Rabbi to the Rescue: Menachem Youlus is called the Indiana Jones of Torah recovery and restoration. But there are doubts about his thrilling tales.
By Martha Wexler and Jeff Lunden • Washington Post
In October of 2001, Robert Kushner of Pittsburgh received an e-mail that got his heart racing. His nephew had come across a notice in a Jewish genealogical newsletter about a mass grave discovered outside the Ukrainian town of Kamenets-Podolsk. Along with the remains of Jews killed in the Holocaust, the grave contained two sacred Torah scrolls, one of them wrapped in a "Gestapo body bag." A Maryland man had bought one Torah, the newsletter said, but the second scroll needed a home.
Kamenets-Podolsk was the town from which Kushner's father had emigrated in 1920. One of his father's sisters never left, and Kushner, 74, wondered, "Could her body be one of those buried in that mass grave?" He contacted the man who had made this horrific yet miraculous find: Rabbi Menachem Youlus, co-owner of the Jewish Bookstore of Greater Washington. Kushner and his wife traveled to the bookstore in Wheaton and found themselves charmed by the slightly built, chatty Orthodox rabbi.
"We literally fell in love with him," Kushner says. "He exudes honesty, integrity. He's as pleasant as could be."
Youlus showed the Kushners the antique scroll and recounted his adventure: While traveling in Ukraine, Youlus was approached by an unnamed farmer who offered to sell him a handwritten map. As Kushner remembers the story, the farmer said he had been told by his father that if he ever encountered anyone wearing a skullcap, he should show him the map. The farmer led Youlus to his land, which had a pigsty built on a foundation of Jewish gravestones. Seeing Hebrew writing on the map, Youlus bought it and went off with the farmer to a spot marked on it. The rabbi started digging and uncovered a mass grave containing the bones of more than 200 people, as well as two relatively intact Torahs. He and his driver reburied the human remains and marked each individual grave with verses from the Book of Psalms. Months later, Youlus -- who is also a Torah scribe -- restored the Torahs to kosher condition so they could once again be read in synagogues.
Hearing this story, Kushner felt moved to buy the Torah, which was still for sale. He'd grown up poor. His immigrant father couldn't afford the big donation some synagogues used to request for the privilege of reciting Torah blessings during the High Holy Days. Choking up, Kushner recalls: "When this Torah became available, I said, 'You know what? I can't think of a better way to honor my father's memory.' " Youlus told the Kushners that several people had expressed interest in the Torah, but the scribe wanted them to have it, because "that's where your father was born; that's where his siblings were born." Kushner paid $15,000 for the scroll, which he donated to his synagogue, Beth El Congregation in Pittsburgh. He fondly remembers the dedication. "It was a beautiful ceremony. I spoke, my son spoke, through tears." Later, his grandson read from the Torah at his bar mitzvah.
For something buried underground for 60 years, the Torah was in remarkably good condition. The rabbi never showed Kushner any photos of the excavation or of the scroll before its restoration, or the farmer's map. Kushner, a retired lawyer, acknowledges that he was initially skeptical. "You know, the story itself is so bizarre. ... I did not know Menachem at that time, and I guess there was something in my voice," Kushner says. At Youlus's suggestion, Kushner called an Orthodox rabbi in Pittsburgh for a character reference. Kushner's sister called family friends in Maryland who also vouched for Youlus. When Kushner told his own rabbi about the background checks, the rabbi's reaction was: "You know what? You've done far more than you need to do. If a sofer [Torah scribe] tells you a story, you can believe him."
Rabbi Menachem Youlus has found scores of enthusiastic believers and willing buyers. Dubbed "The Indiana Jones of Torah Scribes," Youlus has regaled congregations and the media (including this newspaper in 2004) with tales of cloak-and-dagger adventures in Central and Eastern Europe. The 48-year-old rabbi from Baltimore says he has found Torahs hidden in walls, buried in the ground, piled in basements of monasteries, even under the floorboards of a concentration camp barracks. He says he has been beaten up, threatened with jail in Siberia, and has had to smuggle out Torahs in false-bottom suitcases.
