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Shavout, Yizkor, 5763

Rabbi Jack Riemer

I want to say Kaddish for a Sefer Torah today, for a Sefer Torah that lived for a fairly long time, and then disappeared in the sight of all the world.

It is the story of a Sefer Torah that made its first appearance in the very depths of Hell, and that made its last appearance in the heights of heaven.

Listen to its story, as it was told by Debbi Wigoren, a reporter who is not Jewish, in the Washington Post.

The bar mitzvah took place before dawn on a Monday in March, l944, inside a barracks at the Bergen Belsen concentration camp.

Those men who were strong enough covered the windows and doors with blankets and stood watch to make sure that no SS guards were coming.

Four candles, scrounged from somewhere, gave off enough flickering light for Rabbi Samuel Dasberg to unfurl this tiny Sefer Torah--the five books of Moses, handwritten by a scribe, on a parchment scroll that was just four and a half inches tall.

Thirteen year old Joachim Joseph chanted the blessings just as the rabbi had taught him, and then he chanted aloud from the ancient scroll in the singsong Hebrew melody that has been passed down for hundreds of years.

"There were people listening in the beds all around," Joachim Joseph, who is now a 71 year old Israeli physicist, recalls, describing the narrow triple decker bunks where the Jewish men and boys slept.  "Afterwards everybody congratulated me. Somebody fished out a piece of a chocolate bar that he had been saving and gave it to me.  And somebody else fished out a deck of playing cards for me too. Everybody told me, "now you are a bar mitvah, now you are an adult. We are so very proud of you. Mazel tov!"  And I felt very good.

"And then everything was quickly taken down, and we went out to roll call."

Rabbi Dasberg also gave Joseph a gift that day.  He gave him the miniature Torah scroll that they had used, covered in a red velvet wrapper and tucked into a small green box.

He said: "This little Sefer Torah is yours to keep now, because I am pretty sure that I will not get out of this place alive, but maybe you will."  "And you know how children are," Joachim Joseph said when the Washington Post interviewed him by long distance phone.  "At first, I didn't want to take it, but he insisted.  He convinced me. And the condition was; I HAD TO PROMISE THAT IF I EVER GOT OUT OF THERE, THAT I MUST TELL THE STORY, the story of my bar mitzvah."

The story of that Sefer Torah was told to the world on January 2lst, when Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, held the scroll aloft during a live teleconference from aboard the space shuttle Columbia.

"This Torah scroll was given by a rabbi to a young, scared, thin, thirteen year old boy in Bergen Belson," Ramon said from inside the space shuttle. "It represents more than anything the ability of the Jewish people to survive. It represents their ability to go from black days, from periods of darkness, to reach periods of hope and faith in the future."

And then, 11 days after that interview, Space ship Columbia disintegrated on its way back down to earth, and Ilan Ramon and the other members of that crew were killed.

 Not all of the experiments and projects that this mission was supposed to accomplish were successful.  Many of those experiments perished with them. The results of some of them were sent back down to earth before the Columbia crashed and so they were not lost. But I think that the Sefer Torah fulfilled its mission more thoroughly than any of the other objects aboard that spaceship.

Let me explain how that Sefer Torah came to be on board Columbia and why I feel that it achieved its mission.

One day a few years ago, Ilan Ramon was visiting the home of Joachim Joseph in Tel Aviv.  He noticed this miniature Sefer Torah on a shelf in Joseph's study and he asked him what it was.  Dr. Joseph, who is now a well known physicist in Israel, explained to him that this Sefer Torah was given to him, in Bergen Belson, on the day of his bar mitzvah.

He explained that he was born in Berlin and raised in Amsterdam.  The young Joseph had watched with interest as older boys in his neighborhood celebrated their bar mitzvah.  His father, a lawyer, was not particularly religious, but several of his uncles were, and they would sometimes take him with him when they went to synagogue.

Joachim Joseph was not particularly devoted to Jewish rituals, but he did look forward to experiencing the excitement of becoming a bar mitzvah.

And then the Nazis came.

The family was sent to a Dutch prison camp called Westerbork, late in l942.  A year later, the Josephs were brought to Bergen Belson, the concentration camp in the Lower Saxony region of Germany, where sixty thousand people died, including their landsman, Anne Frank.

Joseph's father and mother were sent to different sections of the camp. He and his younger brother ended up in a barracks, with Rabbi Dasberg, the former chief rabbi of the Netherlands.
The rabbi had brought some ritual objects and some Jewish texts with him when he was sent to Bergen Belsen, and he tried to study and pray from them every day. At first, such things were permitted. But by l944, conditions at the camp were steadily worsening. A diary entry by a Dutch Jew describes how Rabbi Dasberg and others were caught at the gates of the crematorium, reciting the Kaddish for the dead. They were punished with extra hard labor for their crime.

When Rabbi Dasberg heard that Joachim Joseph was becoming l3 years old, the age of bar mitzvah, he asked if he could teach him.  They studied together secretly at night.

"We were still in a good enough condition that we could entertain the thought of doing such a thing," Dr. Joseph remembers. But a couple of months later, Rabbi Dasberg disappeared from his barracks.  He died on February 24th, 1945, just a few months before British troops liberated the camp.

