Menachem Youlus, a Wheaton rabbi, and two other men had been digging for about two hours on a farm in Ukraine when, five feet into the earth, they found the sea of bones.
The remains of 263 men, women and children were still shrouded in clothing that bore the Star of David, which Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust. Youlus also discovered what looked to be military body bags.
Inside, he found two cherished items, badly deteriorated but Holocaust survivors just the same: They were Torahs, sacred handwritten scrolls that contain the five Books of Moses.
Discovered four years ago, the scrolls were two of more than 400 Torahs that Youlus and a team of scribes have unearthed from a dark past. Youlus has spent the past 19 years scouring Eastern Europe for them, then working with fellow scribes to restore the scrolls and find them new homes.
"Many of the Torahs come from communities that were completely destroyed in the Holocaust," said Youlus, 43, as he prepared this week for Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement -- a time of confession and repentance, observed by fasting and nearly unbroken prayer -- which begins at sundown.
"No one is left from these towns," he said. "The only thing that survived is these Torahs."
Some lost Torahs have come his way without any digging. In Ukraine, he bought one from a former Nazi sergeant who said he confiscated it from a man entering Auschwitz. Youlus discovered another being sold in pieces to artists who were using the sacred parchment as canvas. Some he smuggled out of then-Communist countries, two panels at a time, in the lining of luggage.
"He's an intrepid Jewish 007," said Rabbi Moshe D. Shualy, ritual director for Chizuk Amuno, a Baltimore synagogue that has two of Youlus's rescued Torahs.
"You wouldn't look at him twice," said Shualy, whose parents were Holocaust survivors. "But he puts himself in such impossible situations to find, retrieve and resurrect these scrolls."
If Youlus can't track down a Torah's owners or their descendants, he said, he buys it from whoever has come to possess it. Then, back at his family's store, the Jewish Bookstore of Greater Washington on Georgia Avenue, he and a team of scribes try to repair 60 years worth of damage from mildew, heat, dirt, bugs and rodents. On many Torahs, Youlus said, he also finds bayonet marks and cigarette burns from Nazi desecration.
After using an infrared camera attached to a scanner that shows cracked letters and other details the naked eye can miss, Youlus and his team painstakingly re-ink each one by hand with a goose or turkey quill. Each Torah contains about 302,000 Hebrew letters. Some words must be written with one drop of ink. It requires hours of concentration.
"You have to think about only one thing: that you're writing for the sake of God," Youlus said. "It's not to get a high or because you're better than the next Jew."
Seven scribes restore the scrolls in a warehouse near Baltimore. Youlus often does his work with his brother-in-law, Rabbi Ayson Englander, at the bookstore. Cardboard boxes containing 40 to 50 Torahs, some new, are stacked to its 20-foot ceiling. It takes between seven weeks and six months to repair a Torah. Youlus estimates they are able to restore about 85 percent of them.
When he's done, Youlus finds them new homes in synagogues, schools and Jewish community centers across the country.
"He's one of the world's great people," said Rick Zitelman, a Rockville investment and merchant banker. Zitelman and his wife, Cindy, helped buy one of Youlus's Torahs for Sixth and I Historic Synagogue on the edge of the District's Chinatown.
Youlus -- who has a Web site devoted to his mission, www.saveatorah.org -- estimates that as many as 2,400 scrolls survived the Holocaust. He believes so strongly in saving them that he has gone into debt $170,000 to finance his work, he said.
"He doesn't see it as a sacrifice," Zitelman said of Youlus using his own money. "He just sees it as his life's mission."
Perhaps nothing captures the intrigue and often profound sadness of Torah rescue as Youlus's gruesome discovery in Kamenets-Poldosk, a small town in Ukraine.
Youlus went there in spring 2000 to meet with an antiques dealer who had a Torah. That deal fell through, but while sitting outside the store drinking a soda, he said, a farmer approached him, offering to sell him a map. The farmer said his father had told him to offer the map to someone wearing a yarmulke.
Youlus said he bought the map for $1,500. "My driver thought I was pretty nutty, but I had a gut feeling," Youlus said.
The hand-drawn map, marked with an "X" surrounded by a large circle, led to an overgrown area of the man's farm. Youlus said the farmer made him pay $1,500 more to buy the plot of land before he could dig on it.
In two hours, Youlus said, he, his driver and the farmer came across the bones. He eventually hired a company with a backhoe and unearthed the mass grave with the hidden Torahs.
"That was a little more than I bargained for," Youlus said.
Elderly people in the town recalled four Jewish men being forced to bury the massacred bodies, Youlus said. Those men likely saved the Torahs from a nearby synagogue by wrapping them in the body bags and sneaking them into the grave.
Youlus said he spent several more weeks helping to rebury the remains in separate plots. He also found five more pre-Holocaust Torahs in nearby towns, hidden in basements or kept by non-Jews.
He credits his zeal for Torah rescue to a "deal" he struck with God 21 years ago. He was a 22-year-old accountant in New York when his father and his sister's boyfriend were struck by a car while crossing a road near their Montgomery County synagogue.
Youlus said doctors told him to begin making burial arrangements. If God would save their lives, he prayed, he would devote a year to studying the Torah. Both men survived.
He didn't know then, he said, that he would end up devoting the rest of his life to saving it.
Staff researcher Karl Evanzz contributed to this report.