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Candlesticks saved from Shoah donated to Toronto shul

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The candlesticks that were saved prior to the Holocaust and which now reside at the Forest Hill Jewish Centre. (Ben Barak photo)

A set of tall, sterling silver candlesticks from the pre-Holocaust Jewish community of Jaslo, Poland, have been donated to the Forest Hill Jewish Centre in Toronto, after remaining unlit for eight decades.The centre is modelled after the Jaslo synagogue, which was destroyed by the Nazis, with the aim of reigniting the flame of the lost Jewish community. Now, it can begin to do so literally.

“It is thrilling,” said Rabbi Elie Karfunkel, the centre’s chief rabbi. He said the candlesticks honour the Jaslo community’s memory in the deepest of ways:

“Candlesticks represent the soul of the person lighting (them) and (the centre). This one big building represents the candlestick of all the people from Jaslo.”

Over the years, the centre has welcomed survivors of the Jaslo community and Rabbi Karfunkel owns a 150-year-old Talmud that once belonged to the Jaslo synagogue’s chief rabbi.

The candlesticks were donated by Harold Erbe, a resident of Vancouver who said that his late father, Julius, received them from Jews that he worked with in Jaslo before the Second World War. Amid the looming threat of the Nazis, Erbe said that his father, being a non-Jew who was close with the Jewish community, was asked to keep the candlesticks safe.

Following the family’s move to Canada after the war, Erbe said the candlesticks remained largely unseen. When his father died, they were given to his mother, and later to his sister, who gave them to him just two months ago.

From then, the dots serendipitously connected: the first result of a Google search revealed the Forest Hill Jewish Centre. And after a phone call with Rabbi Karfunkel, the candles were sent to Toronto within a couple of weeks, along with a letter outlining everything Erbe knew about them.

Rabbi Elie Karfunkel with the candlesticks (Ben Barak photo)

“It was a really beautiful moment for me,” said Erbe, who relished the chance to reunite the candlesticks with their heritage. “My wife and myself, tears came to our eyes.”

Erbe said that although he doesn’t believe in fate, he knew right away that the centre was the right place for the items that his family guarded for so long. It’s a chance for people to “know that there’s still hope in this world and that love shouldn’t be forgotten,” he said.

To many members and administrators of the Forest Hill Jewish Centre, the significance of the homecoming is even more profound. According to Rabbi Karfunkel, the efforts of the Erbe family represent a pillar on which the centre was founded: righteous gentiles risking their lives to aid their Jewish neighbours.

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The Jaslo shul was chosen as a model, among other reasons, because the Polish fire department rushed to put out the fire when the Nazis first set it ablaze in 1939, he said.

He also said the centre was built on the idea that the Jews persevere and are “a living, breathing entity.” The ultimate way to carry forward that idea is to reignite the candlesticks’ flames, he suggested. They were lit for the first time in 80 years at a recent bat mitzvah and Rabbi Karfunkel said he plans to use them at many simchas in the future.

One day soon, he also hopes the centre will have the opportunity to host the Erbe family on Shabbat, in order to thank them. Erbe “represents goodness,” Rabbi Karfunkel said. “If his dad can know how happy he has made so many people, that would make me happy. But at least his son knows.”

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