BUDAPEST (Aug. 31)
Almost 60 years to the day after the outbreak of World War II, the shofar sounded and Jews danced with the Torah in the southern Polish town where the Auschwitz death camp was located.
The occasion was an emotional ceremony in Oswiecim on Monday that combined joy, tears, memory and hope, as a Torah flown across the Atlantic from the United States was installed in the only synagogue left standing in the town after the Holocaust.
“It was an extremely emotional ceremony; very emotional for us all,” Daniel Eisenstadt, executive director of the New York-based Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation, told JTA by phone.
The specially commissioned Torah was brought to Oswiecim by about three dozen members of the Orthodox Cherry Lane Minyon of Great Neck, N.Y., who donated it to the Foundation, which is sponsoring the transformation of the synagogue and an adjoining house into a Jewish study and prayer center.
The Lomdei Mishnaot Synagogue, a small, compact building with arched windows, was built around 1900 and — as one of about a dozen prewar synagogues in Oswiecim — was used until 1939.
World War II was triggered when the Germans invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939.
The Nazis brought thousands of Jews to the synagogue before they deported them to ghettos in 1941. After World War II, it was seized by the Communists and used as a warehouse, and in March 1998 it became the first building returned to the Jewish community under Poland’s restitution law.
The dedication ceremony for the Torah was an affirmative symbol for the future as well as a defiant demonstration of Jewish survival.
“We danced in with the Torah scroll under a chupah,” Eisenstadt said, “and inside the synagogue we all danced with the Torah for about 45 minutes. It was wonderful.”
Women as well as men danced with the $25,000 scroll, which is covered by a red velvet mantle decorated with a tree growing out of a flame.
Then, the Cherry Lane Minyan’s Rabbi Marvin Tokayer led the traditional siyum ceremony, which began with a blast from the Shofar. Each participant added a letter to complete the writing of the new scroll.
Among those taking part was Moshe Klueger, a Holocaust survivor from Oswiecim now living on Long Island, who had become a Bar Mitzvah in the synagogue. Klueger’s brother Shimon is the only Jew still living in Oswiecim, which before the war had about 7,000 Jews making up more than half the local population.
Moshe Klueger broke down in tears, but also danced joyously with the Torah.
“The last time he had been there was before the war, praying with his father,” Eisenstadt said.
Several adult children and teen-age grandchildren of Holocaust survivors also took part, as well as about 50 members of the current Polish Jewish community, which has seen a revival in the decade since the fall of communism.
A number of local officials and townspeople also attended the ceremony.
People involved in the ceremony stressed the symbolic meaning of bringing a new Torah to the town whose name has become the symbol of the Holocaust.
“The chimneys of Auschwitz-Birkenau spewed out ashes that blew across the globe. Now these ashes have returned and reformed as the words of this Torah. Indeed, this scroll truly exemplifies the rebirth and continuity of the Jewish people,” said Fred Schwartz, a member of the Cherry Lane Minyon who is the founder and president of the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation.
“A synagogue without a Torah is just four walls,” Tokayer said before the ceremony.
The foundation has raised some $2 million out of a total of $5 to $10 million needed for the restoration of the synagogue and creation of the Auschwitz center. Work is expected to be completed within two years.
During this time, the Torah scroll from New York will be housed at a small synagogue in nearby Krakow, through arrangements made with the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.