"I guess you can say I'm on a mission," explains Youlus, who wears a neatly trimmed beard and the white shirt, black trousers and black yarmulke favored by the ultra-Orthodox. His stated mission, supported by the nonprofit Save a Torah Inc., is to recover, repair and resettle sacred scrolls from Jewish communities destroyed by the Nazis. His rescued Torahs have found their way into more than three dozen congregations in the Washington area and beyond. Billionaire investor David Rubenstein, 60, co-founder and managing director of the Carlyle Group, purchased two of these scrolls. He says, via e-mail, "I donated these Torahs to the synagogues so their congregants could have the sacred experience of reading scripture from scrolls that had survived the Holocaust."
The Torah is Judaism's most sacred text -- the first five books of the Hebrew Bible -- painstakingly handwritten on animal-skin parchment according to a strict set of rules. It is venerated as the core of Jewish worship and the basis for centuries of Jewish scholarship. Jews treat the Torah with the respect due an important person, standing when it is taken out of its ark and is carried in a synagogue. There's a tradition among some Jews of ransoming stolen Torahs, and scrolls damaged beyond repair are buried in a cemetery.
The stories Youlus has told over the years resonate so powerfully because they meld this centerpiece of the Jewish religion with the cataclysm of the Holocaust, providing a reassuring sense of continuity and hope. As survivors, Youlus's Torahs are brought out for Holocaust Remembrance Day, they're used to teach lessons in religious schools, and for many people, such as Robert Kushner, they have become part of a deeply personal family narrative. Youlus says in a video on the Save a Torah Web site: "Every single Torah that I rescued has a story."
At her white clapboard home in Somers, N.Y., Rabbi Shoshana Hantman, 51, takes a large scroll out of a custom-made, portable ark in her living room, rolls it out on her dining room table and shoos away her Siamese cat as it threatens to tread on the sacred parchment. "This is our old guy," Hantman says, as she prepares to tell the story of the Torah that Youlus sold to her congregation at the time, the Reconstructionist Group of Southern Westchester.
Her tale is almost identical to the one Kushner says Youlus told him. Hantman says she got in touch with Youlus in the summer of 2001 as she was preparing for her small worship group's first High Holy Day services. The member needed a Torah but couldn't afford the $25,000 or more for a new one. So she phoned Youlus and soon found herself captivated by his "angelic presence." "This was an Orthodox rabbi, you understand. Orthodox rabbis don't normally even speak to the likes of me," the clergywoman says. "He didn't only talk to me, he referred to me as 'rabbi.' So I already knew this was a special guy."
Youlus recounted how he had rescued the Torah -- one of a pair, Hantman recalls, that he discovered in the Ukrainian mass grave. The scribe offered the scroll to Hantman's congregation for $6,000. Hantman recalls that Youlus was finishing the Torah's restoration on Sept. 11. She remembers Youlus telling her that he was a member of a Jewish burial society and had to rush to the Pentagon to retrieve the remains of Jewish victims. "And in the middle of it, he [finished] this Torah," Hantman marvels.
The story of that Torah's rescue from the ashes of the Holocaust had special resonance that Rosh Hashanah, when smoke was still rising from Ground Zero. Several members of Hantman's worship group worked at the World Trade Center. Some would find an even closer connection to the story. Hantman recalls: "Once a gentleman came up and said his father was from Kamenets-Podolsk, and he just wanted to touch the scroll because it might have been his father's, and he had [lost] people. People have said that they felt -- you know, very mystical people -- that they felt emanations. ..."
