At the heart of almost every Jewish community is a synagogue. At the heart of a synagogue – the holy ark. And deep inside the ark, draped in velvet and decorated in silver, lies a Torah scroll, one at the very least.
In a religion that values ritual objects – hanukkiot, kiddush cups, tefillin – nothing is more priceless and more treasured than a Torah scroll.
When a fire alarm sounds in a synagogue, there will always be a group that surges forward instead of backward, rushing toward the ark to grab the precious Torah.
But the story of the Jewish people is also one of persecution, of fleeing from homes at a moment’s notice, and of terrible oppression. And yet, when Jews had to escape with barely any possessions, oftentimes they would bring with them a Torah scroll. During Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass” in German) the Nazis set light to many scrolls, precisely because they knew how cherished they were by the Jewish people.
And while the birth of every new Torah scroll is marked by celebration, there are countless stories of scrolls that were smuggled, rescued, reborn, restored and rededicated – much like the story of the Jewish people. Here are just a dozen incredible tales of sifrei Torah that escaped destruction, survived crazy journeys and went on to amazing things.
Baghdad to diplomatic duty
The Torah scroll being used by Israel’s diplomats is one that enraged another country – Iraq. Last year, the Foreign Ministry dedicated a Torah for use at its office synagogue in Jerusalem, that was smuggled out of Baghdad.
The scroll, estimated to be 150 to 200 years old, is believed to be from the region of Kurdistan. When most of the country’s Jews fled to Israel after 1948, the scroll was left behind.
The Iraqi government banned them from taking their property and seized assets from those who left.
The ministry would not say just how the scroll arrived in Israel, but in 2006 or 2007 it ended up in the Israeli Embassy in Jordan. When, in September 2011, the Israeli Embassy in Cairo was attacked by a huge mob, the ministry decided to remove all extraneous items from its embassy in Amman in case of similar incidents. Among those items was the Iraqi Torah scroll, which was brought to the ministry in Jerusalem.
In November 2013, Amnon Israel, the new manager of storage and supplies for the ministry, noticed the scroll in a storage room on his first day. He sought out an expert in Torah restoration, and after six months of work it was ready for use. The government selected a case for the scroll that originally belonged to the Jewish community of Aleppo, Syria, and was itself over 100 years old. The special dedication at the Foreign Ministry took place in January 2015 in front of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, and then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman.From Kristallnacht to a bat mitzva
On Kristallnacht in November 1938, Dietrich Hamburger, the leader of a small congregation that met in his home in Fürstenau, packed up his belongings, including the community’s Torah scroll. He boarded a train to Holland, where he remained in hiding throughout the war. Unfortunately, his daughter, son-in-law and their children died in concentration camps. After the war, Dietrich’s son from America, Siegfried, visited him, and brought the scroll back to California.
Dietrich’s great granddaughter, Julie Ann Smith, had long lost touch with many of her cousins by the 1990s. But by chance, in 1996, she met a rabbi in San Anselmo, California, and was shocked to discover he was in possession of the rescued scroll, given to him by Siegfried’s son, Steven.
More than a decade later, Julie Ann was thinking about her daughter’s bat mitzva, and how to imbue it with meaning. Then she recalled the scroll. By then the rabbi had died, and she didn’t know where it had ended up. After making a few phone calls, she located another rabbi who had received the Torah.
And so, almost 75 years after her great-great-grandfather had smuggled the Torah scroll out of Germany, Charlotte Smith read from it at her bat mitzva in California’s Napa Valley.
The family dedicated the restored scroll to yearround use at AlmaVia, a faith-based elderly care community.
In hiding to on display
A 400-year-old Torah scroll believed to have been used by crypto-Jews (those who had to hide their Jewish observance) in Portugal was put on display at Covilha’s City Hall just last month. The Torah is thought to have been used in secret during the Portuguese Inquisition in the 1530s.
After hundreds of years, the scroll was discovered in 2006 by a building contractor during a demolition in the city. The builder took the scroll home and kept it rolled up in a bedsheet. Then, about six months ago, he brought it to the attention of some archeologists, who realized the deep significance of the discovery. The scroll, according to a city official, was found next to a church that was frequented by “New Christians” or marranos, those Jews who were forced to convert during the Inquisition. The scroll was on display throughout September in the city hall, until a wealthy local businessman purchased it for his collection. He said his goal is to keep the scroll in the city of Covilha.Iraq to Drisha
It was a rare occurrence in the year 1999 for a Torah to be dedicated for the sole purpose of women’s education. What made the event at the Drisha women’s learning institute in New York all the more historic was the storied history of the scroll itself: 200 years old and once held prisoner by Saddam Hussein. The Torah, dated approximately to the year 1800, was abandoned in a Baghdad synagogue with many other scrolls during the exodus of Iraqi Jews to Israel in 1948.
