I stared at the charred piece of parchment, hung and well-framed, on the wall of the library; four columns of a Torah scroll, full of holes and blackened with age and dirt, the thoughts racing through my mind: “How is this here!? How many people have stared at this, not knowing what it is? What am I supposed to do?” And most jarringly, “How can I get it the right way up again!?”
I have had the privilege of guiding in Poland many times, and have countless memories that I re-live every Yom HaShoah, whether it is a personal story told by a participant, or a deafening moment of contemplative group silence, or something that spoke to me for whatever reason on a given trip. I truly believe that the trip is life-changing for all, no matter how many times it is done, and it never fails to move me. As a guide, I always try to be a conduit to the holistic experience, to cement those memories, and allow the participant to become that link in the chain to the next generation, when there will no longer be survivors. On Yom HaShoah, I believe that telling the stories is a way of strengthening that link.
One of the times that I will never forget occurred in the summer of 2018. I had received a request from one of the participants to visit, if possible, the town where her parents and grandparents had lived in – a small shtetl in Galicia in Poland called Tarnogrod. I had not heard of the town, much less been there on my travels – there are literally thousands of similar shtetls – but I was touched by her request, did my homework, and found out that there had been a large shul and a decent-sized Jewish community there, pre-war.
I had been apprehensive about finding the ancient synagogue, but needlessly so. When we arrived on the third day of the trip, not only was there no mistaking the massive old building with a distinctive window at the very top in front of us (many synagogues across Europe had a small window at the top, to look up to G-d in prayer), but better still, the participant brought out a faded photograph of the synagogue from pre-war time, and the match was exact.
Using our Polish guide as a translator, we asked if we could enter. He explained to the very accommodating librarian, who was obviously unaccustomed to Jewish groups, why we were there, and she let us in.
The moment we entered, what hit us were the remains of the once-magnificent aron ha’kodesh, with the old paint still showing, standing out like a sore thumb from the rows of neatly lined modern books. A short walk around made it clear that the top floor, where most of the books were, had been the women’s balcony, and the lower floor, where there was a reading section and a storage area, had been the main sanctuary. The aron had gone from floor to ceiling.
Like my group, I walked around, as usual lost in the voices of past chazanim and t’filos from this once proud center of Judaism…and then I saw it on the wall. As I said above, I stared at the charred piece of parchment, hung and well-framed, on the wall of the library, immediately knowing what it was – four columns of Torah scroll, full of holes and blackened with age and dirt…and hung up upside down! Upside down!
My mouth open, I dragged the guide and librarian over, and through him as an interpreter, got the story. She had found the parchment at the bottom of an old box in the storage area. She knew enough to recognize the Hebrew letters, and thought it a nice touch to hang it up in the library as a point of interest of what the building had once been. So she did, not realizing what way it was supposed to hang.
How many people, visiting that library, had glanced at it, not knowing what it is and not knowing it was upside down? Impossible to tell, but clearly no one Jewish.
What was I supposed to do? My mind was racing. I was torn. I had no one to ask what I should do, halachically. A part of me wanted to ask to take it back with me to Israel, for proper care and/or burial – how could I leave it in a non-Jewish library, as a quaint picture for non-Jews to see as they borrowed a book, not caring or not realizing what it meant? Would she give it to me, in any case? Could I buy it, possibly? How would I transport it? And yet, I had strong feelings the other way; it had been written there, had illuminated the lives of the Jews of Tarnogrod, had survived untold years there as a Torah scroll and eight decades more as a charred fragment, and really belonged here, showing the visitors that this had once been a center of Judaism. Who was I to take it away from its home?
I was torn, but one thing was clear to me: I had to get it turned the right way round! So after explaining to the librarian that it was upside down, she brought a few tools and together we took it off, turned it around, and re-hung it. It was only then that I saw for the first time what parshah it was, and for the second time, I was rocked to the core: though tattered and ragged, I immediately recognized it as the first four columns of Ki Sisa, which I had just finished teaching my son for his bar mitzvah and which he had leined a few weeks before the trip! A section I knew almost by heart!
At this point most of my group and a few of the patrons of the library were watching interestedly. I explained what it was, what it meant, and why it was there. Then, in the moment I will not forget, I spontaneously started to lein the first few verses that I knew so well. Then it hit me: The shul, for the first time in perhaps 80 years, was ringing again with the voice of t’filah and Torah. Once a shul, always a shul; and the sounds of Ki Sisa echoed again around the old building. It was not lost on me then that the literal meaning of those words is “When you raise up…”
To say it was moving for me was an understatement, and, with tears in my eyes, I had made up my mind. The Ki Sisa Torah columns were there to stay, this time the right way up, and hopefully their story will be told again by the librarian, or perhaps another Jewish group.
Did I make the right decision? I am still not sure. I have been told, several times by friends and associates, that I should have brought it to Israel. Maybe, maybe not.
However, I couldn’t resist re-telling the story today, on Yom HaShoah and in the midst of the coronavirus, as another thought has hit me.
The first pasuk, which I read in that shul, is: “Ki sisa es rosh B’nei Yisrael…v’lo yihyeh bahem negef…”
Let those words sink in: “v’lo yihyeh bahem negef.” So we should not have a plague.
May this blessing be upon all of am Yisrael and the entire world.