Seated at a laminate table covered with scrolls in his bookstore -- the headquarters for his operation -- Youlus explains the spiritual charge he gets from supplying Torahs, new and restored, to congregations around the United States and overseas. "I've been to so many Torah dedications, and it never gets old," he explains, "because it's a chance to establish a special bond between God's chosen people and God." Around him, the Wheaton shop's two rooms overflow with books and Judaica: prayer shawls, menorahs, children's games, stickers and tchochkes. In the rear, several dozen antique Torah scrolls, many wrapped in black trash bags, lie on a set of shelves awaiting repair.
Customers, including local Jewish clergy, frequently interrupt Youlus, in person and over the phone. He greets everyone with a cheery, high-pitched "Hello" and punctuates the air with emphatic hand gestures. His life outside the bookstore is just as busy, he says: "Last week, I was in Europe once and on the West Coast twice."
As the store's clerk takes scrolls off the shelf and lays them gently on a table, Youlus eagerly describes the mechanics of being a scribe. He shows off turkey quills, used to write Torahs, bits of klaf (parchment) and explains the intense spiritual concentration required of his profession. Youlus says he uses high-tech infrared equipment to inspect the condition of the scrolls and "climate-controlled" ink to restore them. Touting his expertise in dating parchment, Youlus says he has studied with curators "in Europe," but pressed to say with whom he has studied, he won't give names. Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore confirms that Youlus graduated with a degree in Talmudic Law and was ordained in 1983. He also studied accounting at Towson State University.
On his Save a Torah promotional video, posted on the Web in 2007, Youlus says he has rescued 500 Torahs since he began his mission a quarter-century ago. The number Youlus gives on this spring afternoon in 2009 has soared to 1,100.
The fundraising video describes Youlus's rescue operation in dramatic fashion. While a violin plays a mournful tune, supporters give testimonials. The screen flashes archival photos of concentration camp barracks and piles of desecrated Torah scrolls. The message is clear: Make a donation so Youlus can parachute in, rescue these fragile survivors and breathe new life into the ancient text known as the Tree of Life.
One testimonial comes from Rabbi Leila Gal Berner of Kol Ami, a Reconstructionist community in Northern Virginia. Cradling a Torah from Youlus, Gal Berner, 59, relates its remarkable history. "There was a legend of a Torah scroll that had been hidden under the floorboards at Bergen-Belsen [the German concentration camp]. Menachem came to Bergen-Belsen on a tour and literally fell into a hole in the corner of the floorboards, felt something strange, suspected that this might be where it was. It was dug up. Indeed it was the Torah, fully there. After some negotiations, Rabbi Youlus was able to purchase the Torah." For Gal Berner, rescuing a scroll like hers means "that community didn't die when Hitler tried to kill it."
But Youlus's discovery at Bergen-Belsen comes as news to the historian at the camp museum. "I can definitely exclude that there could have been a find of the Torah scroll on the grounds of the Bergen-Belsen Memorial" in recent years, writes Thomas Rahe. In 1945, British troops burned down all the barracks to stop the spread of typhus.
Asked in the shop about his Bergen-Belsen adventure, Youlus at first jokes about his dumb luck -- being a "schlemiel" and literally stumbling on a holy treasure. Confronted with the camp historian's denial, he shoots back: "It's not Bergen-Belsen. ... She [Gal Berner] says it was Bergen-Belsen." Which camp was it? He can't remember: He says he has toured so many concentration camp sites. Why did he allow Gal Berner to tell this story on the video? He says he's never watched it.
Gal Berner -- a historian who has taught at leading universities -- stands by Youlus even after being informed of the facts and of Youlus's denial. In an e-mail, she skirts the question of what the scribe told her about the Torah's origins. "I believe that Rabbi Youlus is an honest man who is doing holy work," she says. "I believe that he must navigate complicated territory in order to find and rescue the Torah scrolls he finds."
