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Around the Jewish World After Long Journey, Torah Curtain Returns to Its German Jewish Roots

November 10, 2003
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For a Torah curtain, it certainly has come a long way.

Almost exactly 65 years to the day after Kristallnacht, the curtain, or parochet — which once belonged to a congregation of German Jewish exiles in New York — now covers the Torah ark in one of Germany’s newest synagogues.

It is a poignant sign of Jewish revival in a country that, not too long ago, symbolized the death of European Jewry.

On Nov. 15, a Reform congregation in Munich, Congregation Beth Shalom, will formally dedicate its new quarters. The green, velvet curtain with gold letters and fringe will find its permanent home there.

“We will have a celebratory service,” said Jan Muehlstein, president of the congregation and of the Union of Progressive Jews in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

The arrival of the Torah curtain, which once graced the New York synagogue of Jewish emigres from Munich, is heralded almost universally as a good sign. And it is especially fitting that it is to be dedicated just after the commemoration of the pogrom in Germany that presaged the Holocaust.

On Nov. 9-10 1938, hundreds of synagogues were destroyed across Germany and Austria in a night called Kristallnacht, or night of broken glass.

Today, Jewish life in Germany is growing again.

New synagogues have been built across the country to accommodate a population that has tripled to more than 100,000 in the last 12 years, with the arrival of Jews from the former Soviet Union. New synagogues need Torahs. And Torahs need arks — and pointers and covers and curtains.

The discovery of this curtain, say some, is a sign of destiny.

Berlin Jewish artist Anna Adam happened upon it by coincidence last summer at a flea market in Berlin.

Adam had been scouring the market for material for her latest project when a stall with old Communist flags caught her eye.

“I thought: That’s cool,” Adam said.

She inspected the stall more closely, and among the heavy red silk banners printed with Lenin’s visage, she saw a musty, dusty green curtain with Hebrew embroidery.

Adam asked the Russian saleswoman what it was. “They said, ‘Oh, it’s something Jewish probably.’ I thought perhaps it was stolen from Eastern Europe.”

Adam contacted Rabbi Walter Rothschild and his wife, Jacqueline, who live in Berlin. When they arrived at the market, the stand was closed.

“But next morning the stand was back again,” she said, and the Torah curtain was there, too.

Rothschild, who works at Beth Shalom and another Reform synagogue in the city of Koeln, took one look at the inscription on the back, and “my first thought was it had been stolen,” said Rothschild, whose parents emigrated from Germany to England before he was born.

The label said it was from Congregation Beth Hillel in New York City, “dedicated in memory of a revered rebbetzin,” Rothschild said. He resolved to find that congregation.

“It was one of those things you have to rescue,” he said in an interview with JTA. “At any rate, it had to be returned to Jewish hands.”

Adam bargained down the price.

Jacqueline Rothschild brought the curtain home and repaired it. Walter Rothschild started researching the curtain’s past, and he found that Congregation Beth Hillel had been dissolved three years ago, its accouterments distributed among members and other synagogues.

The congregation had been founded in 1939, the year after Kristallnacht. Most of its founding members came from Munich.

According to former member Erich Bloch, who described the history in the Aufbau newspaper in August 2002, the first High Holiday services in 1940 were presided over by the chief rabbi of former Munich, Leo Baerwald, and held in a local movie theater. A large group of Jews from Nuremberg joined the congregation with their rabbi, Isaak Heilbrun, in 1941.

In 1948, the congregation dedicated its own sanctuary. In 1957, they held their first memorial service for Kristallnacht.

A vibrant Jewish congregation thus grew, proud of its German roots but grateful to the country that took them in.

“We had a lot of members,” recalled New Yorker Fay Blank, 71, in a telephone interview. Her husband, William, 86, is a former president of the synagogue. “Men and women never sat together,” she said. “And later we got a very Orthodox rabbi and they built a mechitzah,” a barrier separating men and women.

German identity was very strong among the congregants, said Blank, who comes from Lucerne, Switzerland. Her husband is from Fuerth, Germany.

“The rabbi gave sermons one week in German, the next week in English,” she said. They sang German “nigunim,” or Jewish melodies, and while they had an organ, they used it only for weddings and not on the Sabbath.

The members did not talk too much about what happened in the Germany during the war, she said. “The people were so busy. They had started a new life in this country and they all made it,” she said. “German Jews are very ambitious.”

Eventually, the generation of founders left New York or died out. The congregation grew smaller. It became difficult to get a minyan together.

The final Sabbath service was held on April 1, 2000.

Then, Congregation Beth Hillel became part of Congregation Mount Sinai, where the memorial plates for deceased members of the congregation now are on display.

“That gives people a good feeling,” said Blank, who helped packed up the congregation’s German-Hebrew prayer books, some 100 years old, and sent them, together with tallitot, to a Chabad-Lubavitch congregation in Munich.

Some members reclaimed certain synagogue effects that they had given on loan — including a wall hanging that had come from Munich. Other items were sent to museums.

“We were so happy that things went to places where they had a value to someone,” Blank said. She said she was troubled to hear that the Torah curtain ended up at a Berlin flea market.

It remains a mystery how it got there.

But Adam said she is “not really surprised” that it crossed her path.

“Things like that happen to me all the time,” she said. “I am always on the search for things and always find Jewish themes in the society in places where I don’t expect to find them.”

Now that the curtain is “back to its roots,” Adam said, “I find that very nice. To me it is important that it now has a function and is not in a flea market.”

The curtain now hangs at Congregation Beth Shalom. Blank says she can live with that.

“If it is there and being used, that is marvelous,” she said. “What should we do, go and see how it got there? That doesn’t make much sense. Maybe we would never know the truth.”

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