A sad story approached a sad conclusion last week when Maryland-based Rabbi Menachem Youlus pleaded guilty to mail and wire fraud for falsely selling what he claimed were Torah scrolls rescued from the Holocaust to synagogues and Jewish communities over a period of several years.
Youlus billed himself as the "Jewish Indiana Jones" and captivated audiences with his tales of derring-dos in Eastern Europe. He spoke of cloak-and-dagger negotiations with ex-Nazis thugs to buy sacred scrolls looted from synagogues; of digging up Torahs buried for decades for safe-keeping; of tracking down elderly priests and illiterate peasants who had hidden Torahs. He even described finding one Torah hidden in a metal box in Auschwitz and another in Bergen-Belsenafter partly falling through a floor-board in a World War II-era barracks.
The whole thing was a massive invention. Youlus had never left the United States except for two brief trips to Israel. Prosecutors said he defrauded the charity he founded and its donors out of $862,000, diverting a good chunk of it into his personal accounts. Now, under a plea deal, he will serve up to five years and three months in prison.
An interesting question raised by this sad episode is: Why were people so easily fooled? I have to admit that I personally fell for some of Youlus's tales when I heard them in 2006. My own synagogue acquired two of his Torahs. They were dedicated in a moving ceremony and one was prominently displayed in a glass cabinet in the foyer while the other was read from on the High Holy Days.
Perhaps we can partially explain why people believed Youlus so easily because of the simple fact that he was a rabbi. But a deeper reason, I believe, is that the story he told us was one we were all too anxious to believe.
Confronted with the enormity of the Holocaust, I believe we are powerfully drawn to uplifting stories that enable us to construct positive messages from the cataclysm. That also explains the continued fascination of survivors' stories. (Here again, I plead guilty, having written the story of my own father and uncle's survival.)
Don't misunderstand: I am not saying that such stories are in any way illegitimate or that attention should not be paid to them. In fact, so many of them are powerful and compelling chronicles of human courage, determination and perseverance against almost unimaginable odds.
But survivors' stories can, if taken in isolation, blunt the enormity of the Holocaust by presenting us with a series of "happy endings." The survivors survive. They go on to build new lives in new countries. Future generations are born. As the song goes, "Am Yisrael Chai" -- the Jewish people lives. But the 6 million victims remain silent. With a few exceptions, like Anne Frank, they could not tell their stories.
Youlus appealed to the same sentiment -- although in his case it was about Torahs rather than individuals surviving miraculously. Still, the message was the same. The Nazis tried to destroy our Torah as well as our people, but somehow we pulled through. Here, look at this scroll, every letter written with love by a scribe in Poland or Romania a century ago. Imagine what this scroll went through -- and what it survived. And here we are today in suburban Maryland or New York or New Jersey, reading this same scroll!
Of course, the more outlandish the adventure that Youlus invented to explain how a particular scroll came into his possession, the more exciting it was to hold it, read from it and lift it aloft in front of the congregation.
As memories fade and survivors pass away, I am quite worried that succeeding generations will start to sugarcoat the Holocaust. Yes, every survivor has his story and so many of those stories are so very compelling. But let's never forget the victims.
There may have been some individual "happy endings" but the Holocaust as a whole offers no happy ending. It should be seen for what it was: an overwhelmingly tragic and evil event with no redeeming features.