Work begins to salvage sacred books in synagogue fire

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The morning after firefighters quenched a late-night arsonist's blaze at the Anshei Minsk Synagogue, congregants arrived to a chilling sight: Thousands of prayer and holy books, charred by fire and soaked by firefighters' hoses, were littered across the building's front steps and the adjoining sidewalk.

The books, including many Torah commentaries, talmudic folios and kabbalistic works that were more than a century old, were in temporary storage in boxes until new shelving could be built.

They were being stored upstairs in the women's gallery, precisely where someone had broken through a rear fire-escape door and set the March 11 fire.

Firefighters had tossed the books from the upper windows while battling the blaze.

In a swift gesture of support, Heritage Canada, a federally funded organization, announced that it would allocate funds to restore the books.

Within days of the fire, a team from the Canadian Conservation Institute arrived at the 1920s-era synagogue, which is located in the formerly Jewish Spadina neighborhood and houses the city's only remaining daily downtown minyan.

Wearing gas masks as protection against lingering smoke and chemical fumes, the team spent almost a week packaging books and fragments carefully into boxes, separating each layer with sheets of waxed paper.

The boxes were then loaded onto a refrigerated truck and transported to a Montreal plant for freeze-drying, a process that is expected to remove the excess moisture from the pages and prevent mold and further damage from occurring.

Soon the team of conservators will likely face the painstaking task of determining which books can be saved — some may have to be restored page by page — and which must be relegated for ritual burial.

"People have been very moved by the fact that Jews bury their books, and the significance of that," said Rabbi Shmuel Spero, who has been at Anshei Minsk for 14 years.