In the spring of 2008, Central Synagogue, a prominent temple in Manhattan, dedicated another of Youlus's rescued Torahs. This one came with an iconic name attached. Youlus says he secretly unearthed it in Oswiecim -- the Polish town made infamous by its German name, Auschwitz. Oswiecim Jews, Youlus said, buried this Torah in a metal box in their cemetery to save it from the Nazis. More than six decades later, he told the New York Times, he located the scroll with a metal detector and dug it up. But it was missing four parchment panels. The local Jews removed these panels, he said, before burying the Torah, and later somehow spirited the fragments into the camp. Youlus says he placed an ad in a local newspaper offering to pay for parchment with Hebrew writing on it. Miraculously, a priest -- a former Auschwitz prisoner -- responded the very next day and sold him four panels that proved to be an exact match.
Central Synagogue's rabbi, Peter Rubinstein, acknowledges that he was initially baffled as to how the parchment had come into the camp. But he did not seek an independent appraisal or ask for documentation. Rubinstein says he ultimately trusted Youlus, and he trusted the man who had purchased the Torah and wanted to donate it to Central Synagogue.
That donor was David Rubenstein (no relation to the rabbi) of the Carlyle Group, the D.C.-based private equity firm. The billionaire philanthropist -- who has lent a copy of the Magna Carta to the National Archives -- was not a member of Central Synagogue. But he came well recommended by a congregant: Arthur Levitt, the former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman. "That's how the connection was made," Rabbi Rubinstein recalls. "That's how the world works." As he remembers, donor David Rubenstein "said he wanted exposure for the scroll in New York."
So with great fanfare, the Torah from Auschwitz was dedicated in New York on Holocaust Remembrance Day 2008. Months later, on the Jewish New Year, the congregation again took the Torah down from its imposing two-tiered ark. In his sermon, Rabbi Rubinstein repeated the story of the Torah's wondrous rescue from the killing fields of Oswiecim. Reflecting back on that homily, he says: "Remember, this was two days after the market dropped 700 points, and I was trying to talk about retrenching, not financial retrenching, [but] what are the things that are the anchors of our lives."
Reached for comment about the Auschwitz Torah, Poland's chief rabbi, American Michael Schudrich, responds in an e-mail: "I cannot confirm anything that Menachem has written. I do not know the people he is referring to." Youlus's discovery is also a mystery to Tomasz Kuncewicz, director of the Auschwitz Jewish Center, which cares for the Oswiecim cemetery, and to Dorota Wiewiora, head of the tiny Jewish community still living in the region. She is dismayed at the idea that someone would dig among human remains. And, Wiewiora adds, if such a Torah really was dug up, it would rightfully be the property of her community. "No one would sell it. It's not ethical."
Asked why no one in Oswiecim knew about his ad hoc archaeological dig, Youlus changes major details of the story he told Central Synagogue and the New York Times. He says the box containing the Torah was not made of metal, though he can't say exactly what the material was. Youlus says he simply took an educated guess as to where it was buried, hired a crew to dig and found it in the ground beyond the old cemetery walls. As for the priest who supplied the missing parchment panels, Youlus didn't find him through a classified ad. He says his great aunt -- friends with an unidentified Polish cardinal -- helped find the priest. What was the priest's name? "I have no idea," Youlus says. According to the Archdiocese of Krakow, the last local priest who survived Auschwitz died years before Youlus says he arrived on the scene in 2004.
In a 3-hour interview, Youlus is unable to provide a single name, date, place, photograph or document to back up the Auschwitz stories or any of the others. He says that until Save a Torah was founded in 2004, he kept no records. He refers all requests for documentation since then to the foundation's president, investment banker Rick Zitelman of Rockville.
But in a late December meeting at The Washington Post, Zitelman, 54, shows no documentation for any of the scrolls, despite requests. Zitelman says the only paperwork he gets from Youlus is an invoice the rabbi himself writes up for each Torah. He says Youlus does not submit any airline tickets or hotel receipts for overseas missions. So where does he think Youlus finds the Torahs? "It's my understanding these Torahs come from various locations, including monasteries, museums, antique shops, private owners and other places like that," he says.
