A Torah Lost and Found, and Found Again
It is a sad and continuing wonder to me that every time I think I have heard the very last Holocaust story, another one unfolds. There is no end to the enduring nightmare of stories, but now and then, there are somewhat happy endings.
"Before the war, my grandfather Jacob was a leader of his Orthodox synagogue in Kazinczy Street in Budapest," my elderly second cousin told me in 1999. I was visiting her in Tel Aviv and, as usual, she was telling me stories. This was my favorite activity with Eva, whose hearing, eyesight, and body were failing, but whose memory was still keen.
"In the 1930s, he donated a beautiful sefer Torah and Torah cover to the synagogue. After the Germans invaded, in March, 1944, the Nyilas — who were the Hungarian Nazis, brutes even worse in some cases than the Nazis themselves — shut down all the Jewish houses of worship. The Nyilas belonged to the fanatical Arrow Cross party which — like the Germans — hated all Jews and intended to purge Hungary of every last one."
She sighed heavily and winced, because she still felt the pain of that awful time: "We knew the synagogue was going to be shut, so all the Torahs were removed from the Ark and stashed away in advance. But then we learned that Jacob's Torah had been stolen by a Nyilas member...."
The story of my great-uncle Jacob's Torah was one of the many stories Eva told me about the years 1938-1945, when she and her sister were trapped in Budapest, along with others in their extended family.
Jacob's grown sons had been seized and taken to labor camps, where some were worked to death. One daughter died in Auschwitz, and a grandson died in Buchenwald. But Jacob, his second wife, Klara, and some of their children and grandchildren remained in Budapest, slipping in and out of hiding, buying temporary shelter from anyone willing to take the risk for Jews. They moved around a great deal, and had found refuge in a small apartment early in 1945.
"Near the end of the war, in comes a Nyilas soldier with a rucksack on his back," continues Eva. "He is looking for Jacob, who is reluctant to identify himself. 'Yes?' my grandfather whispers, knowing that a Jew's life is very cheap these days.
"The soldier says he must talk to Jacob alone. All right. We all leave the room. The soldier confesses that he is a Jew disguised in a Nyilas uniform. Then he opens his sack, takes out the sefer Torah, and hands it to my grandfather.
"'This is yours,' he tells Jacob. 'I found it and kept it for you.' Many years later, and long after Jacob had died, his son Samuel brought it to Israel and gave it to a synagogue in Ramat Gan, I think."
Eva was tired, and told me no more stories that night. The next day, we talked about other things. On my plane flight home to New York, I resolved that I would track down Jacob's Torah. But subsequent trips to Israel yielded nothing; there were many synagogues in Ramat Gan, but few kept records detailing the history of donated items such as Torah scrolls.
Eva's health declined, and she no longer talked about old times. Now and then, I thought about Jacob's Torah, and wondered if I would ever see it. I also began researching my family tree, inspired in part by Eva's stories.
A few months ago, I found a second cousin who is Israeli. Avi is Jacob's grandson, by his second wife. Through diligent research and the marvels of online Jewish genealogy, Avi and another relative have amassed a lengthy list of close and distant relatives, and a few facts about them. The list has helped me fill in some blanks, but it reminds me of empty wire hangers with no clothes; without the stories, what do I know of these people?
In one of our phone conversations, I told Avi the story of Jacob's Torah, and asked him if he knew its whereabouts.
"Oh yes! Of course!" he answered quickly. "It's in the ark of the big synagogue on Herzl Street. We take it out every year, on Simchat Torah, and carry it around and dance." Then he paused: "I knew that Samuel brought the Torah from Budapest; in fact, on the cover it says that it was 'rescued and brought to the land of Israel.' But I never knew the Torah's story. Thank you so much. Now, whenever I hold Jacob's Torah, I will know what happened and who saved it."
Published in The Jewish Week of New York September 28, 2007. (C) Copyright Susan J. Gordon 2007