Tuesday 25 November 2008

Torah Story raises questions

A while ago I wrote on a Torah which news reports suggest was illegally exported from Iraq by US servicemen apparently at the instigation of Rabbi Youlos of the US-based Save a Torah Foundation. Enquiries sent at the time to the military unit allegedly involved (82nd Airborne) have failed to elicit a response. My interest however was piqued by another exploit of Youlos (dubbed by an admiring press “the Indiana Jones of Rabbis”), this time on my own patch in central Europe which raises more question about the activities of this Foundation.

In a recent article by James Baron “From Auschwitz, a Torah as Strong as Its Spirit” New York Times April 30, 2008 ) we read about how Youlos claims he dug up a Torah from among the remains of the historic Jewish cemetery in Oswiecim, the place infamous as the site of the Nazi camp of Auschwitz, a site with which I am very familiar.

Youlos claims he went to the Polish town in late 2000 or early 2001, in search of the Torah from the Auschwitz synagogue and had a hunch it was buried in a metal box in the cemetery, so he hunted the area with a metal detector. He found nothing but then did some archival research (after the fact!) and found (online) land records that showed that the boundary of the cemetery visible today was “far smaller than the original one”. So Rabbi Youlus says he went back in 2004 with his metal detector and it “beeped as he passed a house that had been built after World War II. He dug near the house and found the metal box”. The story continues that a Catholic priest who had been a prisoner in the camp had been keeping four fragments missing from the scroll and miraculously contacted Youlos to give them to him (the newspaper article reports that Youlos says the priest has since died). Youlos took the scroll and the four fragments to the States where they were restored and then sold to a businessman David M. Rubenstein who donated them to a New York synagogue. Rubenstein is a co-founder of the Carlyle Group and was No. 165 on the Forbes 400 last year with a reported fortune of $2.5 billion; readers may remember that in December last year he paid $21.3 million for a copy of the Magna Carta. So a good contact then for purveyors of historic scrolls with a story.

This story however seems to have a number of glaring holes in it. First of all, it is not clear which Oswiecim synagogue this scroll is purported to come from. The one from the main one I believe has been saved and is in use in it today. Secondly anyone using a metal detector in Poland to seek old things in the ground, whether Jewish or not, has to have a permit from the provincial curator of historical monuments. A friend of mine who works in this department checked this out for me and told me that no individual or group received any such permit in 2000, 2001 or 2004 to do any such work. Since he says he was digging in the cemetery in the winter (dumb time to come to frosty Poland to do fieldwork anyway), anyone seen grave robbing with a metal detector and digging in in an old cemetery on the outskirts of this quite sizeable town would in any case be spotted from the road and probably would have been reported, but no reports of such criminal activity on this historic site were noted in the past decade. So if these items were dug up in the place and manner the finder says they were, the act was an illegal one. The Rabbi would be guilty of looting and the purchaser who failed to ask to see the requisite permits is guilty of buying looted items. But is that the case? When looking into this I came across some comments on a Polish historians' discussion forum referring to articles in the US press on this and questioning the whole account, as nobody in Oswiecim today knows anything at all about this (sadly, I did not note it down at the time and I cannot now find the link, perhaps it was an ephemeral website).

Another question I would address to Mr Rubenstein is whether he actually saw the export licence that would be needed legally to export five fragments of pre-War Torah scrolls out of Poland. The law in Poland is perfectly clear about the need for such a docment for such items. Such a document not only would confirm the legality of the purchase involving tens of thousands of dollars, but would also be confirmation of the origin of the items concerned within Poland. Given the several doubts about this story, what proof was offered to the purchaser of the legitimacy of the claims of the finder and seller of these items?

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