By Duke Helfand, Los Angeles Times
During World War II, Jewish inmates of the Yanov labor camp in occupied Poland defied their Nazi guards, secretly conducting religious services inside their darkened barracks.
To observe their ritual, the Jews had cut religious scrolls into sections, bound the parchment pieces around their bodies, and walked them through Yanov’s front gate. They hid the fragments wherever they could—beneath the floorboards of their barracks, inside hollow bedposts, even in a camp cemetery.
After the camp’s liberation in 1945, one survivor collected the scattered pieces. He assembled them into a single ragged scroll, the Yanov Torah.
Three decades later, the Torah — its parchment warped and water-stained, its patchwork sheets held together by fraying threads — found its way to Los Angeles and into the hands of a leader of the city’s Reform Jewish community, Rabbi Erwin Herman, who devoted the final years of his life to telling its remarkable story.
Last November, Herman’s dying wish was fulfilled when a new generation of Jews celebrated the rebirth of the Yanov Torah.
Carrying the fragile scroll beneath a chuppah, or wedding canopy, Herman’s widow and grandson presented it to the rabbis and rabbinic students at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion near USC. The students, in turn, will carry the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, to their internships at synagogues throughout California.
“The Yanov Torah is a true child of the Holocaust,” Agnes Herman, 86, told a gathering at the seminary campus. “A survivor.”
The hand-over came as Jews commemorated the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when Germans rampaged against their Jewish neighbors, destroying synagogues, businesses and homes, killing dozens and rounding up thousands for deportation to concentration camps.
Though worldwide audiences are marking the occasion in solemn tones, those who gathered at the seminary struck a joyous chord.
“This Torah is living evidence of people who fought the Nazis in the best way they knew how, which was through faith,” Rabbi Richard N. Levy, director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at the seminary’s Los Angeles campus, said in an interview. “Every time I read the story, and now talk about it, my eyes well up.”
The Yanov Torah might have been lost to history if not for a survivor of the camp, known only as Joseph. After the war, he remained in the nearby city of Lvov.
In 1975, as he was dying, Joseph gave the Torah to a young Jewish doctor, Naum Rit, and his wife, Emma, just weeks before the couple left for the United States. The meeting had been arranged by Naum Rit’s grandfather, who was a longtime friend of Joseph’s.
As the years passed, two versions of the story emerged.
One is told by Rit’s widow. Emma Rit-Uskali says she and her husband visited Joseph’s threadbare room and listened as the survivor recounted the Torah’s tale.
Joseph, she said, told how the Jews of Lvov had braced for their harsh life in the nearby camp by smuggling in sections of the holy text, hiding the pieces in Yanov’s cemetery. Joseph said he collected the Torah sections after the camp was liberated, reassembled them, and hid the piecemeal Torah under his wooden floorboards.
“He asked us to bring this Torah to the free world,” recalled Rit-Uskali, 61, who now lives in Las Vegas. (Naum Rit died in Los Angeles in 1993.)
The Rits, nonobservant Jews who had never seen a Torah, agreed to take the 17-pound scroll from Joseph. When the couple arrived in Los Angeles in 1976, they spoke little English and desperately needed money to feed their two children. So Naum Rit decided to sell the only thing of value he had.
It’s unclear how Rit found Herman, the Reform rabbi. But one day, Rit appeared at the rabbi’s North Hollywood office.
“You buy my Torah,” Rit said in broken English. He related its story with the help of Herman’s secretary, who spoke Yiddish.
Retelling the story
The rabbi and his wife, Agnes, recalled the exchange in a book they later wrote based on the conversation with Rit. That account, called “The Yanov Torah,” offers a variation of the story told by Rit’s wife.
According to the book, small groups of Jews from the Yanov work camp were allowed to return to Lvov for daylong leaves of absence granted by the Nazis for good behavior. Once in Lvov, they dug up Torahs that had been buried in the Jewish cemetery for safeguarding. The Jews cut the Torahs into pieces, binding the sections around their bodies and smuggling them into the camp.
After the war, one survivor, a tailor, collected the pieces and stitched them into a single scroll. Meanwhile, the handful of survivors who remained in Lvov made a pact. The oldest would care for the Torah, handing it to the next in line before each man died. The decades passed, until only one was left. He gave the fragile scroll to Rit, who later offered it to Rabbi Herman.
The rabbi at first declined to buy the Torah, protesting that it was priceless. But astounded by Rit’s story and eager to help him, Herman gave Rit a check for $250, emptying his bank account, and then located benefactors.
A Jewish couple gave $750, but with a request that Herman tell the story of the scroll, rather than leave it in a museum. Herman spent the next 30 years taking the Torah to audiences around the world. Everywhere he went, he unrolled the sacred text and encouraged people to touch it.
In February 2008, Herman died after a prolonged battle with cancer. Agnes Herman asked officials at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College to honor her husband’s wish that rabbinic students pick up where he left off.
“It was like another child, and I had to make arrangements before I die,” said Herman, a freelance journalist and retired social worker. “I’m almost 87 years old. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be here. I want this to continue to live.”
During the ceremony at the college, Herman recounted the Torah’s story one more time. Then, rabbinic students removed the scroll from a hand-sewn cover marked with a faded Star of David and unfurled it, displaying its script written by different hands.
After 100 guests recited morning prayers and the Torah was placed back in its cover, a faculty member cradled it and joyously carried it around the room.
One student, who will share the Torah with congregants at University Synagogue by UCLA, spoke of his own faith being strengthened by the sacrifices of the Yanov inmates.
As the ceremony drew to a close, Herman rose quietly from her seat, approached the scroll, touched it, and kissed her hand, marking the beginning of yet another step in its long journey.