Wednesday, Feb 21, 2024

Rescued Sifrei Torah Carry Secrets of Jewish Eternity

 

Discovered in ruins, yellowed with age, hidden in basements and attics and under a mosque, four sifrei Torah were rescued from destruction in Yemen, Cairo, Siberia and Germany in the past century, and brought to Israel in circuitous ways.

Each scroll embodies its own spine-tingling saga from different corners of the world and different epochs in history. Together they offer testimony to the miraculous resilience and immortality of the Jewish people. 

Saved From the Patria Disaster

One centuries-old sefer Torah was miraculously salvaged when the SS Patria carrying hundreds of Jewish refugees was blown out of the water at the port of Haifa in 1940.

If this holy scroll could tell its hair-raising story, it would recount the devastating explosion aboard the ship where Jews accidentally took the lives of over 200 fellow Jews.

The Patria was a dilapidated ocean liner carrying hundreds of Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler. Among the passengers were Bernard and Yohana Hamburger, the last survivors of Wieslock, Germany, reported the Jerusalem Post. The couple had managed to hide the sefer Torah belonging to their shul, and were carrying it to Israel, where they hoped to join their daughter Ruth.

The British had refused to let the Jewish refugees enter Mandatory Palestine, and planned to force the Patria to sail to Mauritius, a British colony in the Indian Ocean.  On board the Patria were also hundreds of Jewish refugees from two other ships whom the British had arrested and herded onto the ship. The plan was to intern all the Jews together in DP camps on the island of Mauritius.

In an effort to thwart this plot, the Hagana planted a bomb on the Patria while it was still anchored at Haifa port. The idea was to damage the vessel just enough to make it unseaworthy. But out of woeful incompetence and/or criminal negligence, the Hagana agents miscalculated the strength of the explosives and placed them in the most dangerous part of the ship.

The explosion tore the Patria apart, trapping hundreds of the passengers in the ship’s hold and hurling others into the water.  Trauma and despair shook the Jewish Yishuv for weeks after the disaster. Each day for weeks, Jews collected the bodies of fellow Jews who had drowned—at least 208 people.

Heroic Last Minute Effort

As Ruth Hamburger tells it over from survivors’ accounts, her father, Bernard, had managed to leap from the ship before the explosion took place, but had a change of heart and turned back for his wife and the sefer Torah. Just as he reached the ship, the explosion rocked the Patria and the scroll fell into the water. Amid flaming chunks of the ship and churning waves, the Wiesloch sefer Torah was swept away. Survivors later described how Bernard leaped into the waves to save it, but tragically drowned.

With her last ounce of strength, his wife Yohana made it to shore where she was arrested by the British and sent to a DP camp in Atlit in northern Israel.

According to reports, one of the passengers managed to grab the sefer Torah from the waves and miraculously reach the shore with it. The waterlogged and damaged scroll somehow found its way to Ruth Hamburger. She and her mother, Yohana, who joined her daughter after being released from Atlit DP camp, donated it to the Heichal Shalom Synagogue in Tel Shalom, where attempts were made to restore it.

According to Jerusalem Post, in 2014 the Torah was donated to Shem Olam Institute, a museum and educational organization established in 1996 in Kfar Haroeh by Rabbi Avraham Krieger.

“This sefer Torah testifies to the heroic efforts of the family and other survivors who risked their lives to save it,” said Rabbi Krieger. “Their actions, and this holy sefer will forever honor the memory of the Wiesloch community that was tragically wiped out.”

Ancient Sefer Torah Smuggled Out of Yemen

Another sefer Torah that made a perilous journey to Israel came from Yemen in 2016 with some of the last remaining Jews in that country who left in a covert operation spearheaded by Israel.

A spokesman for the Jewish Agency confirmed that the Torah scroll was smuggled out of Yemen with a rabbi and 18 Yemeni Jews from the city of Raydah.  The rabbi, Salman Dahari, said the Torah he brought with him had been handed down from father to son over many generations.

“The group from Raydah included the community’s rabbi, who brought a Torah scroll believed to be between 500 and 600 years old,” the Jerusalem Post detailed. “I inherited the Torah from my father who was also a rabbi who inherited it from my grandfather, who was also a rabbi,” Rabbi Dahari told reporters.