There the Torahs remained, collecting desert dust, until Saddam stockpiled and hid them not long before the start of the Persian Gulf War.
But in 1991, the Torah was rescued, along with 34 others. An Iraqi Muslim stole them from Saddam, smuggled them into Jordan and from there they made their way to Israel. The son of Blu Greenberg, an Orthodox feminist activist, was involved in helping to restore one of the scrolls. Greenberg and her family presented the scroll to Drisha as a gift in late 1999, dedicated to the memory of her father. The scroll remains in active use at Drisha today.A scroll survivor
The Torah scroll used in Temple Beth Shalom in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has survived both the Holocaust – and a monsoon. The scroll, estimated to be 250 to 300 years old, first came to the congregation in the 1980s.
It is one of the few existing items from the once-thriving Jewish community of Mlada Boleslav, Czechoslovakia. The Nazis sent the majority of the city’s residents to concentration camps, but the Jewish community asked if they could gather up their Torah scrolls and ceremonial items into one place. The Nazis agreed, apparently happy to have the Jews do the work for them. While the vast majority of the town’s Jews did not survive, the scrolls did. They were moved to Prague in 1942 and stacked in a warehouse with close to 1,500 other scrolls the Nazis had confiscated. In 1963, the Torah scrolls were discovered by an art expert, who arranged to have them purchased and brought out of Prague. The scrolls were dispersed among Jewish congregations around the world – including at Temple Beth Shalom. The Temple Beth Shalom scroll is unique, according to a local scribe, because it includes script from both Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews.
The scroll had been restored in England before arriving in Santa Fe, and was used for many years by the congregation. But a heavy monsoon in 2009 caused severe damage to it, rendering it unfit for use. Then, in 2013, the rabbi announced a new effort to restore the Torah for use, fixing about 40,000 of its 305,000 letters, at a cost of $250,000.Precious cargo
Earlier this year, months of clandestine activity culminated in the airlift of a group of 19 Jews from Yemen to Israel. Well, 19 Jews and one Torah scroll. The Jewish Agency worked to transfer the group, in coordination with the US State Department.
Among the new immigrants was Rabbi Saliman Dahari, who arrived with his parents and his wife, and met his children upon arrival at the absorption center. The rabbi brought with him a Torah scroll that is estimated to be 500 to 600 years old.
Dahari later met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who welcomed him and the others and thanked him for bringing the scroll to Israel. But authorities in Yemen are furious about the scroll. After the airlift, police in Sana’a arrested a rabbi who was accused of aiding the “smuggling [of] an ancient Torah scroll to Israel,” Yemeni media reported. The rabbi, Yahia Youssef Yaish, was reportedly interrogated by the police in Sana'a.The priest, the archbishop and the Torah
Sixty-nine years after Kristallnacht, a Torah scroll rescued by a priest from a burning synagogue was rededicated in a Cologne synagogue. In 1938, on the Night of Broken Glass, the Nazis ransacked and set fire to the Glockengasse synagogue in Cologne.
Catholic prelate Gustav Meinertz saved the damaged Torah from the flames, and kept it until 1945, when he returned it to the city’s remaining Jews. The scroll was estimated to have been written in 1902.
Because of the extensive damage, the Cologne Jewish community placed it on display in its Roonstrasse synagogue, since it couldn’t be used in services.
But in 2005, when pope Benedict XVI visited the synagogue, he had the idea of refurbishing the scroll – paid for by Cologne archbishop Joachim Cardinal Meisner. And so the scroll was painstakingly restored by a scribe in Jerusalem, before being triumphantly returned to Cologne in 2007 for a rededication ceremony.
The ceremony was attended by top German officials and then-Israeli chief rabbis Yona Metzger and Shlomo Amar.A triumphant return
A Torah rescued from a synagogue in Berkach, Germany, and restored for use in Winter Springs, Florida, was brought back to the synagogue for its 160th anniversary celebrations.
The scroll, believed to have been written in the early 19th century, was in use at the German synagogue for close to 100 years.
Then, with the outbreak of the Holocaust, Lothar Gould smuggled it out with him as he fled the Nazis. He brought it to Florida, where he kept it for decades.
In 2010, the community restored and rededicated the scroll for use in Temple Israel.
Several members of the community accompanied the Torah scroll back to Germany in June 2014, to celebrate 160 years since it was first inaugurated in 1854. In 1938, the Jewish community was forced to relinquish control of the synagogue for demolition. But the demolition was never carried out. In November 1991, the building was rededicated after extensive restoration work.Poland, Brooklyn – then Uganda
When Dr. Isador Lieberman arrived in Uganda in 2010 on a medical mission to provide spinal surgeries to local residents – one of many since he began going in 2005 – he was surprised to stumble upon a Jewish community.
