Thursday, Feb 29, 2024

Rescued Sifrei Torah Carry Secrets of Jewish Eternity – Part II

 

They survived the brutal vicissitudes of war hidden with strangers, stuffed into suitcases, languishing in churches, and squashed into attics and between piles of junk. Decades later, three “Kristallnacht” sifrei Torah were ransomed, returned to their people and rededicated. Their captivating sagas offer testimony to the miraculous resilience and immortality of the Jewish people. 

 

During the Holocaust, the Nazi campaign to exterminate the Jewish people included a violent drive to obliterate every symbol of the Jewish faith. Sifrei Torah were a favorite target. In Germany and throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, they were desecrated wherever they were found.

In the town of Fritzlar, 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 the face of the systematic campaign of destruction, that any sifrei Torah at all survived in Nazi-occupied Europe borders on the miraculous.

Ransomed for a Steep Price

Natalie was an infant when her parents fled with her and her three older brothers from their home in the town of Narbonne in the south of France in 1943.

“All I know about the war are things I’ve been told,” she told news correspondents in Israel more than 80 years later. “The French police in the area where we lived collaborated with the Nazis and the Jews were attacked by locals and arrested. My mother’s family was interned in France and then deported to death camps in Germany.

“My parents fled with me and my brothers to a small village in the south of France where we were hidden by kindhearted Frenchmen. Thanks to them, we and other Jews hiding with us survived the war.”

Natalie’s family remained in France after the war, settling in Strasbourg. She grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust and the French betrayal of their Jewish neighbors. A few years ago, she heard from a local antiques dealer about an ancient Torah scroll hidden in a church in the village of Hallstatt since the time of the war.

The story he told sent shivers down her spine, as it forced her to relive the horrors of the German occupation she had heard about from her patents.

The Nazi takeover of Jewish villages and communities in 1942 had been followed by terrifying mass roundups of men, women and children. In one village, afraid the sifrei Torah would be burned or desecrated, Jewish leaders mustered the courage to approach the vicar of a neighborhood church and asked him to hide a Torah scroll there. He acquiesced. For decades after, the Torah was hidden in the church.

“When I heard about this, I got very worked up,” recounted Natalie. “I asked the antiquities merchant to find out what needed to be done to reclaim the sefer Torah. He checked with the church leaders who named a substantial sum of money. My husband and I pulled together the funds and bought it from the church. We kept it in our home until we decided to leave France for Israel.”

About two years ago, Natalie and her husband immigrated to Israel with the sefer Torah. They contacted Rabbi Avraham Krieger, chairman of Shem Olam Holocaust Institute in Kfar Haroeh, and asked for it to be placed under its auspices.

Shem Olam was founded in 1996 as both an educational center and a museum that showcases the spiritual fortitude that many Jews in ghettos and death camps displayed during the Holocaust.

“This scroll that survived the Holocaust thanks to the Jews who sacrificed their lives to protect it, has finally come home to Israel, in time for Simchat Torah,” Rabbi Krieger told reporters who filmed the Torah’s arrival.

“The incredible survival of this Torah tells the story of entire Jewish communities in France that were destroyed during the war, and those who risked their lives to preserve their heritage. This sefer is a memorial for all of them, a symbol of the eternity of the Jewish people.”

Forced Into Hiding For 80 Years

In another story of a sefer Torah that was concealed during Kristallnacht and endured a lengthy “captivity,” four sections of a Torah scroll from a shul in Gorlitz, Germany spent eight decades being concealed by Germans, until a 79-year-old pastor in a burst of conscience turned the parchments over to authorities.

According to Israel Hayom, Pastor Uwe Mader produced four sections of a Torah scroll that he said his father, a German police officer, had retrieved from a shul in Gorlitz during Kristallnacht. The officer had been dispatched to the shul which was the scene of Nazi-incited riots against Jews. He brought the portions of the Torah scroll to his home.

Mader claimed his father had never told him how he came to take possession of the parchments that night of violence and shul-burning. He said he was aware that the parchments (which include the story of brias ha’olam and the aseres hadibros in Parshas Yisro,) had been intentionally cut out of a Torah scroll by someone familiar with the Torah’s contents.

