Burned during Shoah, Torah scroll will be reborn in San Jose

You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure it out. Someone tried to incinerate the Torah.

The burn patterns indicate it was probably pushed into a fire from top to bottom. About a third of it was rendered unusable, but, amazingly, the Sh’ma and Ten Commandments were completely untouched.

That much we know. But how did the Torah find its way out of a blaze set by Nazis (or anti-Semitic Poles) during the Holocaust and into a Polish trinket shop in 2004? As Ronald Reagan once quipped, “Well, it’s a mystery.”

While the scroll’s past is hazy, its future is not. It was acquired by a March of the Living staffer last year during the trip, who paid out $1,500 for it and another, less dilapidated Torah.

The charred scroll was then purchased by San Jose’s Helaine and Stephen Green for $500. The Greens and other members of the South Bay Jewish community kick-started a restoration fund, amassing more than $40,000.

And, after nearly a year of painstaking work, Alberto Attia, a sofer (Torah scribe) from San Diego, will sign off on the last two lines of the Torah in a 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23 celebration at the new Gloria and Ken Levy Campus, 14855 Oka Road, Los Gatos.

Why spend hundreds of hours raising nearly $20,000 to reconstruct the Torah? “It was a Holocaust survivor. And, in our own way, I felt we were representing the souls that perished in the camps and in the mass graves and somehow giving life back to them again, symbolically,” said Helaine Green, who also helped raise the remaining $20,000 to help teens attend the March of the Living trip.

What little is known about the Torah’s origins is derived from the Hebrew inscription “Minyan Linat Hatzedek” on its wooden handles. This, possibly, was a prayer group catering to wandering Jews based in Ostrov. There are several cities in the region with that name, but Green and others believe the Torah was written in Poland.

Raising the funds was a community effort, which was fitting, as the scroll will now serve as San Jose’s community Torah. It will be housed at Congregation Beth David in Saratoga and available for use locally.

Lindsay Greensweig, chair of the fund-raising committee, noted that more than 200 donors participated in the campaign.

“Little kids donated their $75 in tzedakah. It’s easy for someone to write a $15,000 check, but it’s pretty neat when a day school raises $800,” as Yavneh Day School did, she said.

Attia said he had to completely redo about a third of the Torah scroll, and he’ll be sewing those panels in with the undamaged portion this week.

And, while he has written and rewritten scores of scrolls, this one had special meaning. “It’s a privilege. It truly is,” he said.

“In essence, it went through pretty much the same fate as most of our beloved people from Europe at the hands of the Nazis. When they could not get the people, they dealt with the symbols of our people.”

The symbolism isn’t lost on Alex Bauer.

The retired Sunnyvale electrical engineer was forced into slavery in his native Hungary during the Shoah, and spent the waning years of the war in Dachau. His parents were exterminated at Auschwitz.

“This is a very important gesture for we survivors and the whole community,” said Bauer, 83, who plans to attend the Siyum Sefer Torah celebration.

“A Torah scroll that had been lost during the Holocaust, had been damaged and is resurrected, I think that is a tremendous symbol. We must make sure the Holocaust is not forgotten.”

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.