Eastern European countries consider the scrolls their cultural property and severely restrict their export. Zitelman says, in a follow-up e-mail: "These Torahs do not belong to the people/organizations/museums/churches that hold them. They belonged to synagogues or Jewish communities or families that were destroyed or killed during the Holocaust. ... These stolen Torahs are no different than art that was stolen from Jews by the Nazis and others, and is now being returned to its rightful owners."
Many state museums and archives in Eastern Europe -- including some in former monasteries -- do hold hundreds of scrolls. And half a dozen major Jewish organizations, backed by the U.S. State Department, have been pressing governments in the region to return them to Jewish hands in an orderly fashion. Wesley Fisher, director of research for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, is working on the issue. He acknowledges that the slow pace of negotiations "leads many people to think, 'Well, they should just be taken.' " But he says he believes the Jewish people should not "repeat theft," and with the revival of Jewish life in the region, it's "not a matter for individuals to decide in cowboy-like fashion" who should have these scrolls. Such decisions should be made in consultation with local communities, he says. Fisher adds: "I'm not aware that Save a Torah is actually trying to deal with Torahs that are held in government hands in the countries of Eastern Europe."
Jews in Ukraine report that Torahs periodically disappear from museum shelves -- sold privately by corrupt curators -- and end up overseas. Youlus is aware of these shadowy dealings: "I think that there is a gray market in some of these areas. And I am very, very careful whom I deal with." But he won't name the people with whom he deals, so, for now, the source of his old Torahs remains murky.
It's not hard to determine where most Holocaust Torahs in American synagogues come from. Most are on loan from a collection of Czech Judaica gathered at the Jewish Museum in Prague during World War II and later sold to a philanthropist in London. The wartime curators meticulously labeled the town of origin of each of those Torahs. Establishing the provenance of other scrolls, though, can be tricky. The text of the Torah is immutable. Scribes never sign their name, the date or the place where they have penned the scroll. Judging by the calligraphy, the parchment and sometimes the penmanship, experts can estimate within a few decades a scroll's age and region of origin. But even if a Torah is determined to have been written in Europe before the Holocaust, there is no way to tell simply by looking at it where it has been since it was written. It's not hard to find old Torahs for sale: Synagogues close; congregations consolidate and sell off scrolls. And many of the old scrolls come from either Eastern Europe or scribes who trained there. EBay has pages of listings. Some old scrolls for sale, indeed, may be survivors of vanished Jewish communities, but it's hard to say for sure.
What's also hard to ascertain is how the two Torahs Youlus says he found in a mass grave in Ukraine wound up in the hands of five different buyers.
The first was Martin Ingall, 50, of Potomac, who reported Youlus's discovery to the Jewish genealogical newsletter. Its August, 2001, issue states that Ingall, president of Technology Information in Rockville, bought one of the two Torahs and suggested that someone else might want the second. After reading this, Kushner then purchased what Youlus told him was the second scroll. But another Pennsylvania couple, Phyllis and David Malinov, also read the notice and felt a tug on their heartstrings. Phyllis, 71, knew her mother had immigrated from Kamenets-Podolsk. So the couple, a teacher and a physician, headed off to the Wheaton bookstore. After they told Youlus about their family connection to the town, David Malinov, 72, recalls, the scribe "was in favor of our receiving the Torah." They paid about $10,000, they say, for what Youlus told them was one of two Torahs, and took it back to their Jewish fellowship group in Pike County, Pa. Around the same time, the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center outside Baltimore, which caters to Jewish organizations, was looking for a Torah. The center's executive director, Carol Pristoop, wrote down the incredible story that Youlus told the Pearlstone donors, who paid $10,000 for the scroll. She saved her notes, which state the Pearlstone Torah is one of two found in a mass grave.
