The Torah is about knowledge, life, history and law. But this particular one is about survival.
Rabbi Nechemia Deitsch of Chabad of Midtown in Toronto lifts this special Torah scroll reverently from its hard-shelled shipping container, which is bedecked with bright stickers saying that the contents are “Fragile.” It has come to Chabad Midtown’s St. Clair Avenue West location from the Jewish Learning Institute in New York.
Its blue velvet cover, which is embroidered in gold lettering, dates the scroll to the Jewish year 5699. That translates to late 1938, which, for the Jews of Europe, marked the beginning of their end.
This is the storied Kristallnacht Torah, which was rescued from one of the 1,400 synagogues that were set ablaze on the night of Nov. 9, 1938, when a wave of pogroms engulfed Germany and Austria. The night’s infamous name was taken from the smashed glass of Jewish shops and homes that littered streets.
Torah scrolls were thrown into bonfires, sometimes by Jews who were forced to comply at gunpoint, while Nazi thugs danced around the flames and cheered.
While witnessing this madness, a 14-year-old boy named Isaac Schwartz risked his life and bolted into the main synagogue in Hamburg and grabbed a Torah scroll from a smouldering pile of holy texts and other sacred items. He quickly buried it in his family’s yard.
The family escaped to Venezuela, but returned to Hamburg following the Second World War, to unearth the scroll. It was in poor shape, with holes, soiling and tears in the parchment. It had survived the Nazis, but not the elements, and sat in disrepair for decades.
It stayed in the family until 2014, when Isaac Schwartz’s son contacted Leonard Wien, a Florida businessman and philanthropist, who has made it his mission to restore destroyed German Torah scrolls, as a homage to his family members and the millions of others who perished in the Holocaust. He bought it from the Schwartz family.
Wien hired two scribes who spent 18 months painstakingly rewriting the faded letters in black ink and replacing the parts of the parchment that were beyond repair.
Barely visible now are expertly patched holes and what appears to be light singe marks on the edges of the parchment. Only the cover and wooden finials are new. The Torah itself is thought to be around 110 years old.
The Torah is very significant to us, as it shows the true spirit that keeps the Jewish people united.
– Rabbi Nechemia Deitsch
Wien donated the restored scroll to the Jewish Learning Institute, which is run by Chabad. For about two years, the Kristallnacht Torah has been touring North American Chabad shuls and it was front-and-centre last Shabbat at Chabad of Midtown’s services.
Interest in the scroll and its miraculous tale is high. Rabbi Deitsch told The CJN before the Shabbat service that he had sent out about 50 invitations and expected double that number to attend.
“The Torah is very significant to us, as it shows the true spirit that keeps the Jewish people united, with enthusiasm, with the past, present and future,” he said.
Rabbi Deitsch noted the appropriateness of last Shabbat’s Torah portion, which describes the start of Moses’ entreaties to the pharaoh, to free the Jews from Egypt. The parashah describes seven of the 10 plagues.
The Torah will travel to Ottawa, following its stay in Toronto.