“We crossed three countries, it was exhausting,” he said of the arduous flight from Yemen, before being interrupted by an agency official telling him not to elaborate on the details of the journey.

“We are talking about a secret operation in a hostile environment. It is not easy to transport people who are visibly Jews. Being a Jew in Yemen right now is extremely dangerous,” Jewish Agency spokesman Yigal Palmor said at the time. “The Huthi militants are openly anti-Semitic.”

At the time of the group’s rescue, the Yemeni capital of Saana and the town of Raydah to its north were both controlled by Iran-backed Huthi terrorists, who were battling government troops and supporters who had fled to southern Yemen. Civil war has since torn the country apart.

Two Millennia of Jewish Life Comes To An End

The Jewish community in Yemen dates back two thousand years, hundreds of years before the appearance of Islam. More than 51,000 Yemenite Jews have immigrated to Israel since the country was founded in 1948. Nearly 50,000 were brought over in 1949 and 1950 in a secret airlift known as Operation Magic Carpet.

Subsequent decades saw the steady dwindling of the Jewish population in Yemen as more and more families left for Israel. By the early 1990s, the community numbered only around 1,000 people. The vast majority left for Israel in 1993, when the Yemeni government lifted a longstanding travel ban.

In March 2021, the last handful of Jews—13 people—were expelled from the country. Reports circulated that they were forced to flee the country in exchange for the release of Levi Marhabi, a Jew who had been imprisoned by Houthi jihadists since 2016.

Levi Marhabi was arrested for assisting with the aforementioned operation that smuggled out an ancient Torah from Yemen with 19 Jews in 2016, reported Jewish Insider.

“According to a March 2021 report from the Center for Defending Freedoms and Minorities, Marhabi was arrested along with three Muslim men who were also accused of playing a role in removing the Torah from Yemen,” the article said.

 

The Plight of Levi Marhabi

The other men have since been released, and a 2019 decision from a Yemeni appeals court ordered that Marhabi also be released. Yet he remains imprisoned, quoted the Jewish Insider (in 2021), reportedly “suffering abusive conditions, severe deterioration in his general health, kidneys and lungs damage, in addition to losing all his teeth.”

At an April 2021 meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Yemen, U.S. Ambassador Ms. Thomas-Greenfield raised Marhabi’s case, stating that the United States calls “for the Houthis to immediately release Levi, and stop their human rights abuses. And we ask that the international community also join us in that call.”

She explained that Marhabi “has been wrongfully detained by the Houthis just for his religious beliefs. For years he has sat behind bars without cause,” and noted that his mother remained in Yemen while he was imprisoned — until March, when she was among the group deported from the country.”

The American Sephardi Federation (ASF) spearheaded a campaign on Marhabi’s behalf, in conjunction with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in an effort to rally public outrage against the human rights abuses in the case. These efforts unfortunately saw little traction.

CEO Jason Guberman of ASF contends that Marhabi’s release should be repeatedly demanded not just by the U.S. government, but also from global Jewish organizations. “It’s really surprising that the Jewish community has not taken this on in the same way we have done in past cases of abuse and imprisonment,” said Guberman in 2021.

Since then, Marhabi’s case appears to have completely faded from attention and even the American Sephardi Federation has been quiet about it, at least publicly. The organization did not respond to inquiries from this writer about Levi Marhabi’s current well-being and the status of his case.

 

 From the Frozen Wastes of Siberia

A century-old sefer Torah rescued from the frozen wastes of Siberia and now housed in Chasidei Radomsko Shul in Bat Yam, attests to the Jewish spark in the most religiously estranged heart.

The shul’s administrator, Dovid Eliezer Hager, recounts the sefer Torah’s extraordinary odyssey which paralleled the life story of his late grandfather, Rav Menachem Mendel Hager, who was born in Poland and served as rav of Sosnowiec.

“After World War II broke out, my family took the Torah with them when they were exiled to the forests of Siberia with many other Polish Jews,” Dovid Hager told the Jerusalem Post.

