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 sexton in the synagogue in the Polish city of Oswiecim who buried most of the sacred scroll before the Germans stormed in and later renamed the city Auschwitz. It is the story of Jewish prisoners who sneaked the rest of it — four carefully chosen panels — into the concentration camp.
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.
Central Synagogue's Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein says the Torah “is such an extraordinary symbol of rebirth.” For two decades the congregation has observed the day with its neighbor, St. Peter's Lutheran Church, whose senior pastor is Rev. Amandus J. Derr
Says Derr, 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, and the remembrance itself enables us to be prepared to prevent that from happening again.”
Many Torah scrolls have disappeared or were destroyed during the Holocaust and a core of dedicated individuals have worked to repair those scrolls that have been found, to make them fit - kosher - for use at services. This one was hidden for more than 60 years.
The nonprofit Save a Torah foundation began looking for this particular scroll some eight years ago, following stories heard by its head, Rabbi Menachem Youlus of Wheaton, MD. Over 20 years, the group has found and restored more than 1,000 desecrated scrolls.
Youlus 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, but the survivors didn't know where it was buried. After the war, it could not be found.
The rabbi felt it would be in the cemetery and on his trip to Auschwitz in 2000 or 2001, with a metal detector, he searched but found nothing, and went home. One of his sons, then 13, wondered if the cemetery was the same size as in 1939. From online resources, land records indicated that the present cemetery was much smaller. He returned in 2004 with his metal detector, which beeped as he passed a house built since the war.
The metal box was uncovered, but the scroll was missing four panels; he wondered why. He placed an ad in a Polish newspaper asking if anyone had Hebrew-lettered parchment. A priest answered the next day: He said, "I know exactly what you’re looking for, four panels of a Torah."
The priest - who was born Jewish - said the panels were taken into the camp by four people, who gave them to him before they were killed; he kept the four pieces until he saw the ad. The priest, who has since died, knew that the person who placed the ad had found the rest of the scroll.
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