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The Holocaust Torah

April 14, 2015 | by

How did a survivor who wouldn’t buy a ticket to Israel afford to commission a Torah scroll all by himself?

“Join us for a Holocaust Torah Dedication.” The synagogue e-mail caught us by surprise. Our congregation is very small. Everyone knows each other and we’re aware of any looming celebrations months in advance. Besides, dedicating a new Torah scroll is a huge event. We’d just been part of a mammoth, two-year fundraiser for a new scroll at our kids’ school that took years of planning and the participation of scores of families to make that dream a reality. How could there be a similarly large undertaking in our own synagogue without us being aware of it?

Torah scrolls are painstakingly hand-written by specially-trained scribes. It can take a year or more to complete one scroll; consequently, commissioning a new Torah scroll is very expensive and it’s common for an entire community to band together to raise funds for it.

Mr. Friedman with the author’s son

“It’s Mr. Friedman’s Sefer Torah,” our rabbi responded when we called to ask how we could help. I thought of Mr. Friedman, an elderly member who came to synagogue every morning. With his neat demeanor and old-fashioned manors, he’s a beloved fixture in the community. Our rabbi explained that as a Holocaust survivor himself (he was an inmate at Auschwitz and Dachau), Mr. Friedman commissioned a new Torah scroll to commemorate his parents who were murdered by the Nazis, and his late wife, who was also a survivor.

My thoughts flew to a conversation I’d had with Mr. Friedman in synagogue just a few weeks before. Nearly all his relatives had been murdered by the Nazis, and his wife’s family had met the same fate. One of his only living relatives was an elderly sister-in-law in Israel who’d been blessed over the years with a large family of many children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren. Though they spoke sometimes on the phone, he recalled, they could never visit. The cost of a plane ticket was prohibitive.

How did a man who couldn’t afford to buy a plane ticket to Israel commission an entire Torah scroll all by himself?

As the day of the Torah dedication drew near, other families begged Mr. Friedman to be allowed to help. Eventually, our requests wore him down. He consented to allowing his friends and fellow congregants to raise funds for the Torah mantle and crowns that would decorate his new Torah, and to throw a party in his honor. He was adamant on one point though: the fundraising for the Torah itself was entirely his own. “It’s my project,” he said, “and I don’t want any fuss.”

The day of the dedication dawned cold and brisk. As friends and congregants milled around, music began to play. A member drove Mr. Friedman slowly up to the synagogue driveway, tightly holding the Torah scroll. With difficulty, he got out of the car and held the Torah in his arms. As friends held a chuppah – a wedding canopy – over, him, Mr. Friedman laboriously walked up the drive. Just as he’d refused all help in funding his donation, he was now resolved to carry the Torah into the synagogue himself.

“I don’t want to give a big speech,” he’d already declared, but as he deposited the Torah in its home in the sanctuary, a sob escaped him and echoed through the room, more eloquent than any discourse. The Torah, dedicated in memory of his murdered parents and of his wife, was finally home.

A few months later, Mr. Friedman became ill and I called to see if I could stop by with some food. As he buzzed me into his small apartment, I looked around, taking in the modest furnishings and asked him about his parents. He showed me two black and white photos – his mother, wearing an old-fashioned wig, looked young, barely out of her teens in hers. Their names were Menachem Mendel and Raizel. Mr. Friedman talked about them tenderly. They were charitable, honorable, religious people – broad-minded and kind.

When the Nazis took his father away, a young Mr. Friedman found out that he’d been secretly supporting many other families through the years. His father’s last whispered instructions to his son were to continue this tradition, and bring them tzedaka each week.

“I always wanted to do something to honor their memories,” Mr. Friedman once told me about his parents. I gazed around at his humble apartment, at the worn cuff of his jacket, and asked him what had been puzzling me for months. “How did you save the money to buy an entire Sefer Torah all by yourself?”

Mr. Friedman glanced at the photos of his young, vibrant parents. “I’ve been saving for this Torah my entire life,” he whispered.

It is difficult to properly memorialize the countless Jews murdered in the Holocaust. In one synagogue in Chicago, one family is remembered each week now when a brand-new Torah is lovingly unrolled and read. It took decades of hard work and self-denial. But thanks to one elderly, unassuming survivor, the memory of his parents – and of his wife – has at last come home.

Mr. Friedman could use your prayers for a refuah sheleima. His Hebrew name is Mordechai Aryeh ben Raizel.

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