Friday, September 23, 2011

Saving an Holocaust Torah Scroll - Part II

This is a follow-up of an earlier post.

So here we are, a year since I first saw the Holocaust Torah I wrote about. For a full year nothing much happened and, to my great pain, I wasn't managing to get any breakthrough in saving this very special scroll.

During the course of this year, I kept this story to myself and my family, as I had no interest in spreading a sad story like this one to my friends. But on Shavuot, the day we celebrate the Giving of the Torah, I was sitting next to a family friend who mentioned he was involved with an Holocaust claim in another European city. I then told him about this story and he volunteered to solve the stalemate. A very respected figure in the community, this friend had the connections, experience and the latitude to negotiate the return of the Torah scroll.

In very little time, he was able to mobilize the local Jewish community and gain the support of the city's vice-mayor, Ludo Van Campenhout. After a very eloquent letter from Rabbi Lieberman, the city's Chief Rabbi, this story broke out in the news. Now that this story is public I can give you the specifics. The Torah Scroll is housed in Hendrik Conscience Biblioteek, one of Antwerp's main libraries.

Here is a quick Google translation of the original article, from the Gazet Van Anwterpen:

Jews claim the Torah Scroll backJews back to Torah scroll from erfgoedbib
20.9 The Jewish Community of Antwerp is claiming an ancient Torah scroll to be returned from the Heritage Library. But that's not so simple. 
Chief Rabbi Lieberman of the Jewish Community of Antwerp wants the Heritage Library to return an original handwritten Torah scroll to the community. The roll, like a Bible, is now in the archives of the library.According to chief rabbi Lieberman, the Torah scroll's home is at the community's synagogue and that  according to Jewish religious practices, that is the only proper place for such scroll. The Torah scroll has been decades in the library. Only a few years ago, the religious writing was discovered by staff
The history of the Torah scroll is as exciting as sinister. The writings, rolled nearly 20 feet long, were given during the Second World War by a Antwerp Jew to the former city librarian.The man hoped this would keep the roll out of the hands of the Germans. And he succeeded. Torah Scrolls during the Second World War were without exception burned. It is likely that the role of the Heritage Library is the only one that survived the German destruction in Antwerp.
"Belongs in the synagogue"
As per Rabbi Lieberman's letter to Ludo Van Campenhout, "I think that really belongs Torah scroll in a synagogue, and I will do whatever I can to return the scroll to the Jewish community."The Heritage Library will restore the Torah scroll and a few years to the public display in the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS), where a show about religion in Antwerp will take place. "That seems a good idea. Especially since the Jews themselves say that a Torah scroll is only one place: the synagogue. It would mean that we give back the role, "concludes Ludo Van Campenhout.
"We know there is a demand from the Jewish community to take over the Torah scroll," said director of the Heritage Library An Renard. "But there are a few complications. We do not know who brought  the Torah scroll during the war. "Apart from the Jewish Community of Antwerp , there are other Jewish communities in the area. Who is the rightful owner? "We do not know. This makes it difficult to transfer the scroll. "Furthermore, the Torah scroll is in poor condition and in urgent need of restoration. "Before we assign any role, we want to do the necessary investigation and ensure that the role is well conserved," says An Renard.Minister of Culture and Worship Philip Heylen (CD & V) shares this opinion. "I think that with the Jewish communities and the Heritage Library should sit around the table. It would be very unwise to act quickly and without proper research to make a decision. That does not mean we exclude that the Torah scroll is transferred to the Jewish community in Antwerp".

Well, this is major news. Before any comment, I must enphasize that we should display great respect and gratitude to the Biblioteek, which managed to store and preserve the scroll for over 60 years. That's truly remarkable.

With that said, it seems there's a real chance this special Sefer Torah will be finding its way back to a synagogue after over 60 years of isolation. Imagine the impact of reading from it on a Shabbath prayer for the first time in so many decades... I think that's a once-in-a-lifetime occasion, kind of a closing of a cicle for the Antwerp Jewish community. Many local Holocaust survivors relate that after the Nazi occupation all the Torah scrolls from the city's two main Synagogues were taken to the street and burned in front of the community, with the exception of one scroll which was rushed away. Is this the same scroll? Impossible to know but be it as it may, this surviving scroll is perhaps the only of its kind in this city and a testament of the endurance and rebirth of the Jewish Community of Antwerp. I hope we can get it on time for Simchat Torah.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Lost Torah Scroll from Munkatch

This is for the Hebrew speaking readers - the remarkable story of a small Sefer Torah from Munktach which survived the WW2.