According to Israel Hayom, the pastor, Mr. Uwe Mader, related a bizarre history of how the four Torah portions were passed from one person to another for decades.

Incredibly, instead of being destroyed or thrown out, the stolen portions of the sefer were first hidden by Mader’s father, the German policeman, and then by the father’s friend, Herta Apelt, to whom they were given for safekeeping.

At some point, Apelt gave the Torah parchments to a local priest by the name of Bernhard Schaffranek, who hid them in a library. Shaffranek died in 1949.

Twenty years later, his widow, Magdelena, continued the cloak-and-dagger saga by presenting the cut-out portions of the Torah to Uwe Mader, asking him to keep their existence secret. She apparently knew that his father, the German police officer, had been the first to take secret possession of them.

The Vicar of Reichenbach

Uwe Mader at the time (1969) had just been installed as vicar in the city of Reichenbach, the article relates.  Astoundingly, he kept the portions of the Torah scroll “concealed inside rolls of wallpaper in his office” for another half century.

What could have motivated these people to conspire to keep the sefer Torah hidden? Why not simply return it to the Jewish community? Perhaps they felt the parchments were very valuable and would one day fetch a nice sum? Perhaps they felt they would be mocked, criticized or penalized by authorities for holding on to them for so long.

In any case, at 79, Mader apparently decided the time had come for closure on the stolen Torah. In one of the final segments of this bizarre odyssey, he presented the sefer Torah parchments to the Gorlitz municipal authorities.

The Municipality, which recently concluded renovations on the sole shul in Saxony to survive the Kristallnacht, was more than glad to obtain the scroll. It immediately announced plans to restore the Torah with an eye to showcasing it in a future exhibit.

As in the case of other countries where Holocaust-era Jewish artifacts are uncovered, Gorlitz municipal authorities believe the recovered Torah scroll belongs to the city, and made no effort to find its heirs among Jewish survivors of Gorlitz or their descendants.

This angered Jewish activists who argued the scroll should be turned over to the rightful heirs, or at least to Jews who would best know how to treat the sacred fragments.

Some take comfort in the belief that after having survived so long against all odds, the Gorlitz sefer Torah will somehow uncannily make its way back to the Jewish people.

The Bornplatz Torah, Plucked from the Fire

For Joseph Bamberger, who was ten at the time, the terror of Kristallnacht came with an ominous burst of stomping of heavy leather boots in the outer hallway of the family’s apartment, followed by loud banging on the door.

“Who is it?” his mother Else managed tremulously. “Who’s there?”
“Gestapo,” came the reply. “Open up!”

The family shuddered as two uniformed men barged in and began to tear apart the rooms, demanding to know the whereabouts of Joseph’s father, Dr. Seligmann Bamberger. Having been warned about the riots, Seligmann was at that moment skirting the mobs on his way to the Bornplatz shul.

With the other shul officials, he entered the darkened building and, praying the sifrei Torah were still there, opened the aron kodesh and tightly grasped the holy scrolls.

For days after Kristallnacht, Dr. Bamberger and the other community leaders hid to avoid arrest.
Finally he returned home to his panicked family. In the ensuing months, while new anti-Jewish edicts were implemented, Bamberger worked frantically to procure visas to the United States, but the tightly restrictive American immigration quotas were already long-filled.

To obtain four non-quota visas, Bamberger needed a miracle. One of his closest friends, Edgar Frank, had emigrated with his family shortly before Kristallnacht. For a year and a half, Frank struggled to obtain the endorsements of important Jews in America who would be sympathetic to the plight of the Bambergers.

Salvation

Back in Germany, as Nazi persecutions escalated and months flew by without good news from Edgar Frank, the family teetered on an abyss of despair. Finally, in March 1940, a Heaven-sent salvation came in the form of an invitation from Yeshiva University for Dr. Bamberger to join its Department of Chemistry. Included was a notification that four precious visas would be sent to the family.

Joseph will never forget the tears of relief and gratefulness when the visas arrived. The family sailed from Italy on the SS Washington. They were among a tiny few who arrived at Ellis Island with a non-quota visa. Nearly all their family and friends back in Germany were killed.

