Lawrence Witt
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A new song at the gates of Auschwitz

A Torah scroll from Wengrow, Poland survived our darkest history, unlike most of the town's residents. Its repair and rededication honors their memory
Illustrative. Repairing a 300-year-old Torah scroll, letter by letter. (iStock)
Illustrative. Repairing a 300-year-old Torah scroll, letter by letter. (iStock)

The final commandment in the Torah, the 613th commandment, enjoins us to “write down this song and teach it to the people of Israel.” The commandment to write a Sefer Torah.

Emil Fackenheim, a Jewish philosopher and rabbi who was born in Halle, Germany in 1916, suggested a 614th commandment: a moral imperative to not grant Hitler a posthumous victory.

To Rabbi Dr. Fackenheim, this commandment is expressed through Jewish survival, through remembering the martyrs of the Holocaust, through not denying or despairing of God and finally through not despairing in humanity.

I have been privileged to witness and participate in the fulfilment of the 613th commandment on a few occasions. I was privileged to inscribe a letter in a Torah scroll dedicated to Holocaust survivors on the very same spot where hundreds of Torah scrolls were burned by their evil Nazi tormentors. I was also privileged to inscribe a letter in a Torah scroll on an IDF army base — that scroll was gifted to the courageous men and women who proudly wear the IDF uniform.

While I have participated in the fulfilment of the 613th commandment and while Rabbi Dr. Fackenheim’s moral imperative informs my beliefs — I have never been able to fulfill both mitzvahs simultaneously in a meaningful and profound way. That is, until now.

On August 4th, I will be privileged to join 55 friends to dedicate a new Torah.

This special Torah scroll is being dedicated by the Friedman family of Montreal, Canada, in memory of their families who survived the Holocaust, and it will stand as an everlasting tribute to the Jewish people. It will bear the names of survivors who saw the worst of humanity yet they persevered and built anew — their families, their shuls and their communities.

This Torah will return to life in Oswiecim, Poland — a stone’s throw from the main entrance to Auschwitz, the infamous gate with the inscription Arbeit Macht Frei under which so many walked through never to realize their hopes, prayers, and aspirations. The last letter will be inscribed by Mr. Josef Lewkowicz, a 96-year-old survivor of six concentration camps, a former Nazi hunter and author.

This Torah scroll is not new. In fact, it is very old. This sacred scroll belonged to the Jewish community of Wengrow, Poland, and unlike most of her residents, this scroll was somehow lucky to have partially survived the darkest period of our history.

Wengrow was one of the oldest Jewish communities in Poland with a Jewish presence, according to some historians, dating back 800 years. In 1921, there were just under 9,500 residents of Wengrow, 50 percent of whom were Jewish.

The Jews of Wengrow were merchants, tanners, knitters, and scribes. There was a Poalei Zion school, a central Yiddish school, a Beth Jacob school, and a Gur yeshiva. The political activities of the Jews of Wengrow were as diverse as the various parties and movements that existed in the Jewish world at that time. They were Zionists. They were Hasidim and they were Bundists. Yet on Shabbat, they set their differences aside and celebrated together.

In July of 1942, the deportation of Wengrow’s Jews to Treblinka began. By Yom Kippur of that year, a majority of Wengrow’s Jews were murdered and the remaining survivors were ultimately killed in the spring of 1943. No more than 100 of Wengrow’s Jewish population are believed to have survived the war.

A rich, beautiful and ancient community — obliterated in the blink of eye. But we remember. And just as our sacred book of instruction teaches us that at the very end, we have to write the song and start the cycle anew, we ensure the future by commemorating the past.

I wonder where in Wengrow this Torah scroll was housed.

How many bar mitzvah boys from Wengrow touched and read from this precious scroll.

Perhaps the Torah was used by Zalman Bergman during his bar mitzvah. Zalman was murdered in Treblinka at the age of 17. Or maybe the Torah was read before Yisroel Mandelbaum’s bris. Little Yisroel was just 7 years old when he was murdered in Treblinka.  Maybe the Torah was used by Chaya Greenberg’s chattan (groom) Shmuel before their wedding.

Perhaps Samuel Rajzman had an aliyah from this Torah. Samuel was born in Wengrow in 1902, witnessed the murder of his wife, his daughter, his two brothers, and his sister — but he miraculously survived. In all, 70 members of the Rajzman family perished during the Holocaust. In 1944, Mr. Rajzman wrote one of the first reports about the atrocities committed in Treblinka, which he saw firsthand. He subsequently was one of 13 survivors to testify before the Central Commission for Investigation of German Crimes in Poland and he was a key witness to testify about Treblinka at the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

Samuel Rajzman emigrated to Canada in 1950 and he passed away in 1979. Perhaps he used this Torah scroll before his world was turned upside down.

I hope that the souls of Wengrow find comfort in knowing that we are bringing their sacred Torah scroll back to life so that it can be used and cherished once again.

A few years ago, when I told an Auschwitz survivor that I was accompanying a group of students to Poland, he asked me to recite a blessing for him in Birkenau. Of course, I obliged and when I asked him what blessing he would like me to recite on his behalf, he told me to recite the blessing SheAssa Li Nes BaMakom HaZeh — who has performed a miracle for me in this place.

Curiously, there is no blessing recited on completing the writing of a Torah scroll.

However, in Oswiecim, I know what I will be thinking about when I inscribe my letter.

If one could travel back in time and tell a Jew in the camps that the day will come when Jews will gather on the outskirts of Auschwitz, accompanied by a survivor, a representative of a vibrant and thriving State of Israel, to rededicate an ancient Torah scroll, they would likely dismiss the idea as a dream. SheAssa Li Nes BaMakom HaZeh.

In the Yizkor Book of the Community of Wengrow, the authors conclude with the following passage:

Full of awe of this holy work, to write down all memories, we are left without speech. Let the pages of this book, full of blood and tears, be a remembrance for our loved ones, whose blood  was spilled on the stones of their city, who died of torture, who went up in smoke in the crematoria of Treblinka, and may this book be in the homes of all of the children of our city, as a sign of what was destroyed, as a testimony to the peoples who stood in our blood, and a tombstone on graves whose places are unknown, and on the mass graves, in remembrance to them and to those who come after them.

The name of the community of Wengrow, hundreds of years old, will never leave our hearts, and the hearts of our children, forever.

To the ancient community of Wengrow, we accept your sacred Torah that has been entrusted to us, with all of its commandments, precepts and obligations, bound together with your stories and legacies. Just as a song is enhanced when it is sung by many voices, we will perpetuate your voices in this eternal song that will never be extinguished. Rest assured that we will cherish your Torah in our hearts and the hearts of our children. Forever.

Thank you to the Friedman Family, the Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation led by Rabbi Reuben Poupko, and to the JRoots team for affording the In the Footsteps of our History mission participants the privilege of completing this song and participating in the fulfilment of the 613th commandment, while at the same time perpetuating Rabbi Dr. Fackenheim’s 614th imperative in the most concrete and tangible way imaginable — at the gates of Auschwitz.

About the Author
Lawrence Witt is a labor, employment and human rights lawyer with the Canadian firm Miller Thomson LLP. In 2017, Lawrence was co-chair of the Montreal March of the Living Delegation comprising of 250 participants accompanied by 10 Holocaust survivors. In 2019, Lawrence received the Gertrude and Henry Plotnick Young Leadership Award from Federation CJA. Lawrence is also a graduate of the Wexner Heritage Program. In the early 1990's, Lawrence studied at Yeshivat Machon Meir in Jerusalem and he subsequently served in the IDF as a lone soldier in the Armored Corps.
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