Retrieving Sacred Treasures

Benjamin B. Ferencz

Hitler’s anti-Semitic “intellectual” Minister Alfred Rosenberg was responsible for assembling and preserving Jewish cultural objects that could prove the perfidy of the Jewish race, religion and ideology. In the Eastern territories overrun by Germany, the “Einsatzstab Rosenberg” collected Jewish torahs, religious ceremonial decorations, prayer books, and other sacred texts and objects. Much of this material was eventually stored in a large warehouse in Wiesbaden that came under control of U.S. Military Government. The Jewish Restitution Successor Organization was entrusted with responsibility for the legal and equitable distribution of the captured booty. Of course, I had no experience whatsoever with the disposition of such artifacts.

It was obvious that stolen assets should be returned to their former owners. But that was easier said than done. In most cases, the former owners had been murdered by Nazi extermination programs and the Jewish congregations were no longer in existence. What to do? We concluded that we would do the best we could under the circumstances. But to those who viewed these materials as holy, that may not have been good enough. It posed challenges of faith versus reason that could have stumped even Solomon or Maimonides who wrote a famous book to guide the perplexed.

Dispatching the Torahs was relatively easy. Many of them could be identified as coming from well known synagogues in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, and other centers of Jewish learning. Where there was still a functioning synagogue in a particular area, the Torahs, or as many as could be put to good use, were shipped back to their former congregations. But that was rare. Most Jewish communities in the East had been totally destroyed. Most survivors had sought a new life in Israel where the Ministry of Religion was happy to distribute the needed scrolls. A refugee community starting a new congregation in a strange land also received the rescued tablets of Jewish law.

Many of the Torahs, however, were damaged. I soon learned that a damaged Torah cannot be used in prayer. If the name of the Lord, as printed on the sacred parchment, has been damaged in any way, no repair is permissible. The Torah must be sent to Israel for burial in accordance with ancient Hebrew rituals. Other repairs are possible, but only by orthodox Jewish scribes. So we arranged to have a group of scribes come from Israel to work under the supervision of the respected American Joint Distribution Committee (“The Joint”) offices in Paris. In one of my frequent visits to the Paris office, I encountered another problem that was rather perplexing.

We maintained strict inventory controls. Torahs were valuable. Every Torah coming in and going out had to be accounted for. Unfortunately, there was no computerized accounting available at that time, and security was not as tight as it should have been. I thought I detected a discrepancy in the number of Torahs we shipped to Paris and the number distributed or on hand. To ascertain the facts and confirm my suspicions would require a detailed examination—particularly of the orthodox scribes who had access to the sacred scrolls. That could prove to be very embarrassing. Besides, what would we do if we found that an old rabbi from Israel had pinched a Torah or two?

So I turned to the learned rabbi in charge of the operation (who was not completely beyond suspicion) and told him that I had a problem. I said I suspected that some of the Torahs may have disappeared, and I didn’t know whether purloining a Torah was a blessed act or a criminal offense. I asked, “Do I have to look up to heaven or down to the Devil to find the culprit?” He replied in Yiddish, “Do not look up or down—take my advice — kik vek!” (Look away!) I learned from that rabbi that sometimes the best thing to do may be to do nothing. That guiding advice has been very valuable to me throughout my life.

Not all rabbis adopt so benign an approach. When dealing with the captured ceremonial objects such as candelabra, silver plates, wine goblets, Torah crowns, and all of the related paraphernalia used in a variety of Jewish rituals and holidays, we followed the same basic principles. Wherever possible, we tried to identify and locate the former owner and return the property. Where the property was damaged, we tried to repair it. This was sometimes even more difficult than repairing a scroll. Missing parts of ceremonial objects could be scattered among several different boxes. The experts we brought from Israel’s Bezalel Museum, two fine gentlemen named Shunami and Narkiss, searched long and diligently, trying to restore every object. In the end there were many broken pieces, including table silver and broken candlesticks, which were beyond repair and had to be considered as scrap metal. After long deliberation, in which other members of my executive staff participated, we found what seemed a good solution.

We shipped these broken bits of scrap silver to England where there was a well-reputed smelting company run by the Jewish Goldsmith family. They were instructed to melt down the objects so that the proceeds to be distributed by “The Joint” and the Jewish Agency for Israel to the most needy Nazi survivors. Soon thereafter, I sailed for New York to make my annual report to the JRSO Board of Directors. I was confident that I might receive their praise and possibly also their blessing. I learned that one should not count his blessings too soon.

I proudly reported to the Board about the work done in recovering Jewish properties, homes, businesses, art works, Torah scrolls, and silver ceremonial objects that had been returned to owners or made available to needy congregations. Board members smiled happily at the thought that, by listening to my report, they had vicariously participated in such noble work. I then detailed what had been done with the smelted scrap silver. Before I was quite through, a hand was being waved furiously by Rabbi Isaac Lewin, the respected head of the orthodox Union of American Hebrew Congregations. He rose slowly, glowered at me fiercely, and said in a trembling voice, “Do my ears believe me? Did I hear you say that you took these sacred Jewish objects, the last remnant of our murdered ancestors, and you sent them to a CREM-A-TORRIUM??” There was silence. Stunned, I stuttered that we had done the best we could under the circumstances. It was only many years later that I felt I had been forgiven by the Rabbi.

I recall another incident regarding sacred treasures. General Lucius Clay, the U.S. Military Governor in Germany, summoned me to Berlin. It appeared that a Jewish U.S. Army Chaplain, (I believe it was Captain Phillip Bernstein) had raided the warehouse in which the Germans had stored the most valuable Jewish religious books. Being a man who obviously believed in restitution, the Captain backed an army ambulance up to the warehouse and filled it with Nazi loot. He arranged to ship it to Israel on a refugee ship—probably also illegal—as a brave gesture of retaliatory justice.

It turned out that many of the volumes had belonged to an anti-Nazi Christian sect (I believe it was the Templars) who had acquired the sacred tomes lawfully long before the Nazis came to power. They wanted their property back. General Clay gave me an order that since I was in charge of Jewish restitution, I had better get those ancient books restituted back to their rightful non-Jewish anti-Nazi owners. He gave me a long list of the missing volumes. I promised to do the best I could.

On my next trip to Israel, I raised the restitution question with the appropriate government representatives. They were apologetic and promised to restore what had been erroneously taken, but unfortunately, the books had already been sent to the Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus, and even more unfortunately, that territory was in Arab hands. They promised to correct the error as soon as the military situation allowed. I reported the facts to General Clay. Nothing more could be done. What finally happened to the books, I do not know. I hope they were restored. I “kik vek!” I don’t ask!