“The most important item in our suitcases was a sefer Torah … one of the Torah scrolls that my father had rescued from the Bornplatz synagogue on Kristallnacht,” the elderly Joseph Bamberger recalled in his testimonial. “We all knew without a doubt the Torah helped save us.”

The Bambergers rebuilt their lives first in Washington Heights and then on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Joseph ended up marrying the youngest daughter of Edgar Frank, the man who had moved heaven and earth to procure the family’s visas. The couple settled in Long Island and raised their sons there, bringing along the Bornplatz Torah, where it is still used regularly in the community’s shuls.

Sefer Tislit, the Jewel of Morocco

In a small shul in Ashkelon stands an ancient sefer Torah known as Sefer Tislit.

“The Tislit Torah was written hundreds of years ago, and was brought to Israel from the village Tazenakht in Morocco,” explained Rami Ivgi, the administrator of the Sefer Tislit Beit Kenesset, to the Jerusalem Post.

“It was carried to Israel in 1963 by my father’s family, Rabbi Nisim and Yaakov Wiseman, who were leaders of the community.”

The scroll had been written together with another six sifrei Torah in Yerushalayim many decades back, he explained. “They were then taken to communities outside of Israel. This one found its way back to Israel.”

The Tislit Torah comes with a legacy of stories about its wondrous nature.

“This Torah scroll is considered particularly holy because of the lofty level of the sofer and because it dates back so many centuries. People come from all over Israel and the world to set their eyes upon it. Many come in search of help, whether in finding a zivug, having children, attaining a cure or protection from danger,” explained Rami Ivgi.

“Every year at the beginning of the month of Heshvan, we hold a hilulah, a great celebration in honor of this Torah scroll,”

The ancient Tislit sefer torah was also venerated by local Muslims back in Tazenakht, he added, “with some even kissing the wall of the old shul for good luck.” According to local traditions, the Muslims believed the city was never invaded due to this special Scroll.

According to Moreshet Yahadut Morocco, Doctor Mauchamps of the French health mission visited the town of Tazenakht in the early 1900s. He wrote that Sefer Tislit was so universally revered, that whenever a Muslim from the city traveled, “he would pass the Jewish house of worship and leave a donation in honor of Sefer Tislit. He would often kiss the walls of the synagogue.”

From Alsace, France to Gush Katif

“I used to export Israeli agricultural products to Europe, and a few times when I would return home to Israel, I would bring back sifrei Torah with me from places where there are no longer Jewish communities,” Shlomo Wassertile from Moshav Ganei Tal told the Jerusalem Post.

“In 1998, on one of my trips to France, I was visiting with friends who took me to see dozens of Torah scrolls in Wintzenheim, located in Alsace, in northeastern France. They offered me one, so I had to choose one that looked most likely to be kosher and not posul. I remember the night we went to the old shul – it was minus 15 degrees out – and searched for the Torah that was the most intact. It was over 100 years old.”

“At the time I was living in Gush Katif, in Neveh Dekalim, Wassertile went on. “Everyone knew that I would bring Torah scrolls to Israel, and one day I got a call from the principal of the school in this town, asking if they could have a Torah. I brought them the one I had taken from Alsace.

“Then, in 2005, when Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, we were all ejected from our homes. I stayed in my village until the very last possible moment. I went into the beit kenesset in the school, opened up the aron kodesh and withdrew the sefer Torah. It was an emotional moment. Once again, Jewish families and the holy Torah were being expelled from their homes.

“When the Gush Katif Museum opened in Yerushalayim,” Wassertile related, “I donated the Torah scroll to it. I included a written description of the sefer Torah’s history for all the visitors to read.”

*****

The Heartbreak of Gush Katif

Israel took control of the Gaza Strip after the 1967 Six Day War. Over the years, the government allowed and in some instances encouraged Israelis to build several bustling Jewish towns and kibbutzim in the Gaza Strip. The region soon became home to more than 9000 Israeli Jews.

Before his second term ran out, President Bill Clinton hosted then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the 2000 Camp David Summit. There, Arafat was presented with an unprecedented offer that would have given the Palestinians all of Gaza, 97 percent of the West Bank, and portions of land in Israel.

Arafat turned it down.

With the breakdown of Camp David, the violence of the Second Intifada erupted in September 2000. Many Israelis became disillusioned about the prospects for peace and the country elected a right wing government. The new government was headed by former military officer Ariel Sharon, known as a “hawk” and a champion of the settlements.

