Seventy-five years ago, Aryeh Leib Dworkin RSVP’d for his great-great-grandson’s bar mitzvah. Foreseeing that he might not attend, Dworkin sent ahead a gift.
First entrusted to his daughter, Rachela (Rachel) Dworkin, and then to her son, Emanuel Kanal, the present came to the public eye several weeks ago, as Reuven Kanal called out from the gift that his ancestor had persevered to deliver. While standing beside members of his family at Congregation Poale Zedeck in Squirrel Hill, Kanal read from the Torah that his great-great-grandfather had buried in Radoschkowitz, Poland, before World War II.
“My mother’s father was a gabbai for the shul,” said Emanuel Kanal, Reuven’s grandfather. With knowledge that the war was coming, members of the European congregation, “including my grandfather, decided to bury the sifrei Torah of the shul to save them.”
After the war’s conclusion, several individuals — “those that survived,” said Kanal — returned and searched the Radoschkowitz area.
Radoschkowitz, which was a “little border town between Poland and Russia,” had been converted into a military base during the war. Many of the landmarks had been removed, “but there were tree stumps and it reminded them of where the town was,” explained Kanal.
With difficulty, Dworkin, who had been sent to Siberia by the Russians during the war, and others discovered the bygone site. The group dug up the land and unearthed several Torah scrolls. As a present, Dworkin was given both the biggest and smallest scrolls recovered.
With the two Torahs in hand, Dworkin, his youngest child Rachel, and three of her surviving siblings made their way to a deportation camp in Munich, Germany.
There, Rachel Dworkin met Elimelech (Mark) Kanal, a survivor of Auschwitz. The pair were married.
“As a wedding present, my zaydie gave my parents these two sifrei Torah,” said Kanal. “He felt it was because of these two sifrei Torah that he was kept alive. They were his life. They were literally all he had.
“My mother used to say he was giving us his life, and so these sifrei Torah accompanied my parents” in 1952 when they made their way to the United States.
After arriving in New York, the Kanals lived on 152nd and Broadway in Manhattan. Early on, the family lent one or both of the Torahs to a nearby congregation but soon heard stories of theft and vandalizing in American synagogues.
“My parents couldn’t live with that so they took the sifrei Torah out of the shul and put [them] in the house,” said Kanal.
In 1963, the family moved north to 193rd and St. Nicholas in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. They brought along the two Torahs, each wrapped in a white blanket with Hebrew writing.
While the parents slept in one bedroom and Kanal and his brother occupied another, the third bedroom was used for storage. Still wrapped within the blanket, the Torahs were placed inside and atop the extra bedroom’s closet “and kept away from anything.”
There they stayed for decades, said Kanal.
Five years ago, Kanal began cleaning out the Washington Heights apartment. His mother had passed away, and his father, who requires 24-hour assisted living care, no longer occupied the space.
“We went through all the things in the house and that was the first time I found the sifrei Torah again after all those decades of having not thought about them,” said Kanal, who sent the smaller one to his brother in Israel. Kanal sent the larger one to a ritual scribe for inspection.
The sofer said that it “was in a moderate state of disrepair; it was not in a kosher state,” said Kanal.
Kanal’s adult children decided to restore the scroll.
After a year and a half of work, the Torah was made kosher again. But before being reintroduced for public use, Judi Kanal, Emanuel’s wife, had an idea.
She thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if this sefer Torah could be used again for the first time by the great-great-grandson of the person who was responsible for saving it and having it come to the United States,” said Kanal.
So, as his bar mitzvah approached, Reuven Kanal, the oldest of 14 grandchildren, traveled each day to his grandparents’ nearby house and practiced reading from the restored Torah.
On the morning of his bar mitzvah, Kanal ascended the bima at Poale Zedeck. Standing beside his father Elli, grandfather Emanuel, and grandfather Carey Balaban, Kanal read from the Torah that Dworkin so long ago struggled to save.
“I think that it was really cool that I was able to lain out of my great-great-grandfather’s Torah. It was something that most people don’t get a chance to do in their lifetime,” said the younger Kanal.
But once the bar mitzvah was complete, the Kanals had to determine where to place the Torah.
“When were were deciding what to do, we didn’t want it to sit in the house for another 50 years,” said Emanuel Kanal.
The family decided to give it to Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh for eventual use in its new Boys High School.
“People think Hillel Academy is about teaching, jobs and careers, and it’s really about the future,” said Emanuel Kanal.
Added Reuven: “It’s going to give Hillel a chance to show the students something that was actually from the Holocaust and made it through.”
Emanuel Kanal was pleased that the Torah will benefit students. “As much as my grandfather kept this sefer Torah, it kept him and kept his future.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.