Hatam Soferet’s inbox today twinkled with forwards of this Washington Post article.
Basically, there’s a guy, R’ Youlus, whose shtick is rescuing sifrei Torah from Nazi-stricken Europe – removing them, restoring them to usable condition, and rehousing them in America. (As someone with a personal interest in resurgent European Jewry I have my reservations regarding the idea that the appropriate way to “rescue” a sefer Torah is to remove it to America, mind you.) Jolly good. He’s been doing this for some years. A generally laudable project.
This article suggests that perhaps all is not quite as it should be in the realm of R’ Youlus’ sifrei Torah, that these are no more genuine Holocaust-surviving continental sifrei Torah than they are splinters of the True Cross.
In particular, certain highly-coloured, heart-wrenching tales of dramatic Torah-scroll rescues don’t appear to stand up so well to close examination.
There was a legend of a Torah scroll that had been hidden under the floorboards at Bergen-Belsen…[R’ Youlus] came to Bergen-Belsen on a tour and literally fell into a hole in the corner of the floorboards, felt something strange, suspected that this might be where it was. It was dug up. Indeed it was the Torah, fully there. After some negotiations, Rabbi Youlus was able to purchase the Torah…
But Youlus’s discovery at Bergen-Belsen comes as news to the historian at the camp museum. “I can definitely exclude that there could have been a find of the Torah scroll on the grounds of the Bergen-Belsen Memorial” in recent years, writes Thomas Rahe.
That sort of thing. Well, you can read the article yourselves and see what you think. Wouldn’t be the first time a pious-looking person has fleeced people by selling fake relics.
We have a principle of judging favourably, and I am going to take this space to give us the tools to judge favourably.
When a community acquires a sefer Torah, a lot of people are involved – committee members, people whose job it is to whip up interest in the community, congregants, donors, community press officers…all sorts of people, and that’s before we even mention the sofer. Suppose we have a story of a – pleasing, but by no means dramatic – find in a Polish junk shop; pass the story, Telephone-fashion among all these people, who all have their own Holocaust narrative threads. We like to tell our stories. Story threads get tangled up. The original tale becomes embroidered into a thrilling tale of a dramatic adventure in a concentration camp.
Not implausible, to my mind. People are incredibly invested in Holocaust memorabilia, and they’re incredibly invested in sifrei Torah as well. Our communities ooze legend and sentiment regarding both.
Now suppose you’re in R’ Youlus’ shoes and you’re at a Torah-scroll dedication, and you become uncomfortably aware that the story the community is telling doesn’t much resemble your original story. Torah scrolls and Holocaust are an incredibly volatile emotional mix, take it from me. At a dedication like this, people are weeping buckets. If you’re a mensch, what do you say? “Um no, it wasn’t quite like that, it wasn’t dug up in a cemetery, there were no miracles, I just found it in some shop”? Or do you say less than you ought to because you don’t want to hurt people?
And look. If you’re a mensch, and you’re not all that focused on media attention, and you’re busy with your life’s work, and you’re maybe a bit naïve, it would really be very easy to get yourself into the sort of circumstances which could result in the linked article. You wouldn’t be a fraud or any of the other nasty words going around – just unfortunate.
I don’t know the guy. Maybe he’s for real, maybe he isn’t. The part of the article that says “If a sofer tells you a story, you can believe him” is really quite shocking rubbish, there are plenty of bent soferim out there. Maybe he’s one of them. But part of me says, caveat emptor, people, but cut the guy some slack.