In December of 2003, Sharon shocked the country with an announcement declaring his total reversal on the Gaza settlements. He now planned to unilaterally withdraw all of Israel’s military forces and civilians from Gaza.

In order to bulldoze his plan through the Kenesset, Sharon formed a coalition with the left wing opposition, led by Shimon Peres of the Labor Party, leaving his allies and voter base feeling totally betrayed.

The new Sharon policy called for full disengagement from the Gaza strip and four settlements in northern Samaria (West Bank) by the summer of 2005.

Gush Katif by that time was a block of 17 towns in Gaza, populated by almost 9000 Jews in fully built communities with roads, infrastructure, industry, even state of the art greenhouses.

The disengagement was seen by many as a surrender to Palestinian terrorism. Critics argued that the settlements in Gaza served as a buffer to Palestinian aggression. Without them, Gaza could turn into a breeding pool for terror and a launching pad for attacks against all of Israel.

Hamas would soon prove these critics right.

‘Yehudi Lo Migaresh Yehudi’

In the months leading up to the withdrawal, the country was virtually split in two, with many believing the withdrawal would bring international support for Israel’s sacrifices and increased security, and others fiercely condemning it.

Protesters cried, “Yehudi Lo Migaresh Yehudi” — “A Jew does not expel a Jew,” but that in fact is what happened.

9,000 civilians were removed from their homes in one heartbreaking scene after another as ultimately, the soldiers followed their officers’ command. There are many stories of soldiers crying with the residents as they removed them from their homes.

Many Gush Katif residents spent their final hours in the area praying and crying in the beautiful synagogues in the community.

“The purpose of the Disengagement Plan is to reduce terror as much as possible, and grant Israeli citizens the maximum level of security,” Sharon had said. Most people looking at the ensuing 17 years of Israeli-Palestinian relations would probably agree that the disengagement was a dismal failure with regard to the promised security.

Only four months after the IDF officially left Gaza, Hamas was elected to power and began launching rocket attacks and building terror tunnels in Israeli population centers. The ongoing wave of terrorism sparked four wars, in 2008, 2011, 2014 and 2021.

What became of Gush Katif residents? They had been promised new homes and compensation but due to government bureaucracy, many of the residents became refugees in their own country, unable to find employment and without a home to call their own.

About a third of all of the families remained in limbo until 2016, when they were finally given permanent housing, but the scars of the massive upheaval remain.

As for Prime Minister Sharon, a few months after the Disengagement, he suffered a massive stroke that left him in an unconscious vegetative state for eight years. He died in 2014.

*****

Remnant of an Ancient Community

The Jews of Morocco today represent a remnant of an ancient, thriving community dating back to pre-Roman times. Moroccan Jewry numbered more than a quarter of a million people at its peak in the late 1950s.

Jews in Morocco were granted equality following the establishment of the French Protectorate in 1912. The Nazi collaborationist Vichy regime that controlled Morocco rolled back these freedoms during the Holocaust, but the Jews were spared deportation due to intervention by King Mohammed V.

Due to his strong opposition, Vichy leaders did not implement Vichy’s racist laws against the Jews. In November 1942, following the arrival of American troops, these laws were revoked and the Jews of Morocco escaped the dire fate of their fellow Jews in other Nazi-occupied lands.

By 1947 there were some 270,000 Jews in Morocco. Due to grinding poverty, many Jews left for Israel, France, the United States, and Canada. Following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the Moroccan community dwindled significantly. By 1971 only 25,000 Jews remained. As of 2015, that number had fallen to an estimated 2,300.

The Jewish community of Morocco has always been religious and assimilation and intermarriage are rare. There are shuls, mikvehs, old-age homes, and kosher restaurants in Casablanca, Fez and other cities.

In 1992, due to the changing demographics, most of the Jewish schools were closed and only those in Casablanca –Chabad, ORT, Alliance, Otzar HaTorah-Neve Shalom—have remained active.

Chacham David Bouskila, a prominent leader of Moroccan Jewry, ran a network of Otzar HaTorah and Neve Shalom schools until an elderly age, when he moved to Israel. He passed away in 2020.

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