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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.