Friday, September 24, 2004

Mesiras Nefesh

A Mission To Salvage Holy Message
Wheaton Rabbi Scours World for Torahs Buried,
Hidden During Holocaust

By Katherine Shaver
Friday, September 24, 2004; Page B05

Menachem Youlus, a Wheaton rabbi, and two other
men had been digging for about two hours on a farm
in Ukraine when, five feet into the earth, they found
the sea of bones.

The remains of 263 men, women and children were
still shrouded in clothing that bore the Star of David,
which Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust.
Youlus also discovered what looked to be German
army body bags.

Inside, he found two cherished items, badly
deteriorated but Holocaust survivors just the same:
They were Torahs, sacred handwritten scrolls that
contain the five Books of Moses.

Discovered four years ago, the scrolls were two of
more than 400 Torahs that Youlus and a team of
scribes have unearthed from a dark past. Youlus
has spent the last 19 years scouring Eastern
Europe for them, then working with fellow scribes
to restore the scrolls and find them new homes.
"Many of the Torahs come from communities that
were completely destroyed in the Holocaust," said
Youlus, 43, as he prepared earlier this week for Yom
Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement -- a time of
confession and repentance, observed by fasting
and nearly unbroken prayer -- which begins at

"No one is left from these towns," he said. "The
only thing that survived is these Torahs."
Some lost Torahs have come his way without any
digging. In Ukraine, he bought one from a former
Nazi sergeant who said he confiscated it from a man
entering Auschwitz. He discovered another being
sold in pieces to artists who were using the sacred
parchment as canvas. Some he smuggled out of
then-Communist countries, two panels at a time,
in the lining of luggage.

"He's an intrepid Jewish 007," said Rabbi Moshe D.
Shualy, ritual director for Chizuk Amuno, a Baltimore
synagogue that has two of Youlus's rescued Torahs.
"You wouldn't look at him twice," said Shualy,
whose parents were Holocaust survivors. "But he
puts himself in such impossible situations to find,
retrieve and resurrect these scrolls."

If Youlus can't track down a Torah's owners or their
descendants, he said, he buys it from whoever has
come to possess it. Then, back at his family's
store, the Jewish Bookstore of Greater Washington
on Georgia Avenue, he and a team of scribes, try to
repair 60 years worth of damage from mildew, heat,
dirt, bugs and rodents. On many Torahs, Youlus said,
he also finds bayonet marks and cigarette burns from
Nazi desecration.

After using an infrared camera attached to a scanner
that shows cracked letters and other details the
naked eye can miss, Youlus and his team painstakingly
re-ink each one by hand with a goose or turkey quill.
Each Torah contains about 302,000 Hebrew letters.
Some words must be written with one drop of ink.
It requires hours of concentration.

"You have to think about only one thing: that you're
writing for the sake of God," Youlus said. "It's not to
get a high or because you're better than the next

Seven scribes restore the scrolls in a warehouse near
Baltimore. Youlus does his work with his brother-in-law,
Rabbi Ayson Englander, at the bookstore. Cardboard
boxes containing 40 to 50 Torahs, some new, are
stacked to its 20-foot ceiling. It takes between seven
weeks and six months to repair a Torah. Youlus
estimates they are able to restore about 85 percent of

When he's done, Youlus finds them new homes in
synagogues, schools and Jewish community centers
across the country.

"He's one of the world's great people," said Rick
Zitelman, a Rockville investment and merchant
banker. Zitelman and his wife, Cindy, helped buy one
of Youlus's Torahs for Sixth and I Historic Synagogue
on the edge of the District's Chinatown.

Youlus -- who has a Web site devoted to his mission, -- estimates that as many as
2,400 scrolls survived the Holocaust. He believes so
strongly in saving them that, he said, he has gone into
debt $170,000 to finance his work.

"He doesn't see it as a sacrifice," Zitelman said of
Youlus using his money. "He just sees it as his life's

Perhaps nothing captures the intrigue and often
profound sadness of Torah rescue as Youlus's
gruesome discovery in Kamenits-Poldosk, a small
town in Ukraine.

Youlus went there in spring 2000 to meet with an
antiques dealer who had a Torah. That deal fell
through, but while sitting outside the store drinking a
soda, he said, a farmer approached him, offering to
sell him a map. The farmer said his father had told him
to offer the map to someone wearing a yarmulke.

Youlus said he bought the map for $1,500.
"My driver thought I was pretty nutty, but I had a gut
feeling," Youlus said.

The hand-drawn map, marked with an "X" surrounded
by a large circle, led to an overgrown area of the
man's farm. Youlus said the farmer made him pay
$1,500 more to buy the plot of land before he could
dig on it.

In two hours, Youlus said, he, his driver and the
farmer came across the bones. He eventually hired
a company with a backhoe and unearthed the mass
grave with the hidden Torahs.

"That was a little more than I bargained for," Youlus

Elderly people in the town recalled four Jewish men
being forced to bury the massacred bodies, Youlus
said. Those men likely saved the Torahs from a
nearby synagogue by wrapping them in the body
bags and sneaking them into the grave.

Youlus said he spent several more weeks helping
to rebury the remains in separate plots. He also
found five more pre-Holocaust Torahs in nearby
towns, hidden in basements or kept by non-Jews.
He credits his zeal for Torah rescue to a "deal" he
struck with God 21 years ago. He was a 22-year-old
accountant in New York when his father and his
sister's boyfriend were struck by a car while crossing
a road near their Montgomery County synagogue.
Youlus said doctors told him to begin making burial
arrangements. If God would save their lives, he
prayed, he would devote a year to studying the

He didn't know then, he said, that he would end up
devoting the rest of his life to saving it.


At February 2, 2006 at 2:56:00 PM EST, Anonymous chabakuk elisha said...

And some people think that there are no more great people doing great things...


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