Culture, Identity, Religion

Holocaust Torah Scrolls, and Judging Favourably

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.

30 thoughts on “Holocaust Torah Scrolls, and Judging Favourably

  1. Not to judge, but I don’t understand the Rabbis motives. Was he enhancing the history of a Torah scroll so that it would find a home? Would he not be able to find a home for it if it didn’t have an enhanced history? Or was this simply to increase the monetary value of the Torah scroll.
    In either case what about the truth? If I expect sales people in general to be truthful, should I expect less from a Rabbi?
    So many questions. The situation does leave me with uncomfortable feelings. I guess I have judged him, in that I don’t think I would buy a Torah scroll from him.

  2. CVBruce – that’s the thing – it’s easy enough to get into a situation where you were telling the truth, you were also being excited about context, and you didn’t realise that people around you were a) paying so much attention and b) getting it slightly wrong. At which point, it becomes very difficult to say “Hey, stop – ” and give a “The Truth” version of events, particularly without hurting people.
    Of course you should expect a rabbi – the more so, a sofer – to be truthful, and if someone was buying from him they should approach with due diligence; I just find the way people are vilifying the chap very disturbing. Perhaps I’m being too nice.

  3. I really have alot of respect for this post and what HS is putting forth. This is an important aspect of the Jewish legal tradition that could (and maybe should?) have an invaluable affect in Jewish culture and society.
    In my experience of studying archaeology, and hearing from archaeologists and curators as to the suspicions of some of the stories around archaeological artifacts and relics, this is a very believable and plausible interpretation of events. Sometimes it could be greed and less than genuine intent, for example, in excavating Troy, it is widely accepted that Heinrich Schliemann planted impressive finds which he later dug up (and strangely adorned on his wife for a photo shoot to advertise his “triumph”). But in general, by the time items of historical “import” get to consumers, the stories on them are largely embellished, and much of that could easily be chalked up to people having a different memory of what they heard in regards to what they report. sad, but true, and a beautiful and fascinating aspect of memory in history, and, in my opinion, why myth better serves our emotional memories, at times, than reality.

  4. Torahs with unclear provenances bring up another very sad issue: some are stolen. I have heard that stolen torahs are often resold as “holocaust torahs”. Is this a silly urban legend? A serious issue?

  5. ZT – sure some sifrei Torah are stolen, and quite possibly resold as “holocaust torahs.”
    I need to do a post on “due diligence when buying sifrei Torah,” don’t I.
    There are lots of things to look out for when buying a sefer Torah, including “was it stolen” and “was it written by an appropriate sort of Jew.” No-one wants a stolen scroll, no-one wants a scroll written by a non-Jew, non-egal Jews don’t want scrolls written by women, and so forth.
    Awareness, it’s good for us.

  6. Hmm, interesting. My mom once had a factory lose some art and try to copy her hebrew calligraphy. needless to say, it was pretty obvious. Are there Chinese non-Jewish calligraphers whose work can pass for a professional Jewish Sofer/Soferet?

  7. No one (should) want to buy a Torah produced under poor labor conditions, but if a non-jew had the knowledge to produce a Torah scroll in the proper way, I would support it’s use as a kosher Torah. In fact, what a cool interfaith experience.

  8. Meh. Besides, everything at his store seems overpriced. Right down to the $24 hanukiya that doesn’t really hold candles that well.

  9. Is there a difference between playing to the emotive Holocaust chorus and lying about the provenance of Sifrei Torah, and playing to the emotive egalitarian chorus and lying about their kashrut?

    1. chakira-
      “This sefer Torah was found at Bergen-Belsen” is a well-defined statement whose truth value is either true or false. “This sefer Torah is kosher” has no definite truth value absent further context.

  10. I think it has plenty of truth value, since the word Kosher was used in one context by thousands of people for many, many years. It is not as amorphous as saying “good” or “excellent.” There also exists a body of laws delineating the Kashrut of each Sefer Torah, albeit subject to internal variation, but still uniform enough to be spoken of as such. Of course, one could say that these things are dynamic and subject to changing mores. But that is different than unilaterally abrogating them because one person feels a certain way. Perhaps Rabbi Youlis deeply felt that “Bergen Belsen” should mean “the Bronx” given the vicissitudes of the Jews of that benighted borough. Who are you to deny him this new version of Bergen Belsen, and to efface the suffering of the Jews of Grand Concourse?

      1. It’s only a lie if someone is being deceived. If Rabbi Youlis said “Bergen Belsen” to mean “the Bronx”, and his audience also understood “Bergen Belsen” to mean “the Bronx”, then there is no deception. Likewise, if both the speaker and the listener agree on a definition of kashrut (regardless of what that definition is), then there is no deception.

  11. There was an article with several mendacious claims in the Edah journal which one could begin with. For the sake of simplification, the claim that a Sefer Torah written by a woman can be described as Kosher by traditional Jewish law strikes me as dubious. This is not to deny the deeply felt personal truth of the claimant, but rather to make a claim about the use of a normative justification in Jewish history.

    1. chakira writes:
      There was an article with several mendacious claims in the Edah journal which one could begin with.
      Ok, go for it.

