A Survivor’s Lost Torah Scroll

From War-Ravaged Poland to Disappearance in Jerusalem

Generations: The author, her grandparents and brother pose with the Torah at her brother’s bar mitzvah in 1983, before the scroll disappeared.
Courtesy of Mimi Schultz
Generations: The author, her grandparents and brother pose with the Torah at her brother’s bar mitzvah in 1983, before the scroll disappeared.

By Mimi Schultz

Published January 12, 2014, issue of January 17, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 7)

In 1982 the Great Synagogue’s construction was complete, and my aunt’s family traveled to Jerusalem so that my cousin, her son Sean, could read from the family Torah for his bar mitzvah. They were there for the Great Synagogue’s consecration.

After Sean chanted from the Torah, Aunt Esther wanted a picture of her son and her mother holding the Torah together. As the Torah was being passed to my grandmother, the male synagogue administrator who was supervising the affair lurched forward to intervene, quickly explaining that it was inappropriate for a woman to hold the Torah. My aunt, not in the mood for discussion, stared at him and calmly explained in one searing sentence that this woman now holding the Torah was the same woman who carried it through Poland and over the Alps to safety, and that it was quite appropriate for her to hold it, thank you very much.

The following year, my immediate family followed suit so that my brother could become a bar mitzvah and chant from the Torah. I was 10 years old, and the Great Synagogue sanctuary seemed immense. Growing up in Tucson, Ariz., I’d never seen an architectural space so vast. Michael’s voice echoed in the giant space with its towering stained-glass windows. We were permitted to take photos. In one, my brother looks somber as he holds the family Torah, which was cloaked in a blue velvet mantle embroidered with the names of all our family members who died in the Holocaust. My grandmother stands on the other side of the Torah, with her left arm embracing it. On her face is a barely concealed expression of triumph.

This, after all, was the realization of a wish that was made four generations earlier in a shtetl in what is now Poland, when my great-great-grandmother, Miriam Yudkovsky, paid a sofer, a Torah scribe, to live with her family for a year while he painstakingly wrote each letter of the Torah.

She commissioned the Torah in memory of my great-great-grandfather, Yitzchak Yudkovsky, and it was used in the synagogue in the village of Byten until 1941, when the Nazis set the synagogue aflame. Her daughter, my great-grandmother Esther Reisel Yudkovsky Sharupsky, ran into the burning synagogue to rescue the Torah from destruction. My great-grandfather Tsvi Sharupsky, who was the shtetl rabbi, and his youngest daughter, my grandmother Rachel, then hid the Torah in the rafters of a barn that belonged to a kind, gentile neighbor.

Tsvi and Esther Reisel were shot in a villagewide massacre in Byten in August 1942. Of their 11 children, one had died in infancy, five had already immigrated to Palestine or the United States, four shared their parents’ fate in the Holocaust and my grandmother Rachel, the youngest, remained alive by living and fighting with the partisans. When her first husband was shot and killed in the Bialystock ghetto, she fled into the forest with her first born, a daughter named Freidel, who died soon after.

No one in my family knows exactly what caused Freidel’s death. My safta’s horrific loss was conveyed to her daughters through nightmares too terrible to be spoken of in waking life. My mother recalls hearing her mother’s anguished screams in the middle of the night in their Los Angeles apartment.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.