Three years later, realizing they couldn’t last much longer under the brutal slave labor conditions in Siberia, Rav Hager embarked on a desperate mission. He headed a delegation of fellow Jewish inmates who went to plead their case to a famous high-ranking Russian general rumored to have Jewish roots.

Fully aware of the audacity of their overture, the delegation begged the general to intervene with authorities to grant them permission to emigrate to Israel. To their amazement and relief, the officer indicated he would use his influence to help them. Then, as the meeting drew to a close, he did something that shocked the Jewish inmates.

“The general took my grandfather aside,” recounts David Hager, “and handed him something large and bulky, wrapped with a dirty cloth. It was a Torah scroll that the general’s father, who was Jewish, had made his son promise would be brought to the Land of Israel.”

With the Nazi death trap tightening all around them and most eastern European ports sealed, Rav Mendel Hager knew they would need a string of miracles to reach the Land of Israel. The first one had just occurred before their very eyes.  The general’s Sefer Torah, and the breathtaking way it had appeared at the darkest moment, infused them with faith that they would be saved.

Rav Hager and some members of the delegation did in fact arrive in Israel in 1942, at the height of the Holocaust. For many years, the Torah was passed around from one minyan to another in Bat Yam.

“Anytime they would hear about a kehilla that didn’t have a Torah, or was repairing one, they would lend out the miraculous ‘Siberian sefer Torah.’ This practice continues to this day,” said Hager. “During Covid-19, it was brought to Ginot Shomron, where my nephew Menachem Hager is the administrator, so that his son could read from it at his bar mitzvah.”

The Cairo Sefer Torah:

In Memory of the Olei Hagardom, Those Who Ascended The Gallows

A decades-old sefer Torah from the Jewish community in Cairo, which was written in memory of the Olei Hagardom, (in the period of the British Mandate) is located at the Achdut Yisrael Synagogue in Yerushalayim.

Yitzhak Goldstein, a sofer from Machon Ot, a company that repairs sifrei Torah, detailed the background to this unique Torah in a Jerusalem Post article.

He recalled the closing tempestuous years of the British Mandate, when the British military administration threw its power into blocking the entry of Holocaust survivors into the country, and one of the key operations of the Lechi underground movement that fought the blockade.

“Two years ago, when I was at the Bet Kenesset Achdut Yisrael in Jerusalem, the administrator told me the story about this Torah scroll and asked if we could repair it so that it could be used on Shabbat and chagim,” explained Goldstein.

“The story revolves around Eliyahu Hakim and Eliyahu Beit-Zuri, young members of Lechi, the extremist wing of the Jewish underground in pre-state Israel. The two men were sent by their Lechi commanders to assassinate Lord Moyne in Cairo,” continued Goldstein. “They carried out their mission on November 6, 1944, but were caught and executed by hanging. [See Sidebar]

The Jewish community in Cairo, viewing the young men as martyrs, dedicated a Sefer Torah to their memories, which they used in their bet kenesset until it was transferred to the Beit Ora Synagogue in Montreal, in 1962. Later, the scroll was brought to Israel and is currently located in Bet Kenesset Achdut Yisrael in Yerushalayim.

*****

The Lord Moyne Assassination

 

Yitzhak Shamir, Lechi’s commander and later Israel’s prime minister, and Dr. Yisrael Eldad, Lechi’s chief ideologue, came under fierce criticism for sending two Lechi members on what was arguably a suicide mission with the assassination of Lord Moyne in 1944.

Decades of controversy over the assassination and the sacrificial nature of the mission continues to taint the reputations of the former underground leaders.

Lord Moyne, the British colonial secretary in pre-state Israel, had been a staunch opponent of the Jews throughout his tenure. He was considered responsible by the Jewish underground for keeping the British blockade tightly in place and forcing Holocaust survivors who made it to Israel into various DP camps.

In addition, he was blamed for the deaths of almost 800 Jewish Holocaust survivors on the ship Struma, when he refused to allow them to disembark and the ship sank with everyone aboard.

