Saving the Torah from the Holocaust

How much is a Torah scroll worth? Most of us would not readily have an answer but there are rare moments when these kinds of questions have a strange way of turning into reality. In 1942, during the dark days of World War II, Nathan and Chana Goldstein were travelling across the borders of Eastern Europe when they encountered a Russian commissar in possession of Torah scroll. He knew it was valuable and had waited in anticipation for the day when he could exploit this fact.

The Goldsteins had no money. Their most valuable possession were gold chains given to Chana  years before by her mother. They were family heirlooms worn only on Shabbat and Yom Tov. During the war, gold was precious and could be used to barter for food, lodging, and other critical needs. In a true act of self-sacrifice, she decided to give her gold chains to the Russian commissar in exchange for the Torah scroll. They carefully watched over it during the remaining years of the war and it would eventually accompany them when they came to America. In later years, it was donated to the synagogue and used for family celebrations. It was only then the Torah scroll’s true worth was recognized. At the bar mitzvah of Nathan and Chanah’s grandson, their son proclaimed, “Seeing my son proudly read from my mother’s Torah scroll, I realized that she had exchanged a gold chain for a chain of proud Jewish life for her descendants.”

A Torah scroll is nothing more than parchment, letters, and two pieces of wood. But what the Goldstein family came to realize is though they may have carried the Torah scroll throughout Europe, in reality it had carried them. While it is forbidden to carry on Shabbat, the Talmud states chai nosei et atzmo (Shabbat 93b), a living being carries itself. While it may appear to us as an inanimate object, every Torah scroll should be viewed as a torat chaim, a living Torah that has the ability to lift up those who carry it. This is especially so for those who survived the Holocaust. Many Survivors found that the Torah sustained them in their most difficult moments, and in the years that followed, it provided them with the strength to grow and rebuild.

Not far from where the Goldsteins rescued their Torah scroll a young man named Yehuda Klein was also saved from the Holocaust by the power of Torah.  After the war, he would go on to become Rav Yehudah Amital, the founding Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion and an important spiritual leader. He was born in Grosswardein, Hungary to a deeply religious family, and from a young age, he showed prodigious talents for Torah study. A young man of twenty when the Germans invaded, he was forced into the ghetto along with his family.[1]

After two days, Rav Amital received a draft notice requiring him to depart for a labor camp. The rest of his family was not so lucky and would ultimately be sent to Auschwitz. Rav Amital left for the labor camp knowing that he would be saying goodbye to them for the last time. In the waning hours before departing, he was able to gather several sacred Jewish texts from the ghetto to take along with him. When he thought about what would give him strength during the difficult days ahead, he added a small pamphlet titled Mishnat HaRav, a collection of various teachings from Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook. From his first encounter with the writings of Rav Kook, he sensed that they contained a great spiritual light. Throughout the terrible conditions of the labor camp, he drew strength and inspiration from the small book. It was during this time that the Torah of Rav Kook captured his heart and would later have a decisive impact on his spiritual path after the Holocaust.

Rav Amital would journey to the land of Israel immediately after the war’s end with the dream of continuing his torah studies. He learned at various yeshivot but it was a time when few Holocaust Survivors had made their way to the Holy Land, and many Israelis could even begin to imagine the horrors that had occurred in Europe. Rav Amital was often asked how he remained spiritually strong after his experiences during the war? He would answer by presenting his questioners with the small pamphlet of Rav Kooks’ teachings that he had carried with him throughout the war. It is what had sustained his faith and given him strength when nothing else could.

One of the most miraculous developments in the seventy plus years since the Holocaust has been the flourishing of Torah throughout the Jewish world. In the months and years following the annihilation of European Jewry, many feared that Torah study had no future. The great European yeshivot had been destroyed or uprooted. Who would produce the Torah scholars of future generations? This was not a new anxiety for the Jewish people. After the destruction of the Second Temple and the Roman persecutions that followed, the Talmud Rabbis were fearful that the Oral Torah would be forgotten.  In order to prevent this and ensure the Torah’s transmission from one generation to another, dramatic steps were taken and the Oral Torah was put into writing.

A similar approach was embraced by Holocaust Survivors after the war. When they came to America and Israel, they found Jewish communities that could greatly benefit from increased opportunities for Torah study and Jewish education. Like Rav Yehudah Amital, many Survivors dedicated themselves to building institutions that would be a source of Torah for all. The Slonimer Rebbe in his work Netivot Shalom explains that every generation has its special mission to fulfill. Every generation has one mitzvah that it can perform like no other and raise to new heights.[2] For the generation living after the Holocaust this mitzvah was talmud torah. Today, there are more Jews studying Torah than ever before in Jewish history. There are hundreds of yeshivot in Israel and hundreds of Jewish day schools in America. The post-Holocaust years have also seen the flowering of women’s Torah learning along with technological developments that enable Torah study to occur at any time and any place.

While nearly all of Rav Kook’s teachings can be characterized as spiritually uplifting, there is one piece from Mishnat HaRav which stands out. In the section titled Torah and Mitzvot, Rav Kook writes:

The Torah is love and the mitzvot are faith. Torah and mitzvot are the conduits through which faith and love constantly flow. All of the Jewish people’s physical and spiritual life must be focused on these two pillars which are really four: Torah and mitzvot. Torah and mitzvot– love and faith.

Over the last several decades, Holocaust Survivors have demonstrated an unbelievable ability to embody torah and mitzvot, love and faith. Without these pillars, the Jewish people cannot stand. Despite witnessing terrible destruction, they committed themselves to rebuilding their lives and in doing so they built up the Jewish people along with them. They were able to do this because they carried the Torah with them in their darkest moments.

The Talmud states it is shameful that people will stand for a Torah scroll when they see it carried through the synagogue, but rarely stand for a talmid chacham, a Torah scholar. (Makkot 22b) However holy a Torah scroll may be, it is still only parchment, letters, and two pieces of wood. What matters most is not the physical scroll, but the Torah that we learn and make a part of who we are. This was the message that was learned by the Goldsteins, Rav Amital, and many of those who survived the Holocaust. They helped save the Torah from destruction and in doing so, they were able to internalize its most important teachings. We are truly blessed to live at a time when Holocaust survivors still walk among us. Each one is a living Torah scroll deserving of the greatest respect.

[1] For an incredible description of Rav Amital’s experiences during the Holocaust and is life afterwards see By Faith Alone- The Story of Rabbi Yehudah Amital by Elyashiv Reichner.

[2] See Noam Elimelech, Parshat Noach  and Netivot ShalomKovetz Sichot L’Mishmeret HaRishona p. 6-7.

About the Author
Rabbi Zachary Truboff recently made aliyah and moved with his family to Jerusalem. He is the director of the English speaking program at Bina L'Itim, a project of Yeshivat Siach Yitzchak and an educator for the Hartman Institute. For nearly a decade, he served as the rabbi of Cedar Sinai Syagogue in Cleveland, OH. He is an officer of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. He has a passion for using Jewish texts and ideas along with contemporary thought to address important issues of the day.
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