The New York Times : April 30, 2008
The back story of how a Torah got from the fetid barracks of Auschwitz to the ark of the Central Synagogue at Lexington Avenue and 55th Street is one the pastor of the Lutheran church down the street sums up as simply “miraculous.”
It is the story of a Polish Catholic priest to whom they entrusted the four panels before their deaths. It is the story of a Maryland rabbi who went looking for it with a metal detector. And it is the story of how a hunch by the rabbi’s 13-year-old son helped lead him to it.
This Torah, more than most, “is such an extraordinary symbol of rebirth,” said Peter J. Rubinstein, the rabbi of Central Synagogue. “As one who has gone to the camps and assimilates into my being the horror of the Holocaust, this gives meaning to Jewish survival.”
Rabbi Menachem Youlus removes dirt from a Torah that had been buried
The Torah from Auschwitz “is a very concrete, tactile piece of that remembrance — of what people, some of whom did it in the name of Christ, did to people who were Jewish,” Pastor Derr said, “and the remembrance itself enables us to be prepared to prevent that from happening again.”
A Torah scroll contains the five books of Moses, and observant Jews read a portion from it at services. Its ornate Hebrew must be hand-lettered by specially trained scribes, and it is considered unacceptable if any part is marred or incomplete. For years, Jews around the world have worked to recover and rehabilitate Torahs that disappeared or were destroyed during the Holocaust, returning them to use in synagogues.
This Torah remained hidden for more than 60 years, buried where the sexton had put it, until Rabbi Menachem Youlus, who lives in Wheaton, Md., and runs the nonprofit Save a Torah foundation, began looking for it about eight years ago. Over two decades, Rabbi Youlus said, the foundation has found more than 1,000 desecrated Torahs and restored them, a painstaking and expensive process. This one was elusive. But Rabbi Youlus was determined.
He had heard a story told by Auschwitz survivors: Three nights before the Germans arrived, the synagogue sexton put the Torah scrolls in a metal box and buried them. The sexton knew that the Nazis were bent on destroying Judaism as well as killing Jews.
But the survivors did not know where the sexton had buried the Torah. Others interested in rescuing the Torah after the war had not found it.
As for what happened during the war, “I personally felt the last place the Nazis would look would be in the cemetery,” Rabbi Youlus said in a telephone interview Tuesday, recalling his pilgrimage to Auschwitz, in late 2000 or early 2001, in search of the missing Torah. “So that was the first place I looked.”
With a metal detector, because, if the story was correct, he was hunting for a metal box in a cemetery in which all the caskets were made of wood, according to Jewish laws of burial. The metal detector did not beep. “Nothing,” the rabbi said. “I was discouraged.”
He went home to Maryland. One of his sons, Yitzchok, then 13, wondered if the cemetery was the same size as in 1939. They went online and found land records that showed that the present-day cemetery was far smaller than the original one.
Rabbi Youlus went back in 2004 with his metal detector, aiming it at the spot where the g’neeza — a burial plot for damaged Torahs, prayer books or other papers containing God’s name — had been. It beeped as he passed a house that had been built after World War II.
He dug near the house and found the metal box. But when he opened it, he discovered the Torah was incomplete. “It was missing four panels,” he said. “The obvious question was, why would the sexton bury a scroll that’s missing four panels? I was convinced those four panels had a story themselves.”
They did, as he learned when he placed an ad in a Polish newspaper in the area “asking if anyone had parchment with Hebrew letters.”
“I said I would pay top dollar,” Rabbi Youlus said. “The response came the next day from a priest. He said, ‘I know exactly what you’re looking for, four panels of a Torah.’ I couldn’t believe it.”
He compared the lettering and the pagination, and paid the priest. (How much, he would not say. The project was underwritten by David M. Rubenstein, a co-founder of the Carlyle Group. Mr. Rubenstein was tied at No. 165 on the Forbes 400 last year with a reported fortune of $2.5 billion; in December, he paid $21.3 million for a 710-year-old copy of the Magna Carta, a British declaration of human rights that served as the foundation for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.)
The priest “told me the panels were taken into Auschwitz by four different people,” Rabbi Youlus said. “I believe they were folded and hidden.” One of the panels contained the Ten Commandments from Exodus, a portion that, when chanted aloud each year, the congregation stands to hear. Another contained a similar passage from Deuteronomy.
The priest, who was born Jewish, was himself an Auschwitz survivor. He told Rabbi Youlus that the people with the four sections of the Torah gave them to him before they were put to death.
“He kept all four pieces until I put that ad in the paper,” Rabbi Youlus said. “As soon as I put that ad in the paper, he knew I must be the one with the rest of the Torah scroll.” (Rabbi Youlus said that the priest has since died.)
Rabbi Youlus said that nearly half the Torah’s lettering needed repair, work that the foundation has done over the past few years. Thirty-seven letters were left unfinished: 36, or twice the number that symbolizes “life” in Hebrew, will be filled in by members of the congregation before the service on Wednesday, the 37th at the ceremony.
Rabbi Youlus called it “a good sturdy Torah, even if it hasn’t been used in 65 years.” The plan is to make it available every other year to the March of the Living, an international educational program that arranges for Jewish teenagers to go to Poland on Holocaust Remembrance Day, to march from Auschwitz to its companion death camp, Birkenau.
“This really is an opportunity to look up to the heavens and say, he who laughs last, laughs best,” Rabbi Youlus said. “The Nazis really thought they had wiped Jews off the face of the earth, and Judaism. Here we are taking the ultimate symbol of hope and of Judaism and rededicating it and using it in a synagogue. And we’ll take it to Auschwitz. You can’t beat that.”