While German troops were sweeping across Europe during World War II and forcing Jews into concentration camps where 6 million were exterminated, by a quirk of the Nazi mentality they took care to preserve artifacts of Jewish worship.
Left behind in smashed and desecrated synagogues all over Europe, many of the sacred objects were carefully collected and shipped to a warehouse in Prague after the Allied victory.
Tonight, one of these Holocaust survivors, a 250-year-old torah scroll, will be used at Temple Micah in Southwest Washington to open the Kol Nidre service, marking the beginning of Yom Kippur.
"A miracle," the synagogue's Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel called it. "It's a miracle that it survived the Holocaust."
The Nazis collected the artifacts for "a museum of a people who no longer existed," said Myron Schoen, director of synagogue administration for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in New York. "There were hundreds if not thousands of torahs from all over Eastern Europe."
The cache was discovered after the war and, with the assistance of organizations of the world Jewish community, moved to Westminster Synagogue in London, where a Memorial Scrolls Trust was set up.
The idea behind the trust was that the torahs from European synagogues that no longer existed would be made available on permanent loan to Jewish congregations in other parts of the world.
The torah, the first five books of the Bible, recounts the history of the Jewish people and their covenant to keep God's commandments and in turn be His chosen people.
Handwritten in Hebrew on sheets of specially prepared leather and stitched into one continuous scroll, the torah is central to Judaism.
Temple Micah decided to seek a scroll from the Memorial Trust nearly three years ago after vandals stole sacred objects from the house of worship the temple shares with St. Augustine's Episcopal Church, at 600 M St. SW. But when Temple Micah contacted the British headquarters, "they told us they didn't have any more" torahs, said Vivian S. Liebenau of Arlington, president of the congregation at the time.
Liebenau said she visited the Westminster Synagogue in 1982 and saw "about 100 that were badly damaged. Some were torn. Some were blood-spattered. Some were cracked," she said. "I came home with the tremendous resolve that we ought to take one of them."
When the torah finally arrived from London, it sat unused and unusable until someone could be found who was versed in the rare and painstaking art of restoring such sacred items. The leather was creased and cracked, mold had invaded large parts of it, the ink had faded and flaked.
"Approximately one-third of it had to be reconstructed," said Rabbi Bernard Honan, who leads a congregation in Charlottesville and renovates torahs as a kind of hobby.
Honan scraped away flawed letters with a scalpel and carefully blended inks to replace the letters with just the right shade of black so the repair "doesn't jump out at you." Whole sections had to be copied onto new skins and then patched back into the scroll.
But the worst problem was the mold. "That had to be treated very carefully,"Honan said. When it penetrated too deep for the scalpel's attack, he used bleach. "But the bleach may also fade letters" if fumes are trapped in the rolled-up scroll. "I worked with a fan, so the gas wouldn't fade the letters." The task took him more than three months of "spare time," working around his rabbinical responsibilities.
Normally, Honan said, he would never take on something of this magnitude. "But I decided it was a Holocaust survivor. I wanted to try to resurrect it."