“Everybody — every human being — has the obligation to contribute somehow to this world”

—Edith Carter, Holocaust Survivor


Inspirations from the Jewish Experience: Shavuot

The Patchwork Torah

In 1980, not long before the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of Torah, Rabbi Erwin Herman received the stewardship of a most remarkable Torah scroll. Not only did it survive two major events of the twentieth century-the Holocaust and the Soviet Jewish struggle for freedom- but it is also a poignant example of the Jewish love of Torah and learning.

A newly arrived immigrant from the Soviet Union knocked on the door of Rabbi Herman, then director of the Pacific Southwest Council of the UAHC (now URJ), inquiring if he would be willing to buy a Torah. The rabbi saw a very sad-looking scroll within a crudely hand-sewn cover stored inside a pillowcase. Yet when he unrolled the Torah, he was shocked and amazed. It was a patchwork composite of different Torah pieces, parchment sections from many different sources. Handwriting styles and sizes differed where sections had been added to complete a missing or destroyed section.

Rabbi Herman had so many questions to ask the man. Obviously, an incredible story accompanied this Torah. He found out that the Torah had come from Lvov, once a city with the third largest Jewish population in Poland, now located in Ukraine. The story unfolded slowly, haltingly. As a messenger between two worlds, the young man needed to deliver the story along with the Torah itself.

The young man first heard of this special Torah as he said good bye to his elderly grandfather, who, with another aging Holocaust survivor, implored him to take what they referred to as the Yanov Torah to America and to share its history. Yanov is also known as Janow. The Janowska Road Labor Camp located outside of Lvov was established in October 1941 by the SS and run by Ukrainian guards. Inside the slave labor camp was a German armament works and a transit camp for Jews whose final destination was the Belzec death camp. Tens of thousands of Jews from Eastern Galicia were brought through Janowska/Yanov on their way to their deaths. An armed resistance was born at the Janowska Road Labor Camp, and a Torah was smuggled, wrapped in pieces around inmates’ bodies, into this murderous place.

The guards developed a scheme to allow a few Jews, whose families still remained in the camp, to take a 24 hour “leave” back to the Lvov ghetto. When the men would return to the labor camp, the guards confiscated most of their food and clothing. The men asked their fellow inmates what messages they could bring out, and what, if anything, they should bring back in. They begged for a Torah.

The prisoners went to the Jewish cemetery at night to dig up hidden scrolls and Torah sections that had been buried there. Luckily, among those prisoners was a tailor who sewed pieces of Torah to fit around the bodies and into the garments of the men, thus spiriting out a Torah a few pieces at a time. Throughout the cold and hungry nights, the men studied and discussed Torah, reminiscent of the Shavuot custom to study until daybreak that we pursue to this day, Tikkun Leil Shavuot.

The men hid Torah pieces ingeniously throughout the camp. Though many of the pieces survived, most of the men did not. When the Soviet army liberated the camp in July 1944, only 820 remained from Lvov, a city that once had 150,000 Jewish residents. The survivors organized a special community meeting and unveiled the Yanov Torah. The survivors had reassembled a patchwork Torah from the scattered pieces, improvised from various sources and hands. Many survivors took special care of their precious charge until it was brought to America for safekeeping, the only Torah of its kind.

After receiving the Torah, Rabbi Herman and his wife Agnes published its story as a children’s book called The Yanov Torah (Kar-Ben, 1985). Rabbi Herman was asked to travel with the Torah from synagogue to synagogue to tell its story. Whenever he showed the Torah and opened the patchwork scroll, he encouraged people to touch it, to be part of its history, to imagine what it must have been like for those Jews of Lvov to wrap themselves in these sacred words. At the present time, the Yanov Torah resides at Adat Shalom Congregation in Poway, California, while Rabbi Erwin and Agnes Herman determine its best educational role for the future.