Hantman also remembers Youlus telling her that her Westchester County congregation was receiving one of two Torahs from the mass grave. Youlus declines to explain how five parties believed they had one of these two Torahs. But Zitelman says: "There's a total of eight Torahs -- two that were in the mass grave and six that were from the general community. I don't know what Rabbi Youlus said specifically to anybody."
When Hantman hears about the mystically multiplying Torahs, she pauses and says she has to gather her thoughts: "I hope you've read 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' At the end, a truth is concealed for the better good of the community. ... If there is any deception going on ... also think about what he's done that's good." She wrestles with what she has heard. "Destroying this man, if he is guilty of what you suspect, may very well be in service of the truth but in disservice of a greater truth," Hantman says. What, for Hantman, is the greater truth? "The Jewish reverence for the past, for heritage and for those who suffered and died because of the Nazis."
Clark University professor Deborah Dwork, co-author of a history of Auschwitz, says she has an "allergic reaction" to the notion of a greater truth, because, she says, such tales can play into the hands of Holocaust deniers. For her, the historical record must be "absolutely crystal clear. Anything that deviates from that one whit does the memory of the Holocaust a huge disservice," she says.
So why have so many of Youlus's customers accepted his dramatic rescue stories without evidence? Is it because he carries the title "Rabbi"? Or is it because so many unimaginable things did happen during the Holocaust? Perhaps, as sociologist Samuel Heilman says: "There's a sensitivity because of Holocaust denial. If you say some stories aren't true, you may have to say that all stories are not true. So best not to touch on a sensitive topic." Heilman -- who has written numerous books about Jewish communities and is a professor at City University of New York -- suggests that some American Jews feel guilty: "They didn't manage to rescue the people, so they rescue the Torahs." Dwork has her own theory: "The loss was so devastating that we crave tales of survival."
David Rubenstein does not want any lingering doubts about provenance to taint the Torah he donated to New York's Central Synagogue, or another scroll he donated to the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in downtown Washington. Youlus said that Torah was read by inmates at the Dachau concentration camp. But the archivist at Dachau, Albert Knoll, says he has no record of a Torah being smuggled into the camp. After Rubenstein was told that experts questioned the stories about the Torahs, he hired noted Holocaust historian Michael Berenbaum, 64, to investigate. Berenbaum, a former director of the research institute at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, spent an hour and a half with Youlus, spoke with people in Poland and searched through archives and oral histories. "Based on Dr. Berenbaum's investigation," Rubenstein wrote in a September e-mail, "we cannot fully and unquestionably establish that the Torahs are what I had been led to believe." Rubenstein asked Berenbaum to find Torahs "whose Holocaust provenance is not in question. When such Torahs are located and secured, I will donate them to the synagogues -- to ensure they will have what I originally intended them to have." Since then, Berenbaum says, he has secured a replacement Torah for Central Synagogue from a Romanian collection recently transferred to Israel. Sixth & I will receive a scroll from Poland. The Carlyle Group reports that Rubenstein is also paying for the restoration of a historic building for Jewish youth in Poland "as a sign of goodwill and appreciation."
As for Youlus's Torah rescue stories, Berenbaum came to his own conclusion. "A psychiatrist might say they are delusional. A historian might say they are counter-factual. A pious Jew might call them midrash -- the stories we tell to underscore the deepest truths we live," he says. Midrash, in this context, refers to the ancient tradition of rabbis telling anecdotes and fables to convey a moral lesson. "Myth underscores the deepest truth we live," Berenbaum says.
But for Kushner, who to honor his father bought a Torah he believed was from a mass grave, "It's better that I should know the truth than I should go on the rest of my life believing in a myth."
Martha Wexler was the Europe editor for National Public Radio and a senior editor of NPR's "All Things Considered." Jeff Lunden is a freelance journalist and an award-winning radio producer. His stories and documentaries have been heard on NPR, PRI and American Public Media. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Hat Tip: Critical Minyan.]