Torah rescued from Nazis on permanent loan to North Fork synagogue

GIANNA VOLPE PHOTO | Irwin Freeman, president of North Fork Reform Synagogue, holds the Holocaust Torah from Tabor, which is on ‘permanent loan’ to the Cutchogue congregation.

A piece of Holocaust history resides in Cutchogue, but it’s far more than just a piece of the past.

A mid-19th-century Torah from Tabor, in what is now the Czech Republic, is on “permanent loan” to North Fork Reform Synagogue in Cut­chogue — and the honor of caring for the priceless artifact is not on lost on the congregation.

“It’s a very big honor because we are one of the few congregations in the world that was given one of these Torahs,” said congregation president Irwin Freeman. “We use it when we can and it makes the congregation feel that they’re a part of history and what happened during Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.”

The restored scroll, originally written in 1850, is used on two special occasions during the year and is carried around the synagogue on High Holy Days. One of the occasions is Simchat Torah, or “Holiday of the Torah,” which coincides with the “marriage” of the Holocaust Torah and the synagogue 18 years ago. The scroll is also used during the annual Holocaust Memorial Service, held each year at the end of April.

Southold residents and synagogue members Miriam and Michael Lastoria transported the Torah to Cut­chogue from Westminster Synagogue in England in the 1980s.

“We carried it in the overhead compartment, can you imagine?” Ms. Lastoria said. “It was funny. People were asking, ‘Is that a rug? What is that?’ ”

Ms. Lastoria said she and her husband carried the scroll through a park to where they were staying in London before storing it a cupboard until they left for the States.

Mr. Lastoria said the Torah is No. 627 of 1,564 scrolls gathered by Nazis in Czechoslovakia during World War II. They were among 82,800 articles of Jewish memorabilia the Nazis collected for a museum that was to be dedicated to “an extinct race.”

“On the actual Torah, there’s a brown paper tag the Nazis put on it attached to a red string,” Mr. Lastoria said.

Following the war, Mr. Lastoria said, the Czech government stored all the items in Prague. They remained there until the early ’60s, when English philanthropist Ralph Yablon paid the government $1 million for all of the Torahs. Mr. Yablon then donated the scrolls to Westminster Synagogue in London.

Many of the Torahs were in poor condition, Mr. Lastoria said, so it was fortunate when traveling scribe David Brand came along and asked if there were any Torahs in need of repair.

“The Torah has to be perfect,” Mr. Lastoria said, “so if there’s even a flake of ink missing, it needs to be fixed. That scribe was still there restoring the Torahs when we showed up to receive ours in the ’80s.”

Mr. Lastoria said Westminster Synagogue wanted different congregations throughout the world — but not well-established congregations — to receive the historic Torahs on “permanent loan.”

At the time, North Fork Reform Synagogue was only two years old and then-rabbi Ariel Walsh suggested starting a fund to apply for one.

The Lastorias offered to pay for one of the Torahs after a September Yom Kippur service and even volunteered to pick it up, as they were going to London that winter.

“For me it was exciting because my great-grandparents came from the area where the Torah is from, so I feel a ‘six degrees of separation’ from it,” Ms. Lastoria said.

A plaque has since been added to the Torah dedicating it to the memory of Ms, Lastoria’s father, Morris Florian. “It’s a wonderful thing,” she said. “Because even though the Nazis were trying to make this museum, these Torahs are still living today.”

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