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Exploiting Torah Scrolls: A Morally Reprehensible Scam

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Some years ago, there was Binjamin Wilkomirski, the author of a purportedly autobiographical account of his years as a Jewish orphan during the Holocaust but who actually is a Swiss-born Christian clarinetist. Then there was the case of Herman Rosenblat whose heartwarming tale of a little girl tossing him an apple every day for seven months across the electrified barbed wire fence of a Nazi concentration camp turned out to be a hoax. And now we have Rabbi Menachem Youlus, the Washington DC area bookstore proprietor who moonlights as a self-proclaimed rescuer of Holocaust-era Torah scrolls, and whose stranger-than-fiction tales were debunked this past Sunday in a lengthy Washington Post Magazine exposé.

In 2007, on the website of Save a Torah, his 501(c)3 tax exempt organization, Youlus claimed to have found and restored "Torah scrolls hidden, lost or stolen during the Holocaust" which he then "resettled" in more than 50 Jewish communities throughout the world. On a promotional video featured on the same website, he said that "we've done over 500 today." And in a recent Washington Post interview, Youlus boasted of having rescued not 50 or 500 but 1,100 such Torah scrolls.

Youlus also gave his Torah scrolls dramatic histories. Two were allegedly found buried in a "Gestapo body bag" in a Ukrainian mass-grave of murdered Jews. He supposedly discovered one under the floorboards of a barrack in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, a "rescue" that is described on his website's video alongside photographs taken at the camp at the time of its liberation by British troops in April 1945. Youlus claims that he dug up yet another Torah scroll in what had been the cemetery of Oswiecim, the town adjacent to the Auschwitz death camp, and reunited it with four missing panels that Jews from Oswiecim had taken into the camp and had entrusted for safekeeping to a Jewish-born priest who eventually gave them to Youlus.

If even one of these stories seems fantastic, improbable, even incredible, the odds that any one person could have found all four of these Torah scrolls and brought them surreptitiously to the United States are, conservatively speaking, astronomical. As has been said repeatedly in connection with Bernard Madoff's multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme, if something sounds too good to be true, it most probably is.

Which is not to say that Youlus's accounts could have withstood serious scrutiny. He apparently has never provided any provenance for the Torah scrolls he sold for thousands of dollars each. No reputable archivist, historian or Jewish community leader in Poland, Ukraine or Germany can substantiate any of his claims. The very idea that the very same Germans who routinely desecrated and burned Torah scrolls should have reverently placed two such scrolls in a "Gestapo body bag," whatever that is, and buried them alongside hundreds if not thousands of naked Jews in a mass grave defies not just credibility but logic. Similarly implausible is the tale of Auschwitz inmates, who had been forced to give up all their possessions upon entering the camp, being able to smuggle four Torah panels into the camp, all handing them to the same fellow prisoner, a priest, who would give them to Youlus more than six decades later.

It gets worse. There are no records of any such priest ever having existed, and Youlus refuses to identify him by name. Youlus could not have come across a Torah scroll, or anything else for that matter, in the barracks of Bergen-Belsen, where both my parents were liberated, for the simple reason that all the barracks of that camp were burned in May 1945 in order to contain a raging typhus epidemic. And Youlus peddled the "Ukrainian mass-grave" scrolls to five separate congregations, assuring each that it was buying one of two, to use the art world term, limited editions.

Charlatans and con men -- alright, to be politically correct, con persons -- come in all shapes and sizes, and belong to all nationalities, faiths and ethnicities. Some even hide behind a façade of pseudo-piety. Rabbis, priests and ministers have been known to prey on their communities, on charitable organizations, and on individual congregants.

It is bad enough when unscrupulous individuals rip off their marks, as it were, with variations of the proverbial Nigerian e-mail scam in which the recipient is promised part of a multi-million dollar fortune in exchange for a relatively minor up-front investment. Exploiting greed is unseemly, to be sure, but anyone who buys a "genuine" Rolex from a sidewalk peddler for $100 does not deserve much sympathy.

A fake Holocaust memoir or a Torah scroll purportedly rescued from the ruins of World War II Europe is altogether different. Preying on the emotions of people overwhelmed by the memory of tragedy in order to make a buck is contemptible. Think of the psychic who misleads a grieving parent into believing that he or she is able to communicate with a deceased child.

Menachem Youlus promises Jewish congregations a tangible link to their past only to look on impassively when they are made aware that what they purchased from him may be nothing more than a shadowy facsimile. According to the Washington Post story, "Youlus declines to explain how five parties believed they had one of these two [Ukrainian mass-grave] Torahs."

One of Youlus's defenders argues that exposing his deception "may very well be in service of the truth but in disservice of a greater truth." That is utter bunk.

Truth is absolute. The Holocaust was a tragedy of unfathomable proportions. Its victims, including the hundreds of thousands of destroyed and desecrated Torah scrolls and other Jewish religious artifacts, deserve nothing less than the dignity of authentic memory.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is Adjunct Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at Syracuse University College of Law, and Vice President of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.