Joachim Joseph used rags to wrap the green box that held the Torah, and he hid it deep down at the bottom of his backpack. It stayed there, undetected, as conditions in the camp grew worse and worse.  As he approached his l4th birthday, he weighed only 42 pounds.  His feet, protected only by rags, rope, and two chunks of an old tire, froze in the winter cold. When he could no longer join the regular work detail, the Nazis gave him an easier assignment.  After the morning roll call, it was his job to limp from bunk to bunk, checking to see if those who were still in bed were alive or had died during the night. If they had, it was his job to drag the corpse outside and wait for a cart to come by, so he could load it on.

Freedom came out of the blue. In February, l945, a maternal uncle who had fought for the French Resistance and then escaped to Switzerland, secured fake passports for Joachim and his family from several Latin American countries-something that was very rare so late in the war.  The brothers and their parents, emaciated and near death, were reunited and put on a train, with captured foreign nations whom the Germans hoped to exchange for their own POWs.  Months later, the family sailed on a British military ship to Palestine, part of a generation of refugees who were determined to build a Jewish state.

In l95l, Joachim Joseph published the story of his clandestine bar mitzvah in the Jerusalem Post.  He hated talking about his life in the concentration camps, and so he did not want to write the article, but his father, who remembered the promise his son had made to Rabbi Dasburg, insisted.

For the next four decades, Joseph said almost nothing about his experiences during the war. He wanted to stop the nightmares he kept having, and he wanted to move.

"I screwed it down, deep down," he says. "I did my best to forget about it."

He studied atmospheric physics, and got a doctorate from UCLA in l966.  He pioneered experiments in how dust particles in the atmosphere affect the climate.  And that is how he came to meet Ilan Ramon.  When Ramon saw the miniature Sefer Torah on the shelf in Dr. Joseph's home, he asked about it, and Dr. Joseph told him the story.  And then, a few months later, Ramon called from Houston and asked him for permission to take the Sefer Torah along with him when he went up into space.  Dr. Joseph reluctantly agreed, not because he wanted any publicity, but only out of courtesy to the promise that he had made to his rabbi on the day of his bar mitzvah.

And now, now that his grandchildren are 8 and 6 years old, and now that they, like everyone else in the world, have heard about the Sefer Torah that went up into space, he is ready to tell them the story of how he got it.  As he said to the reporter from the Washington Post, who called to interview him recently, 'can you hear the noise in the background? Those are my grandchildren calling to me to come out and play with them.

Joseph says that he has no regrets about sending the Torah into space.

"I'm not sorry that it is gone," he says. "It did what it, perhaps, was destined to do."

When I read that story, I had two reactions.  One was: I am not sure if that was what the miniature Sefer Torah was destined to do or not. I can't imagine that when his rabbi gave him this Sefer Torah as a gift on the day of his bar mitsvah, that the rabbi, in his wildest dreams, could have imagined that there would someday be a Jewish state, that it would someday have a Jewish astronaut, and that this astronaut would proudly carry this Sefer Torah that he was giving to this child up far into space. And I can't imagine that Rabbi Dasberg could have imagined that this astronaut would hold this Sefer Torah up proudly on world television, and that billions of people all around the world would see it and hear its story.

When Rabbi Dasberg said to this bar mitzvah boy, take this Sefer Torah as a gift from me, and, if you ever get out of here, promise me that you will tell the story of how you got it, little did he know how literally and how powerfully this boy would keep that promise!

And one more thought came to my mind when I read this story.  It is a story that we read on Yom Kippur during the martyrology service. It is the story of Rabbi Hanina ben Teradion, who was taken out to be tortured wrapped in a Sefer Torah.  The Romans tied him to a stake, and then they lit the fire. And his students said to Rabbi Hanina ben Teradion: our teacher, tell us: what do you see?

And he said: I see the scroll being burned, and I see the letters flying away. And with these words, Rabbi Hanina ben Teradion died.

I think that what the rabbi meant by those words was that the physical scroll, the parchment, could be burned, but the Torah itself was indestructible.  As the parchment caught fire and began to burn, the letters flew up to heaven.

And so it is, I believe, with this Sefer Torah that went up in smoke, together with those seven brave astronauts.  The parchment may have been destroyed----but the story will go on. The story will continue. The story will live on.

And so today, we say Yizkor, not only for the souls of those seven brave souls who perished on that mission, those six Americans who represented the very best of America, who were male and female, white and black, Hindu and Christian, and for Ilan Ramon. And we also say Yizkor for that miniature Sefer Torah that was originally written somewhere-I don't know exactly where-and that somehow found its way, together with its owner, Rabbi Dasberg, to Bergen Belsen, and that came out of Bergen Belsen intact, together with the young boy who chanted from it on the day of his bar mitzvah, and then made its way, together with him, from Bergen Belsen to the land of Israel.  And then went from Tel Aviv to Houston and from Houston to the very heights of heaven, before it fell back to the earth.  It did its job. It told its story-to the whole civilized world. And now it can rest, wherever its remains may be, while the letters that were in it fly up to heaven to come back down again into some other Sefer Torah someday, so that the story that it contains, like the story in the Sefer Torah that was wrapped around Rabbi Hanina ben Teradion, may continue to be told.

Let us say Yizkor today for a miniature Torah scroll, that was wrapped in rags and hidden at the bottom of a knapsack, and that survived the Holocaust and that told its story to the whole of humankind.  May its story continue to be told.

( Received by Avigdor Bar Hai )