Fragment of Torah rescued from Nazis to be displayed at West Chester University

Hilary Bentman (left) and Hadassah DeJack found a fragment of the prewar Polish Torah on a 2012 trip to Warsaw.
Hilary Bentman (left) and Hadassah DeJack found a fragment of the prewar Polish Torah on a 2012 trip to Warsaw. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 07, 2013

The two West Chester University graduates were in a Warsaw hotel lobby late one afternoon in May 2012 when they were told of an antiques shop in an old neighborhood.

"It was a shop that carried a mixture of Judaica and Nazi paraphernalia," Hilary Bentman said last week.

An odd mix. But in the early evening, she and Hadassah DeJack went there.

The Christian shopkeeper, whose grandparents had hidden Jews during World War II, asked if they would like to see a section of a Torah rescued from the Nazi occupation.

"I touched it. I cried," DeJack said.

On Monday, international Holocaust Remembrance Day, the two women, who earned master's degrees in the Holocaust and genocide studies program at West Chester University, will present that restored and framed Torah section to the school, at a 7:30 p.m. event at its Main Hall.

It will be part of the school's observance of Remembrance Day, featuring a university adjunct professor of history, Brenda Gaydosh, lecturing about a Berlin priest murdered by Nazis.

The Torah later will be displayed in a protective case outside the Sender Frejdowicz Holocaust Study Center in the university library.

The nine-foot-long scroll, 22.5 inches wide - five feet of which will be visible in the case - had a secret.

The Warsaw shopkeeper told DeJack a customer "had found it hidden in a wall in his home. She said he had it for years.

"It wasn't the entire scroll," DeJack said. It was only five panels from the Book of Genesis, one of the five books of the Torah.

The customer kept the rest for himself.

But on the day Bentman and DeJack found it, they didn't have the equivalent of $1,500 to buy it. So they had to walk away.

On the bus the next day, on a trip to the remains of the Treblinka concentration camp, 50 miles northeast of Warsaw, DeJack said last week, "Hilary and I started talking and came up with the idea.

"We would dedicate it to the university" if they could collect enough Polish zlotys from the other West Chester University folks on the trip. They did.

When their bus returned to Warsaw that day, the two women rushed to the store, found it open past its usual 6 p.m. Sunday closing time, and bought the scroll for the equivalent of $300 less than the $1,500 face price.

The field studies trip to other Holocaust sites in Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic was not done.

So, DeJack said, "I rode with it on the bus. Slept with it. It didn't leave my side."

Though the age of the scroll has not been determined, DeJack said, "it's much smaller than the scrolls you see today, typical of scrolls you see in prewar Poland."

The scroll has affected Bentman "even more profoundly" in the months since she first encountered it.

"If this Torah could talk . . ." Bentman said. "What has this Torah seen?

"I couldn't help but think of the bar mitzvah boy who might have been called to read from it, or the congregants who heard a rabbi or cantor chant from it."

Beyond the significance of a normal Torah scroll, Bentman said, this one "survives, when the bar mitzvah boy might not have."

The story hasn't ended for Bentman, 31, of Warwick, Bucks County, a freelance writer who graduated from the Holocaust program in 2011, and DeJack, 41, of New Castle, Del., a psychology instructor at Delaware Technical and Community College who graduated in 2012.

Though later contributions repaid the $1,200 to those on the trip, the women have set up the Warsaw Torah Project to raise $5,000 to cover the cost of the restoration and display case, which must block ultraviolet light that could damage the document.


Contact Walter F. Naedele at 610-313-8134, wnaedele@phillynews.com, or follow @WNaedele on Twitter.

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