Torah crowns, stolen in Shoah, returned to area family

The ornately crafted pieces of silver have brought both life and death to those who have possessed them. Now a Santa Rosa family just wants to put them back on top of the Torah, where they belong.

The Windsbach rimonim (Torah crowns) have passed from hand to hand in an almost cinematic tale of death and treachery. Now Jon and Julie Simkovitz, who will be awarded the Torah crowns on April 29 — Holocaust Remembrance Day — in Nuremberg, hope the rimonim spend the rest of their days in a museum or atop the Torah for family weddings and b'nai mitzvah at their Santa Rosa Congregation Beth Ami.

"Look at where these things have been, and here they are coming to Santa Rosa, Calif., in the year 2003," said Julie Simkovitz, whose husband's family originally owned the rimonim in pre-war Germany.

"I have children who are 3 and 7 years old, and I'd love to have [the crowns] on the Torah for their bar and bat mitzvahs."

Jon's mother, Elsie, fled Nuremberg in 1940 and escaped to Italy on virtually the last boat Mussolini allowed Jews to board. Elsie was shocked earlier this year, however, to learn she was the rightful owner of something she had never heard of. German historian Ralf Rossmeissl informed her that she and her brother, Ernie, as the last members of the Buehler family, were the rightful owners of the rimonim.

Rossmeissl, by trade, pieces together the remnants of Germany's Jewish communities. Often, physical mementos are unearthed from attics and basements. Since the menorot, prayerbooks and other objects were often obtained in a less-than-savory manner, Rossmeissl sometimes accepts donations anonymously.

When he cannot trace them to a family, he places them in public view, and has already started up several museums of German Jewish relics.

In this case, each of the Torah crowns is graced with five small bells and a lion "roaring for peace," in Rossmeissl's words. They are also emblazoned with an engraving revealing they were a gift of Jacob and Bertha Weinschenk, Elsie Simkovitz's grandparents.

According to Rossmeissl, the Weinschenks gave the rimonim to an Orthodox synagogue in the small town of Windsbach sometime between 1850 and 1900. There they sat until the fateful night of Nov. 9, 1938 — Kristallnacht — when that synagogue was burned to the ground. But, as it blazed away, a Jewish man rushed into the doomed shul and saved the Torah scrolls. A plaque now marks where the shul once stood.

The man who saved the rimonim was deported to Dachau in 1942, where he was killed, according to Rossmeissl. The crowns, along with literally tons of other Jewish-owned silver, were commandeered and sent to a smelting plant.

A female worker at the plant recognized the rimonim for what they were, however. A former maid in Jewish homes, she had an eye for ceremonial pieces and appropriated a number of them from the plant, whether out of a sense of duty or for personal gain.

In either case, her Nazi bosses found her out in 1944 and sent her to Dachau, where she too was killed.

At this point, the ornate rimonim were pocketed by a Nazi. When the war ended and high-ranking Nazis suddenly were transformed from overlords to war criminals, the fearful Nazi struck a deal with a Jewish man who had survived the camps and was returning home. In return for the Torah scrolls, the Jewish man wrote a note claiming the Nazi had acted benevolently toward him and should not be executed.

After sitting in an attic for the better part of 60 years, the Torah crowns eventually found their way into Rossmeissl's hands as he worked on a history of Windsbach.

"Rare Judaica as part of the Holocaust industry are very expensive today, but my price is tolerance, nothing more. I'm interested in giving the rimonim to the descendents of the family from whom they were robbed and not to a…museum, not even a remembrance museum in Germany," Rossmeissl wrote to the Bulletin in an e-mail.

"We in Germany have not the right to present robbed 'Jewish silver' for remembrance. That's a second robbery."

Jon and Julie Simkovitz plan to bring the rimonim to Beth Ami, where they will grace a Torah for the first time in 65 years.

Eventually, members of the Simkovitz family are fairly certain they will donate the crowns to an Israeli museum, where three of Elsie's children live with their large families.

"I'm very excited about it, especially for our children and grandchildren," said Elsie Simkovitz, 75, in a phone interview from her home in Oak Park, Mich.

While she hopes the rimonim will eventually be housed in a museum, in the meantime she would like to see her children and grandchildren "use it for a simcha."

"It's a wonderful thing that this came to light."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.