Monday, April 27, 2009

When the Lone Survivor is a Torah. An Amazing Story of a Holocaust Horror and the Beauty of Rememberence from Charleston


What is so amazing about this story is not just the story itself, but the way in which it is written. It is carefully laid out, beautifully detailed, and very respectfully rendered.

I am thoroughly impressed with this reporter's ability to convey this story so beautifully and so succinctly.

This is great journalism. A very talented writer with a really cool story to tell.



Lost and found: The story of the Vengrov Torah

By Adam Parker (Contact)
The Post and Courier
Monday, April 27, 2009

In late 1939, Nazis marched into the Polish village of Vengrov, east of Warsaw, forced the large Jewish population into its magnificent synagogue in the center of town, locked the doors and set fire to the building.

In so doing, the Nazis succeeded in wiping out all the Jews of Vengrov, who had lived there since the mid-1500s. The Jews perished in the conflagration. But Judaism was not destroyed.

For there was a sole survivor.

The Torah.

In the Orthodox Jewish tradition, the Torah is equated with a person, said Rabbi Ari Sytner of Charleston's Brith Sholom Beth Israel Synagogue. Its Hebrew characters are like the human soul, imbued with life by God through the sanctified act of the scribe.

If a Torah is destroyed, its letters ascend to heaven, and the parchment scroll must be buried in the earth. If a Torah is damaged, it is rendered unusable until, like a sick person, it is restored to health.

Nearly 70 years after the Jews of Vengrov were obliterated, a Torah from the synagogue was discovered by a pair of travelers. The battered scroll was rescued and adopted by Sytner's congregation where it will find a new home after restoration.

The story of the Vengrov Torah is an adventure for the ages and an opportunity to give a voice to those who were silenced.

Five or six years ago, two young women traveling through Eastern Europe on a Jewish tour were approached by two men who invited them to see something extraordinary, according to Rabbi Menachem Youlus, a scribe who runs Save a Torah Inc., located in Rockville, Md.

"Now, young, unmarried Orthodox women do not go with men they don't know," Youlus said. "But their curiosity got the best of them."

They followed the men into the basement of a monastery outside Kiev, today part of Ukraine. They stood mesmerized, for stored in this cellar were more than 200 Torah scrolls and other Jewish artifacts, carefully catalogued and labeled. It was a treasure trove that pre-dated World War II.

The two travelers did what any Orthodox Jewish women would do under the circumstances, Youlus said. They pulled out their camera-equipped mobile phones and took pictures of the find — 5,000 pictures between them, which they promptly transmitted to Youlus, crashing his server.

Before long, the rabbi had arranged for the young archaeologists to send the files to a special Web site so he could begin to assess the nature of the discovery. It was obvious, even from images on a computer screen, that action was called for. Youlus, accompanied by four other scribes, boarded a flight for Kiev.

What had happened? The Vengrov tragedy offers a clue.
On the Web

Before the Nazis set fire to the great synagogue, two monks sneaked in to carry away the Torah. Somehow, the sacred scroll found its way to the monastery near Kiev where it was hidden, along with other Torahs rescued from the Germans.

Over several visits, Youlus and his small team scrutinized the musty, damaged scrolls, determining which could be salvaged. So far, they have rescued 30 from the monastery (for a price), including the Vengrov Torah.

The nonprofit Save a Torah enterprise so far has saved more than 1,100, Youlus said. Most have been repaired and "resettled" among Jewish congregations in Europe, Africa, Israel, the United States, even China and Japan.

Identifying their origins can be tricky, requiring intense detective work, Youlus said. Parchments are studied for clues. The calligraphy is examined. The scribes try to determine what type of ink was used or what method employed in cutting the parchment.

Restoring a Torah to health is not easy, Youlus said.

"A Torah is either perfect or it's not kosher," he said. If it's not kosher it cannot be used.

Each scroll has 304,805 letters on 62 panels consisting of three to five columns of text. Every Hebrew character must be examined and restored, one by one, by a licensed scribe who carefully and repeatedly retraces the shape with a quill pen. Any mistake, however slight, can transform a living document into a broken relic that must be buried forever.

"It takes a while to go through," Youlus said.

Once a Torah is restored, a new home is found for it.

Five years ago, Youlus was in Charleston working on a Torah dedicated to David J. Radinsky, who retired as rabbi of Brith Sholom Beth Israel in 2004. He told Sytner and others about his organization Save a Torah.

Many in the synagogue's congregation have Polish origins, like the Vengrov Torah. Many of its families have been affected by the Holocaust. When Pincus Kolender, a beloved member of BSBI and an Auschwitz survivor, died on April 31 last year, Charleston's Jewish community lost an important link to a previous generation and to a wellspring of memories.

"When Pincus died, it was an eye-opener," Sytner said. "What are we in Charleston passing on to the next generation?"

So the members of BSBI decided to sponsor the restoration of the Vengrov Torah and adopt it as their own. President Stanley Baker suggested setting up a special Torah fund and asked Herb Rosner to oversee the effort. A steering committee was formed. Sytner and the congregation produced a Web site, video and brochure to promote the fundraising project.
Rabbi Menachem Youlus of “Save a Torah” uses a variety of special tools to when reapplying Hebrew characters to damaged Torah scrolls.

Lori Hoch Stiefel

Rabbi Menachem Youlus of “Save a Torah” uses a variety of special tools to when reapplying Hebrew characters to damaged Torah scrolls.

Donors can chose to fund various physical components of the Torah — its crown, breastplate, cover, pointer — or parts of the text itself, from whole books down to an individual letter.

Rosner said the synagogue will tour the state with its Torah, offering people in other communities the opportunity to become sponsors. Anyone who funds the restoration of a letter can draw the character himself, Rosner said. To ensure its done correctly, donors will fill in an outline made by Yourus or Sytner, who is training to become a scribe for this purpose.

Sytner compared the Torah restoration project to a person emerging from a coma. It's a rebirth at once educational and celebratory, he said.

"It allows us to tell the story of the Holocaust" and rejoice in knowing that a sacred Torah held and read by generations past — and generations murdered — will once again be touched by bar mitzvah boys and kissed by worshippers in the 21st century. It is a great victory, Sytner said.

"Other marauding armies killed a lot of people, but the Germans wanted to destroy Judaism, not just Jews," he said. "People were just a part of it."

But thanks to the rescue of the Vengrov Torah, the life of a Polish village can be conjured up again, and a Jewish community in Charleston can rekindle some of what was lost, Sytner said.

The Torah, which contains the five books of Moses, is Judaism's most sacred text, providing the legal and ethical basis for the religion.

It includes 613 commandments, or mitzvahs, applicable to all observant Jews, the last of which is — to write a Torah.

"It's the only time Jews believe you have the opportunity to go one-to-one with God," Yourus said. "Anything you say, he listens."

But who, besides the trained scribes, has the time or skill to write all 304,805 characters, and to do so without error, an enterprise that can take more than a year?

"The sages say that by filling in just one letter, it fulfills that commandment," Yourus said. "It really is an opportunity to connect with God in a way that's unfathomable."

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