In 2012, during an interview with historian Joanna Saidel, Shamir and Eldad were strikingly forthright, not only about their pivotal roles in Moyne’s assassination, but about sending Eliyahu Hakim and Eliyahu Beit-Zuri on a mission in which it was nearly impossible to escape capture and execution.

Below is an excerpt from the Saidel interview with Eldad.

Saidel: So, can I ask you, was there a plan for the escape of the two men?

Eldad: For our two boys, yes.

Saidel: Because Abba Eban [Israeli foreign affairs minister] told me that Yitzhak Shamir was directly responsible for the death of these two [Lechi] people. Eban said that Shamir knew that they would be killed.

Eldad: What does he know? We, Shamir and I, sent them, the two of us. I remember where we strolled at night on the street in Tel Aviv when we made this plan. I was responsible politically and ideologically. Shamir was responsible organizationally. And he prepared the two boys, with all the instructions.

Saidel: Shamir told me there was a plan for their escape.

Eldad: Yes, through the market. They were on bicycles… but because Bet-Zuri fell off the bicycle and Zakim wanted to help him…In addition, there was a policeman, an Egyptian policeman, who shot at them. He was closing in on them. But they had instructions not to shoot an Egyptian. Their commander, Shamir, commanded not to touch an Egyptian. It was his personal order: Don’t touch an Egyptian policeman! Only the British. And they obeyed, and therefore they were caught.

The two Lechi boys did not defend themselves at their murder trial, but Beit-Zuri rose to his feet as the prosecutor finished giving evidence and made a statement.

“Thousands of our people sank in the sea of blood and tears, but the British captain [of the Struma] did not lift them to the ship,” Beit Zuri told the court. “And if a few of the survivors held on to the ship’s bow, he, the British captain, pushed them back into the sea. We in our home-land had no choice but to surrender or fight. We chose to fight.”

The two Eliyahus were sentenced to death, and on March 23, 1945 were hanged in Cairo.

*****

From Spanish Expulsion To The Holocaust, The Rhodes Scroll Saw It all

 

One of the most haunting of the survival tales surrounding sifrei Torah is that of the ancient scroll that belonged to the pre-war Rhodes community, 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.

The inscription on one of the atzai chaim, “Yaakov ben Abraham Mar Chayim,” a member of a renowned Spanish Jewish family, offers further evidence of the scroll’s age, historians say.

If this sefer Torah could talk, how much light it would shine on the sorrows and spiritual endurance of the Jews in the time of the Spanish expulsion, as they were driven from their homes. One imagines the cherished Torah being carried out of Spain in the arms of the heartbroken Jews, as they wandered across the Mediterranean basin, stripped of everything they owned.

Homeless but not hopeless.

The group carrying this ancient Torah eventually settled down on the island of Rhodes in what is today southeastern Greece, joining a thriving Jewish community in the Juderia, the Jewish Quarter.

The sefer Torah 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 members of Kehal Shalom for 400 years. 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 Nazis occupied the island and deported 1,673 men, women and children—out of a population of 2000—to their deaths in Auschwitz.

Just a few days before the July 25th deportation, members of the community were able to smuggle the sefer Torah out of the shul and into the custody of the Mufti of Rhodes, Sheikh Suleyman Kasiloglou, who was on friendly terms with some of the Jews.

Kasiloglou hid the Torah under the pulpit of the Morad Reis mosque where it escaped detection.

The Turkish Consul-General on the island, Selahattin Ulkumen, proved to be one of the chasidei umos haolom. He saved around 50 members of the Jewish community by vouching that they were Turkish citizens, 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 and returned to the community’s few survivors who numbered about a hundred people. The Torah was found rolled to Parshas Pinchos, the parsha read on the Shabbos of July 15th, 1944, shortly after the Nazis had occupied the island.

If the sefer Torah could talk, what heartrending scenarios it would conjure up about the Jewish community’s final days.

Fifty-five years later, in June 1999, the ancient Torah that had witnessed so much Jewish suffering and renaissance, was brought to Israel by survivors Jacqueline and Miriam Benatar, whose parents had been murdered by the Nazis.

In an emotional ceremony, the sisters presented it to the National Library of Israel to serve as a memorial to the kedoshim of Rhodes.

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