  12. Wow. Someone’s trolling by judging unfavorably beyond all reason on a post about judging favorably. The mind boggles.

  13. Chakira: if you call your meat kosher because you follow the Rama, and your sefardi friend calls it treif because she follows the shulchan arukh, is one of you lying?

  14. I would give Youlus the benefit of the doubt – if there were any doubt. But in this case, there is no doubt at all. Youlus defrauded people who thought they could trust him, plain and simple.
    I am the “nephew” referred to in the first paragraph of the Washington Post story. There was no ambiguity or uncertainty in what Youlus told my Uncle Bob – that the Torah he bought came from a mass grave near Kamenetz-Podolsk, his father’s native place. Youlus told an involved story about how he found two Torahs in a mass grave he located on a map sold to him by a local farmer, along with the remains of about 200 people. He said he reburied the remains and restored the Torahs, ultimately selling both of them to buyers in the United States.
    Only guess what – Youlus sold these same TWO sifre torah to FIVE different people. That’s right – he told each of them that they were buying one of two sifrei torah that he found in a mass grave, etc., etc. – the same story to each of them. When my Uncle Bob found this out, he contacted Youlus, who could provide no satisfactory explanation. Neither could he produce the map he bought from the local farmer; photos of the mass grave in which he found the Torahs; photos of the Torahs before restoration; or any other evidence to back up his story.
    Youlus abused the trust and deep, qenuine feelings of several people, my Uncle Bob included. I can only conclude the man is some kind of sociopath. Only such a person could persuade so many to trust him, and then deceive them so heartlessly. My words may be harsh, but I feel it’s no more than this man deserves. I am very bitter.
    Like my Uncle Bob, I can’t agree with those who call Youlus’s stories “Midrash,” or say that they serve a greater truth. On the contrary, it seems that he makes them up himself to create a market, and to inflate the prices of the Torahs he acquires who knows how – probably on the Eastern European “gray market” he himself refers to. The story of “corrupt museum curators” rings true to me. I know that curators of archives in Belarus and elsewhere did the same thing with pages of census records that were of value to Western genealogists. No doubt these curators were underpaid – if they were paid at all after the fall of Communism – but that IMO does not excuse their crime: the deliberate erasure of history.
    If Youlus’s stories are untrue, then he himself is guilty of the same crime. How ironic that he claims to be doing just the opposite!

  15. Amit- you are lying if you know how that person holds or if you don’t but there is a common community standard that your meat don’t meet.
    I believe that all or nearly all 50 states have laws defining “kosher” for purposes of food. In the state of Georgia, for example, that means a Conservative rabbi can’t be a mashgiach. So there is civil law on the issue.

    1. Siviyo writes:
      Amit- you are lying if you know how that person holds or if you don’t but there is a common community standard that your meat don’t meet.
      And that’s not the sort of case that chakira is trolling about.

  16. My heart goes out to the people who have been hurt and feel betrayed. This needs to be repaired, if possible. In the meantime a few thoughts.
    We have yet to hear from R. Youlus. We have the accusations. Not the defense. Tragically, some have expressed their judgment, prematurely.
    I don’t know the answers to the many pointed and painful questions leveled at Rabbi Youlus. However, a few thoughts.
    I have personally known R. Youlus for nearly 20 years. I trust him with my life. Period. His care, knowledge, and kindness have enriched my life and those of many in the Jewish community in the Baltimore area and in the world.
    We must be careful not to destroy a reputation and a life. Think. Has anyone heard directly from R. Youlus? Does he not deserve a say?
    This is not a small matter. Life is in the balance.
    We, the Jewish people, who have been so attacked over the years must wait to hear the whole story.
    In my experience, R. Youlus always behaved only with a gentleness and a love of all Israel, Torah, and holiness that are the hallmarks of a ben-Torah.
    We must wait to hear the whole story.
    I am certain that there is an explanation for his behavior. I don’t know what they are at the moment. But I trust the man with my life. A false accusation may cost a life. Life is the highest value in our sacred tradition. And once you have falsely accused someone it is nearly impossible re-bottle the accusation.
    Please God, give us the wisdom to guard our tongue that we may not have blood on our hands.

  17. A keen eye should be able to spot whether a Torah is a genuine “Holocaust Survivor” or a fake one made on the spot. Not only can you check the condition of the parchment and ink (as well as its DNA), you can analyze the handwriting for time period and region. If a purported Torah from 19th century Vilna looks like it was made in pre-war Germany, SOMETHING is up.

  18. Scribery is interesting to me in how individual it is. There’s so much responsibility placed on the soferet or sofer in terms of noticing flaws in a Torah that would render it nonkosher. Perhaps this sort of problem could be solved by creating some kind of “certification” for Torahs. I.e., there could be an organization or board of experts (soferet/sofer, historians, etc.), who would examine a Torah and create a sort of “profile” of it. The soferet/sofer would comment on its writing quality, origin, etc., the historian might offer a historical profile of where it was created and under what conditions, and so forth. That might be a really interesting way for communities to be more connected with their scrolls in a less folklore-based way. Obviously this would be separate from the halakha and precedent around a soferet/sofer’s ability to “declare” a Torah kosher; it would be sort of an added benefit available to anyone interested.

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