Welcome Home Torah

On Sunday, April 15, a brief welcome ceremony was held at the Melbourne Jewish Holocaust Museum. It was a ceremony for a Czech Sefer Torah which survived the Shoah and had been rescued by the Memorial Scrolls Trust from a ruined shule near Prague, transported to London, sent to Brisbane where it was used until it was damaged. The Memorial Trust transferred it to the Museum to be visible to a wider public.

Some years ago on March of the Living we came across a bimah. The bimah stands alone in Tarnow, a town not far from Cracow. Along with the simple boundary iron fence adorned with a Magen David motif, it is all that remains of the main shule in Tarnow.

No Jews live in Tarnow now. No congregation to mourn their devastated shule. No walls to shelter their stranded bimah. In many ways this bereft survivor is emblematic of the destruction of Jewish life in Poland: a forlorn reminder of a once proud and thriving community. A lone mourner for its congregants gunned down in the streets deported to Belzec or shot in mass graves that lie in the green forest some kilometres away from the town. Yet for all this heartbreak the bimah still stands and is tenderly protected from the elements by a rooftop erected over it.

As we stood in the rain, I spoke spontaneously to the bimah – and these are the words I penned down afterwards:

Bimah, Bimah

The skies are crying for you today

and we, we’re also weeping.

Bimah, Bimah

how many chatanim whirled joyously around you

how many boys were blessed

girls named beside you…

And on Simchat Torah how they

must have danced and rocked

eyes starwards into the polished Polish night.

Bimah, Bimah

How pocked and marked you are;

all around the rafters fells

and the walls went with their brothers.

Did you feel the flames?

Did you long to join them

into the harsh raving night?

Bimah, Bimah – you’re still here

alone in the seeping rain

but we’re with you.

Stand strong, stay forever, resolute survivor

stubborn in your solitude, searing in your strength.

Similarly, I reflect on this precious survivor today, this Torah from Valasske Mezirici; a Torah without its community. I wonder about the eyes that rested on it, the hands that held it, the ears that heard its words, the community that had purchased and nurtured it. Had one of these Valasske Mezirici Jews possibly written it? I think of the Barmitzvah boys stumbling through it, the dancers around it and those who saved and preserved it and at what personal cost.

A Torah is not just a scroll. It’s a live, vital living presence, an embodiment of the essence of being Jewish. That’s why we treat it as we would a live human being. Stand up for it, lift it up, love it, fast for it.

But even more than this – every Jew is instructed to write their own Torah or at least try buy a letter. We each are a letter in the scroll, says the Ari; the soul of each and every Jew is rooted in a letter in the Torah because each originates from the same source the same place where all our souls stem from. To reclaim a Torah is to reclaim the lives of those whose Torah this was.

The Talmud famously records the story of how Rabbi Chananya ben Tradyon went to visit the ailing Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma who told him of a terrible vision: The Roman Empire will destroy the Sanctuary and burn you and the Torah. And they did. The Romans placed moist cotton over his heart to prolong his agony. As the flames rose the Romans mocked him “Oh teacher do you see the flames consuming you?”

His students asked: “Rabbi what do you see?”

He replies with a faraway smile: “I see the parchment being consumed by flames, but the letters, I see them flying through the sky.”

They consumed his flesh as they did to countless Jews at Auschwitz and across countless Jewish towns and shtetls. But the letters like the spirit were not consumed. They did not destroy us.

עוד לא אבדה תקוותנו “We have not lost our faith”

And so we affirmed life.

Another midrash tells that the stones of the temple were scattered at the time of the destruction. They dispersed across the world and wherever they landed, a shule was established. And one of these landed in London, one in Brisbane where this Torah scroll found a faraway home. Even a Torah needs mazel…

Torah, Torah

We are weeping for you today, your lost boys and girls.

We are crying for your lost community.

Torah, Torah

We are singing for you today. You’re still here, back among your people albeit in a strange Aussie land. But this is the land of the dream time and lingering song lines of its ancient people. Today we will sing a new song with you  שירה חדשה!

Welcome to the Holocaust Museum sad traveller!

The Sefer Torah at the Jewish Holocaust Museum in Melbourne. Pictured alongside (L-R) Dr. Joseph Toltz, Eva Slonim and Jayne Josem.


About the Author
Rabbi Genende recently retired as the Senior Rabbi of Melbourne’s premier Caulfield Shule and took up the position of Senior Rabbi and Manager to Jewish Care Victoria, Melbourne’s largest Jewish organisation. He was a senior Reserve Chaplain in the South African Defence Force and is now Principal Rabbi to the Australian Defence Force, Member of the Religious Advisory Council to the Minister of Defence (RACS), board member of AIJAC (Australian Israel Jewish Affairs Council) and member of the Premier's Mulitifaith Advisory Group. He was President of JCMA (Jewish Christian Muslim Association) and a long time executive member of the Rabbinical Association of Victoria. He also oversees Yad BeYad a premarital relationship program, is a member of Swinburne University’s Research Ethics Committee and of the DHHS ,Department of Health Ethics Committee and sits on the Glen Eira City Council’s Committee responsible for its Reconciliation Action Plan for recognition and integration of our first peoples. Ralph has a passion for social justice and creating bridges between different cultures and faiths. For him the purpose of religion is to create a better society for all people and to engage with the critical issues facing Australian society. The role of the rabbi is, in his words, to challenge the comfortable and comfort the challenged. In 2018 Rabbi Genende was awarded an OAM for his services to multi-faith relations, and to the Jewish community of Victoria. Rabbi Genende is a trained counsellor with a Masters degree from Auckland University. He is married to Caron, a psychologist, and they have three children and two grandchildren.