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Saviors of the Sefer Torah: The true story of one Sefer Torah — and two extraordinary women

Michal Eisikowitz

Young and thriving, the twenty-year old city of Beitar Illit is hardly a historian’s treasure. But there’s more than meets the eye. On a sedate side street named after Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ztz”l stands a nondescript caravan housing a shul, and in its modestly adorned aron kodesh lies a fascinating — and moving — piece of history. This is Kehillas Ateres Zvi, and the unique Sefer Torah encased within its walls bears testimony to the extraordinary courage and selflessness of two Jewish women.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Vienna, 1938.

The sun shone down on the impeccably clean city gassen, radiating warmth and good cheer to hordes of blonde-haired pedestrians. On the balmy morning of November 10, even the weather refused to offer warning of the impending storm.

Mrs. Rosa Deutsch, wife of the prominent Viennese internist and mohel Dr. Samuel Deutsch, entered the spacious kitchen in her family’s flat to begin tackling supper.

BOOM!

Rosa frantically moved to the window and watched as six axe-wielding SS stormtroopers jumped from their black Mercedes-Benz into the neighborhood shul situated in the Deutsch’s courtyard. Within seconds, every window of the synagogue was shattered.

“In my innocence, I thought the brutes were finished with their work,” she later recounted. “I soon realized they’d only just begun.”

But before she could contemplate recovering from the shock, a second reinforcement of thirty black-uniformed SS men arrived. Rosa looked on in horror as the shul’s beautiful veranda was reduced to shards, and then it suddenly occurred to her: the Sifrei Torah!

“I grasped that their next step would be to tear out and desecrate our holy Sifrei Torah. I began to shake. How could I stand by and let this happen?”

Logic and idealism struggled for dominance, but not for long. Rosa’s love for the revered Torah scrolls soon won over her fear and prudence, and she rushed outside to the courtyard.

One lone SS officer remained, industriously working to complete the destruction while his comrades took a breather.

“There are two scrolls in this building that are private property; they don’t belong to the synagogue,” Rosa audaciously informed him. “Can I remove them from the premises?”

“You’ll need to get permission from the caretaker,” he gruffly responded while taking a maniacal swing at the marble plaques.

In a panic, Rosa bounded up the stairs to her home and dialed Mr. Miller, chief-sexton of all shuls in Vienna.

“The scrolls, the scrolls!” she screamed into the phone like a madwoman.

Mr. Miller was strangely evasive, and Rosa soon gathered that he couldn’t help her. He himself was surrounded by SS men, and couldn’t say anything in their presence. She darted back out to the courtyard to tell the officer she’d been unable to reach the caretaker — and to her utter disbelief, watched as the trooper himself emerged from the shul with two Sifrei Torah in hand.

“Frau Dr.,” he said, politely. Apparently, he’d realized that she was the wife of Dr. Samuel Deutsch, who’d served as internist to several “big fish” in the Nazi government. “In recognition of your husband’s services to the Reich, here are the scrolls you requested.”

Moments later, the shul was set aflame. Using siddurim and seforim to fan the fires, the SS Nazis hurled hateful epithets and shouted “Heil Hitler!” as they reveled in the ruins. Thousands of loyal fuhrer-followers came to view the spectacle, celebrating as the flames gleefully licked the holy building.

The edifice that had served as the gateway for thousands of pure Jewish prayers, the walls that had echoed with the sing-song chant of Gemara learning, the siddurim that had absorbed cupfuls of tears — by morning they were decimated to ashes. Only the Sifrei Torah were spared.

 

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