When I wrote My Uncle Aaron’s Story last month I included a disclaimer that I may have had some of the details wrong. Indeed, my father’s youngest brother informed me that the lame hand that earned my grandfather his draft deferment came with his birth and not from the runaway horse and wagon as I’d written. That accident happened after World War One had already ended. I’m thankful that Uncle Fred’s memory is good and he’s able to supply me with all sorts of interesting facts from my family history.
One of the most meaningful stories from our past is the one in which he’s the star. That’s the story of how he rescued a Torah scroll in Nazi Germany when he was only nine-years-old. Like all family legends, though, details change with the time and the teller. For example, some of my grandchildren thought that it was my father who rescued the Torah. My father is the one who first told me the story but it’s not exactly the same as my uncle’s version. Since my father was already in America when the rescue happened it’s Uncle Fred’s account that I repeat. Thankfully he wrote it down for me.
Recently I’ve become involved with a country-wide volunteer program in which seniors citizens go into local junior-high schools in order to share some of their history. The label volunteer is for both sides. These boys give up part of their break time and miss a class they have to do make-up work for to eagerly meet with some “old” people. Since there aren’t enough retirees I have the privilege of talking to two boys. It amazes me that they find what I have to say interesting.
Part of the project is for them to write up one of my stories for the website of Beit Hatfutsot, The Diaspora Museum. Of all the stories they could have picked they chose the story of the rescued Torah scroll. I am touched by their choice and look forward to showing it to my Uncle Fred. I pray he will stay healthy and be able to continue to share important family facts with me for a long time.
For those who never read The Tenth of Tevet, posted on December 25, 2011, here is an excerpt of my Uncle Fred’s account of the rescue:
Not every German was a Nazi and an anti-Semite: the son of a neighbor who had the only car in the village and who drove some of the Nazis had heard what was planned and warned my parents. By this time there were only six Jewish families left in Jesberg and my parents told them. All left their homes that night to hide in the fields except us. My father still had difficulty walking [following a stroke]so we went to a house still occupied by a Jewish family who had recently sold it so we thought that we would be safe there and that turned out to be the case. We heard the mob as they ransacked our little Synagogue, destroyed the one remaining Jewish store and then went on to several homes including ours but not the one we were in. The devastation we found upon our return to our home in the morning was indeed sad. Furniture had been damaged, glasses and dishes broken, beds soaked with urine and they also left behind a cat-of-nine tails which really scared me. However, I was also angry and I decided to go by myself to the Synagogue to find my wimpel which I wanted to take with us when we left for America. The Synagogue was in terrible condition. Prayer books, shawls and Torah Scrolls had been piled on the floor and a fire had been set which only scorched some of the items before it went out. Looking through the rubble, I found a Torah Scroll which had been torn apart at a seam but was otherwise undamaged. I went home to get our hand wagon and brought both pieces home. About a month later this scroll was packed with the rest of our belongings and shipped to Stillwater, Oklahoma. It could not be used being torn apart at a seam so it remained unused until the 1950’s when my brother, Walter, brought it to his Temple in Wichita, Kansas. There it was repaired to make it kosher and usable.