung in Tannersville, New York.
The two “Holocaust” Torahs bear eloquent witness to the immortality of the Jewish people and their undying faith.
If A Sefer Torah Could Talk
Ninety-four percent of Lithuanian Jewry –some 250,000 souls—were annihilated in the Holocaust. From 1941, when the Nazis occupied Lithuania and began butchering Jewish communities, they oversaw the confiscation of all sifrei Torah and religious books, the majority of which were burned.
Some communities managed at great risk to hide the sifrei Torah before the barbarians could lay hands on them. Tragically, most of the individuals who took part in these “rescue” operations did not survive the war.
In the post-war years, communist governments took control of Jewish religious property recaptured from the Nazis or stored in hiding, and refused to allow survivor communities to use ritual items such as sifrei Torah for religious worship.
In an extraordinary act of courage, Antanas Ulpis, a non-Jewish Lithuanian librarian, and seven colleagues made several journeys to the countryside to find and rescue Jewish holy objects. They secretly saved sifrei Torah and holy books from destruction by the Soviets and hid them in a church basement.
Between 1945-1948, Ulpis saved some 350 Torah scrolls, according to a JTA article.
Morta Ulpiene, his widow, told the story to a correspondent.
“In 1945, the Soviet army took Jewish books to the Vilnius outskirts. It was an unimaginably huge pile,” she said. “They tried to burn them but it was raining, and this natural element helped fight the fire. There was a lot of smoke. My husband took a truck and started to gather what he could. He took them back to a church because the Lithuanian Bishop gave him the key and said, ‘Put it here.’”
Ulpis’ son Dainus, now 47, says his father showed him “stacks of Torahs” in the church annex. He recalled “Torah handles protruding from the shelves,” the JTA article said.
For years the scrolls were thought to have been lost, until a 1996 New York Times article revealed that they were stored in a church annex used by Lithuania’s national library.
When word got out that the National Library held hundreds more scrolls — the oldest dating to the 15th century — international Jewish organizations began competing to retrieve them.
Lithuanian officials insisted that the scrolls were part of Lithuania’s national heritage and could not be taken out of the country.
The government’s refusal to return hundreds of sifrei Torah and religious texts to survivors’ heirs drew stinging criticism worldwide. Only after six years of stonewalling did the Lithuanian government in 2000 agree to return them.
Even then, it took another two years until the majority of the sifrei Torah were turned over to Israeli officials in a moving public ceremony, with Israel’s chief Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau in attendance.
Emanuelis Zingeris, a Lithuanian Jewish activist who at the time sat on a Lithuanian Culture Ministry committee, said applicants for the Torah scrolls who had “Lithuanian roots” would be given priority.
“One likely recipient is a yeshiva of Lithuanian origin that now operates in Cleveland and Chicago,” he told JTA. (This writer was unable to confirm if either Telshe of Cleveland or Telshe of Chicago actually received a sefer Torah.)
From Lithuania to Washington State
The Torah scrolls turned over to Israel were first taken to Heichal Shlomo in Jerusalem and examined by expert sofrim. Many were damaged beyond repair and were given a dignified burial. Those that could be salvaged were restored, and given to Jewish communities in need of a sefer Torah.
One such recipient was Congregation Shevet Achim in Mercer Island, Washington.
“Our synagogue received a unique gift before Rosh Hashana this year,” wrote Mr. Eli Genauer, one of the shul’s members, in 2016. “It was a sefer Torah donated by two of our long-time 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 Holocaust, held hostage under Communist rule for over fifty years, and finally repatriated by the Lithuanian government to Israel,” the writer recounted.
“There, it was lovingly restored by an expert sofer commissioned by Marc and Rich. The next stop in its long journey was the beis medrash of our shul on Mercer Island, Washington where it is appreciated, cherished and used on a weekly basis.”