By anyone’s standards, the tale of discovering a Holocaust-era Torah wrapped in a Gestapo body bag excavated from a mass grave on a pig farm in Kamenets-Podolsky seems far-fetched. Yet Rabbi Menachem Youlus has sworn it is true.
And that is good enough for Robert Kushner.
Upon Kushner’s request, Youlus returned a signed and sworn statement confirming that the Torah Kushner purchased from him in 2001 for $14,000 did in fact have the history Youlus related to Kushner at the time.
Kushner’s father was from Kamenets-Podolsky, which made the purported history of the Torah particularly meaningful to him. He donated the Torah to Beth El Congregation of the South Hills in memory of his father at a ceremony in 2001, at which time he recounted the story of Youlus’ rescue of the Torah to a packed congregation.
Youlus claims to have rescued over a thousand Torahs lost in the Holocaust. As he is a scribe, he restores the scrolls, and then sells them to congregations all over the country. To provide funding for his efforts, he runs Save a Torah, a 501(c) 3 tax-exempt organization based out of Washington, D.C.
Last month, The Washington Post ran a story questioning the veracity of Youlus’ tales of Torah rescue, reporting that many of the details were sketchy and could not be verified.
The Torah Kushner purchased was supposedly one of two found in the mass grave on the pig farm. Youlus, in fact sold five Torahs with this same history.
Now that he has Youlus’ sworn confirmation that the Torah he purchased is one of the two found in the mass grave, Kushner said he would let the matter drop and not pursue redress through legal channels.
“Whatever he may be, I cannot bring myself to believe that an Orthodox rabbi would swear and confirm to a lie,” Kushner said. “I’ve got to believe what he said to me.”
“Look, at worst, it’s a Torah dedicated to my father. And possibly it’s a Torah that came from that grave,” he continued. “Am I totally comfortable? Probably not. Am I semicomfortable? Yes, I think I am.”
Youlus told Kushner that the second Torah found in the mass grave went to a chavura (worship group) led by Rabbi Shoshana Hantman in Somers, N.Y.
Hantman’s group purchased its Torah from Youlus in 2001 for $6,000, and was told the same backstory as was Kushner.
After hearing of Youlus’ sworn certification to Kushner, Hantman remained angry, still believing that she bought the Torah under false pretenses.
“I wouldn’t put a lot of money on it,” Hantman said of the chances that Youlus’ yarns were true. “I don’t know why the certification of a liar would mean anything.
“The evidence is overwhelming” that Youlus’ stories are false, Hantman continued, citing a lack of documentation, a multiplicity of scrolls with the same backstory, and Youlus’ constantly changing details as reported in The Post.
Although Hantman said she feels “like a fool” for having believed Youlus, she maintained that purchasing a kosher Torah for only $6,000 was a “lucky break” for her fledgling chavura. New Torahs typically cost in the $40,000 range.
Youlus delivered the Torah to Hantman’s group three or four days following the attacks of 9/11. As her chavura is near Manhattan, she still views the Torah as “a miraculous gift at that time.”
“Whether or not it came out of the ground or a warehouse, that doesn’t change the fact that we had a Torah for Rosh Hashana that year,” she said.
Still, Hantman regrets that she believed Youlus, whom she referred to as a “con man.”
Not only did she recount his tale of Torah rescue several times from the bima, but members of her chavura also donated money to Youlus’ Save a Torah Foundation.
“In my chavura, there were two young ladies who donated a significant amount of their bat mitzva gifts to Rabbi Youlus’ organization,” she said.
Although she has no interest in speaking with Youlus, Hantman would like some answers.
“In his stories, he said he bribed his way out of Poland,” she noted. “Did he break international laws in doing that? Did he fill out custom forms for the Torahs? Did he smuggle them out?”
With all the unanswered questions and mixed feelings, though, Hantman can appreciate the fact that the Youlus story broke right before Purim.
“Purim cures everything,” she said. “I’m going to dress as a Menachem Youlus Torah, and have stamped on my back ‘Made in Pakistan,’ or ‘Torahs R Us.’”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)