Betsalel Steinhart
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The Torah scroll in Tarnogrod

I spotted four columns of Hebrew text on parchment full of holes and blackened with age and dirt hanging up upside-down in a Polish library. What was I to do?

I stared at the charred piece of parchment, hung and well-framed, on the wall of the library; four columns of Torah scroll, full of holes and blackened with age and dirt, the thoughts racing through my mind: “How is this here!? How many people have stared at this, not knowing what it is? What am I supposed to do?” And most jarringly, “How can I get it the right way up again!?”

I have had the privilege of guiding in Poland many times, and have countless memories that I relive every Yom HaShoah, whether a personal story told by a participant, or a deafening moment of contemplative group silence, or something that spoke to me for whatever reason on a given trip. I truly believe that the trip is life-changing for all, no matter how many times it is done, and it never fails to move me. As a guide, I always try and be a conduit to the holistic experience, to cement those memories, and to allow the participant to become that link in the chain to the next generation, when there will no longer be survivors. On Yom Ha-shoah, I believe that telling the stories is a way of strengthening that link.

One of the times that I will never forget occurred in the summer of 2018, when guiding for Ramah Israel’s Poland Journey for Adults.

Months before the trip, a woman I am now proud to call my friend, Mrs. Etta Levine, had contacted me with her wonderful story and a question. She had been born in Krakow, left after the war as an infant and ended up in a DP camp in Germany before emigrating to the USA in 1949. She had finally made the decision to return to visit the place of her birth, with her two adult daughters, Melissa and Andrea. She knew we would certainly be going to that beautiful city, however she asked if we would somehow be able to incorporate visiting the tiny town of Tarnogrod in East Poland, where her parents and grandparents had lived. She had not seen it on any tour itinerary, and very much wanted to go there.

I had not heard of the town, much less been there on my travels — there are literally thousands of similar shtetls — but I was touched by her request, and true to the Ramah Israel policy of trying to get to small shtetls according to request if at all possible, I changed the schedule slightly, did my homework, enlisted the help of the Polish guide I would be working with, and prepared as much as I could. All that remained there, it seemed, were the synagogue building and an overgrown Jewish graveyard.

I remember how nervous Etta and her daughters were as we approached the town on the third day of our trip. I had been apprehensive myself about finding the ruins of the synagogue, but needlessly so. Not only was there was no mistaking the massive old building with a distinctive window at the very top in front of us (many synagogues across Europe had a small window at the top, to look up to G-d in prayer), but better still, Etta brought out a faded photograph of the synagogue from pre-war time, and the match was exact.

The Synagogue.  Third from left: Etta, flanked by her daughters Melissa and Andrea. (courtesy)

Etta found the courage to tell her incredibly moving, tear-filled story to us, as we stood outside the building. It was a beautiful moment, making all the preparation and effort so worth it, for the family and for the group. Then we asked if we could enter. Our guide explained to the very accommodating librarian, who was obviously unaccustomed to Jewish groups, why we were there, and she let us in.

The moment we entered, the remains of the once-magnificent Aron Hakodesh (Ark), with the old paint still showing, stood out like a sore thumb from the rows of neatly lined modern books.

Center:  Etta, with the Aron Hakodesh in the background. (courtesy)

A short walk around made it clear that the top floor, where most of the books were, had been the women’s balcony, and the lower floor, where there was a reading section and a storage area, had been the main sanctuary; the Aron had gone from floor to ceiling.

The remains of the Aron Hakodesh

Like my group, I walked around, as usual lost in the voices of past cantors and prayers from this once proud center of Judaism…and then I saw it on the wall. As I said above: I stared at the charred piece of parchment, hung and well-framed, on the wall of the library, immediately knowing what it was — four columns of Torah scroll, full of holes and blackened with age and dirt…and hung up upside down. Upside down!

My mouth open, I dragged the guide and librarian over, and through him as an interpreter, got the story — she had found the parchment at the bottom of an old box in the storage area. She knew enough to recognize the Hebrew letters, and thought it a nice touch to hang it up in the library as a point of interest of what the building had once been.

How many people, visiting that library, had glanced at it, not knowing what it is and not knowing it was upside down? Impossible to tell, but clearly no one Jewish.

What was I supposed to do? My mind was racing. I was torn. A part of me wanted to ask to take it back with me to Israel, for proper care and/or burial — how could I leave it in a non-Jewish library, as a quaint picture for non-Jews to see as they borrowed a book, not caring and not realizing what it meant? Would she give it to me, in any case? And yet…it had been written there, had illuminated the lives of the Jews of Tarnogrod, had survived untold years there as a Torah scroll and eight decades more as a charred fragment, and really belonged there, showing the visitors that this had once been a center of Judaism.

I was torn, but one thing was clear to me: I had to get it turned the right way round! So after explaining to the librarian that it was upside down, she brought a few tools and together we took it off, turned it around, and re-hung it. It was only then that I saw for the first time what piece of Torah it was, and for the second time, I was shocked to the core: though tattered and ragged, I immediately recognized it as the first four columns of the portion of Ki Tisa, which I had just finished teaching my son for his bar mitzvah and which he had read a few weeks before the trip. A section I knew almost by heart!

At this point, most of my group and a few of the patrons of the library were watching with interest. I explained what it was, what it meant, and why it was there. Then, in the moment I will not forget, I spontaneously started to sing/read — in the proper trop — the first few verses that I knew so well. The synagogue, for the first time in perhaps 80 years, was ringing again with the voice of Jewish prayer and Torah reading. Once a synagogue, always a synagogue, and the sounds of Ki Tisa echoed again around the old building. It was not lost on me that the literal meaning of those words is “When you raise up”…

The Portion of Ki Tisa. The reflection of the 2 lights of the library may be coincidence, but as Einstein said, coincidence is G-d’s way of staying anonymous. (courtesy)

To say it was moving for me was an understatement, and, with tears in my eyes, I had made up my mind. The Ki Tisa Torah columns were there to stay, and hopefully their story will be told again by the wide-eyed librarian, or perhaps another Jewish group.

I have been told, several times by friends and associates, that I should have brought it to Israel. Maybe, maybe not. However, there is at least one guide who – when travel is permitted again – wants to get back to Tarnogrod one day, and re-tell that story.

May we have a meaningful Yom Hashoah.

About the Author
Betsalel Steinhart is a Licensed Tour Guide, and the Director of the Ramah Israel Institute for Ramah Israel. He lives in Bet Shemesh with his wife and five children.
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