But lo and behold, Lieberman found 200 self-described Orthodox Jews worshiping in a grass-hut synagogue in a small village called Putti. Lieberman was thrilled and enamored by the discovery, but was troubled to see them reading from a small, paper Torah scroll. It seemed to be more of a toy than a ritual object. The surgeon spontaneously promised to bring the community a real sefer Torah of their own, and the community was elated.
Upon his return to Dallas, Texas, Lieberman reached out to local rabbis and scribes to see who could help. One of his contacts located five stolen Torah scrolls that had been sitting in a police evidence locker in Brooklyn. They had been there unclaimed for a decade, and were available for purchase. Lieberman, with the help of donors, bought one of the scrolls, which, it turned out, had been written in Poland in the 1930s and smuggled out during the Holocaust. Once the scroll was restored to pristine condition, Lieberman, his mother, Noemi, and others gathered in 2011 in a partially constructed synagogue in Putti for the first ritual reading from the Torah – from the shtetl of Poland to the hills of Uganda.A fateful reunion
It was 1938, and Ernst Brager knew he had to get out of Germany. He had been arrested twice by the Nazis, and released only because of the recognition awarded to him for having received an Iron Cross during World War I.
Brager managed to obtain a forged passport, and fled to Paris. He had with him just a few personal belongings, and two Torah scrolls.
He made it to Paris, where he met up with his bride of only two weeks, Gretel. From there they secured a visa to the UK, relying on the promises of a financial guarantor – Bernard Jacobson, an acquaintance from Hamburg.
After settling in London, the Bragers put the two Torah scrolls to good use for many decades. When Ernst died in 1986, his son, David, found the scrolls and brought them to a scribe, who said one needed extensive restoration, while the other was totally irreparable.
When David and his wife, Susan, moved to Israel, they brought the scroll with, and a scribe in Jerusalem said it would be possible to cover the cost of restoration by loaning it to a synagogue for 15 years. The Bragers agreed, and a new congregation in Rehovot took temporary possession.
More than 15 years later, David remembered the scroll, and went looking. The scroll was nowhere to be found, and David couldn’t find the contract with the serial number of the Torah. He eventually tracked it down in a yeshiva, and set out to find a new home where it was most needed. A friend told him of a yeshiva in Jerusalem that was just starting out, led by a British rabbi. David called, and spoke with Rabbi Moshe Jacobson. Jacobson? He asked him: “Was your father or grandfather Mr. Bernard Jacobson of London?” The answer was yes. David was moved beyond words that his grandfather’s scroll would go to a yeshiva founded by a descendant of the very man who had aided his father in securing safe passage out of Germany. A fitting full circle.Russia to Florida to Poland
Three Hungarian Torah scrolls – rescued from Russia by a grandmother from Florida – were restored for use at an Orthodox congregation in Boca Raton. One of the scrolls traveled with a delegation from Florida earlier this year to take part in the March of the Living at Auschwitz, where Holocaust survivors wrote in the final letters in the scroll near the site of the Nazi death camp.
Floridian Sibyl Silver heard about a collection of 118 scrolls, taken from the Hungarian-Jewish community during World War II as spoils of war, and then stored in a Russian library basement. Silver got permission to bring three of the Torah scrolls to Florida, where she set out to raise funds for their restoration.
She visited Russia to negotiate their release to safe places in Moscow and the US and traveled to Los Angeles and Washington, DC, to learn more about their history and find descendants of the families that donated them in Hungary.
Silver brought the scrolls to Florida in 2015, and began the restoration process. One of the scrolls was taken to Poland in May, where South Florida Holocaust survivors wrote in the final word of the Torah: Israel.
A scroll of pride
When Prof. Mark Wainberg, a prominent Canadian AIDS researcher, heard about the stabbing death of Shira Banki during the 2015 Jerusalem Pride Parade, he wanted to do something to honor her memory.
So Wainberg, an internationally recognized expert from Montreal, donated a 150-yearold Torah scroll to an Ethiopian-Israeli synagogue in Jerusalem. The scroll, which was written in Baghdad, was fully restored and presented to the congregation in a special ceremony in January in conjunction with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. Wainberg said he reached out to the Banki family after Shira’s murder, and they requested a scroll be donated in her memory to that synagogue.
During the dedication, Barkat called the event “both sad and moving.” He added: “We remember Shira and the tragedy of her death, and at the same time we are creating hope and renewal among the Ethiopian community in Jerusalem.”
The mayor continued: “I would like to thank Prof. Wainberg for his meaningful donation and wish the Banki family, and all of us, many moments of happiness, joy, hope and light in Jerusalem.”
Stories and information compiled from readers, Jerusalem Post staff, JTA, Tribune News Service and other sources.