Hoping for a reunion in Shanghai

Lauren Henderson
December 16, 2013
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In late October, a news segment aired about a Chinese family who has been holding onto 2,000 books for the past 70 years that belonged to a Jewish family who fled to Shanghai during the Shoah.*  Even though the district decided that it was time to renovate the neighborhood where the books were stored, the family who had taken care of them made sure that they were not destroyed along with the building and transferred them to a local library.  The Shanghai family is now looking for the German family, Carl and Paula Anger or their descendants, to return their books to them.

I’m curious about what motivates the second and third generation after such an encounter to not only take care of Jewish property, but to go to such great lengths to return it to its owner.  We have halakhot about how we should treat property that has been entrusted to us – do we have to expend our own resources in order to take care of someone else’s property?  Do we just make sure that it doesn’t get stolen by someone else before the owner returns to claim it?  But this non-Jewish family in Shanghai seems to have gone far beyond basic requirements of derekh eretz, even holding onto and caring for the books despite the fact that their growing family could have used the extra space.

At JTS, we currently have in our care a sefer Torah with a similar, incredible story – and this time, the story ends with a reunion of property to its people.  The sefer Torah is small and unassuming – some have even called it “cute” – but once I learned its story, I no longer just thought of it as merely “cute.”  It belongs to the Cantors’ Assembly, and Hazzan David Propis wrote this history of the sefer Torah:

“An Israeli businessman living in Germany made a trip as a tourist to a little town outside of Poland.  He was an antique collector.  He was visiting an antique store and noticed a parchment from a Torah.  The businessman asked the dealer, ‘What is this?’   The dealer responded, ‘Are you Jewish?’  The man said ‘yes’ and the dealer then says, ‘If you are Jewish, I can tell you.’  He locked the front door of the store and asked the man to follow him.

“The dealer went with the man to see an old woman, a non-Jew, who before the Shoah, was a nanny in a wealthy Jew’s home, wealthy such that he could afford a Sefer Torah for his own ha’na’ah, enjoyment.

“The Nazis were moving in and the wealthy man knew he and his family would be taken away.  He asked the Nanny, ‘please protect this Torah.  I will try with all of my heart to return to be with you.  If I come back, I will ask please that you return it to me, but if I do not, please only give it to another Jewish person.’  She nobly honored the man’s final request.  She went into her backyard and buried the Torah in a covering to protect it from the soil.  The war ended and no one returned for it and so there it lay buried for decades.  Realizing she was getting too old to be the guardian of the Torah and her word, she uncovered the Torah and told the antique dealer of its existence, so that it might find the proper owner.

“The Israeli businessman was the first Jewish person to cross her path all these years later.   Now, the question was how to get the Torah out of Poland.  The Communist controlled Polish government considered it to be national property, and chances were they would never let the Torah out of their country.  In a clever plot they figured out how to get it out.  The businessman recalled the heroine of the movie The French Connection.  They dissembled the Torah, piece by piece, and hid all the pieces strategically inside the empty spaces of the businessman’s car:  inside the doors, the fenders, hoods.  When they were safely out of Poland, they reassembled the Torah.

“This little Torah, hiding no more, did a little more traveling.  It found safe shelter at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Museum.  There it rested for some years before being located and acquired by someone who would restore its letters, heal its parchment and bring its songs back into the world.  This little Torah found the Cantors Assembly through the efforts of Hazzanim Sol Mendelson and Steven Stoehr.  An agreement was made to purchase the Torah and preserve it and use it amongst the community of Cantors and their congregations.”

These righteous among the nations, from China and Poland and elsewhere around the globe, have often been treated as exceptions to the rule.  We have long assumed that we cannot expect those who do not understand the importance and value of Jewish sifrei kodesh, holy books, to treat them with care and reverence.  It has been prudent for us to be cautious.  But learning to trust those around us is a beautiful, powerful step to come into relationship with the wider world, and these stories give us hope that more relationships like these can be built.

*See the article and the news video clip here: http://english.cntv.cn/program/newshour/20131020/102313.shtml

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Lauren Henderson Lauren Henderson is a fourth year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She completed her BA in Religious Studies and History at Rice University in 2009, and spent a year learning at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem and two years at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles. Lauren has had the opportunity to learn and work at IKAR, Cornell Hillel, Adamah Adventures, and with Encounter. She is originally from Spartanburg, South Carolina and currently lives in New York City. Lauren currently serves as the Rabbinic Intern of the Pelham Jewish Center in Pelham Manor, New York.

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