NEW YORK — Assume for a moment that Bernard Madoff, from his jail cell, was to submit a sworn affidavit that he ran a legitimate business, and that he is not, and never has been, a crook. Would anyone believe him?
Why, then, should Rabbi Menachem Youlus be allowed to get away with a self-serving signed and sworn statement that he really discovered two Torah scrolls in an Ukrainian mass-grave in the face of overwhelming evidence that he did no such thing?
Youlus, you may recall, is the Washington, D.C., area Torah scribe who boasted that he had “rescued” over 1,000 Holocaust-era Torah scrolls, including two that had supposedly been buried in a so-called “Gestapo body bag,” whatever that is, in a mass-grave on a pig farm in western Ukraine; one he allegedly discovered under the floorboards of a barrack in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany; and yet another that he professed to have dug up in what had been the cemetery of Oswiecim, the Polish town adjacent to the Auschwitz death camp, which he miraculously reunited with four missing parchment panels that Jews from Oswiecim took into the camp and entrusted for safekeeping to a Jewish-born priest who remained in town after the war and eventually sold them to Youlus.
Since the publication earlier this year of a meticulously detailed Washington Post Magazine exposé in which Martha Wexler and Jeff Lunden questioned Youlus’ veracity, Youlus has not come forward with a single document or a single witness to substantiate any of his claims.
Moreover, some facts are simply not in dispute: There is no historical evidence whatsoever of the Nazis, who regularly burned and desecrated Torah scrolls, ever burying any sacred Jewish religious artifacts in mass-graves alongside murdered Jews. Youlus actually peddled the two “mass-grave” Torah scrolls to five separate congregations. He could not possibly have found any Torah scrolls in Bergen-Belsen since British troops burned that camp’s barracks to the ground in May 1945 to contain a typhus epidemic. And there is no record of anyone even remotely fitting the description of the priest in Youlus’ bizarre Auschwitz Torah story ever having lived in or near the town of Oswiecim.
Any exploitation of the Holocaust for crass commercial purposes is appalling. Creating false Holocaust histories for Torah scrolls is despicable. Youlus’ scheme is at least as reprehensible as Binjamin Wilkomirski’s much-acclaimed fake Holocaust memoir, which turned out to be a work of fiction written by a Christian clarinetist named Bruno Dösseker, born Bruno Grosjean in Switzerland, not Latvia.
Far from having been made a pariah, however, Youlus apparently continues to function as a scribe with impunity, and Save a Torah, his 501 (c) 3 tax-exempt organization, shamelessly continues to solicit funds on its Web site. Even worse, some prominent members of the Jewish community actually defend him publicly.
Carol Pristoop, executive director of the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center near Reisterstown, Md., told the Baltimore Jewish Times that even though Youlus’ actions “could be possibly fraud … this man, in many ways, is doing a mitzvah.” Dr. Moshe Shualy, the Ritual Director of Baltimore’s Chizuk Amuno Congregation, says that even though “there have been misstatements,” he believes that Youlus is “being crucified.”
“Should we judge him because he says things that don’t sound quite right?” Shualy asks rhetorically.
Stephen R. Krawitz, a member of the Conservative Synagogue of Westport, Connecticut, writes in the New York Jewish Week that he considers Youlus to be “a tzaddik” (righteous man) who “is doing God’s work on behalf of the Jewish people.” And Robert Kushner, who purchased one of the mass-grave Torah scrolls for the Beth El Congregation in suburban Pittsburgh, wants to let Youlus off the hook after receiving a sworn document in which Youlus reiterates, his original account of the scroll’s provenance.
“Whatever he may be,” Kushner told this newspaper, “I cannot bring myself to believe that an Orthodox rabbi would swear and confirm to a lie.”
Why and how anyone could still defend Youlus is beyond me. His misrepresentations not only play straight into the hands of Holocaust deniers, but he has raised thousands of dollars under false pretenses from people who trusted him, including idealistic teenagers who were conned into donating significant portions of their bar and bat mitzvah gifts to Save a Torah.
Instead of receiving a free pass, Youlus’ shadowy activities should be thoroughly investigated. Where did he get his Torah scrolls, and from whom? Were they stolen, and if so, to whom do they belong?
If nothing else, Youlus violated the trust of well-meaning individuals who thought they were supporting the rescue of Torah scrolls and instead have discovered that they unwittingly helped facilitate a truly contemptible scam. He and his Save a Torah foundation must now be held accountable, both legally and morally.
(Menachem Z. Rosensaft, an adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School , visiting lecturer at the Syracuse University College of Law, and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, , can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)