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Stolen by Nazis, rescued in Israel

The small Israeli agricultural settlement of Ein Harod has fewer than 1,000 inhabitants. But Ein Harod owns one nationally known museum, the largest in northern Israel. That Mishkan Museum is currently showing an exhibition of old and new textile works by Jewish artists. Among them is a Torah curtain that was stolen by the Nazis from the Würzburg synagogue on Domerschulstrasse, and nobody on the Main knew anything about its existence.

A Torah curtain (Hebrew Parochet) hangs in front of the Torah Ark, which contains the Torah scrolls with the five books of Moses. The curtains are usually richly decorated and are made of velvet, silk, linen or brocade. The 2.80 by 2.37 meter dark red and gold curtain from the Würzburg main synagogue, which was inaugurated in 1841, is made of velvet.

The Torah curtain was donated in 1881

The valuable piece dates back to 1881 and was donated by fifty-year-old Würzburg hop merchant Louis Rosenblatt and his wife Rosalie, possibly in gratitude for the birth of their tenth child, who was born that year.

The banker and entrepreneur Joel Jakob von Hirsch had also donated a Torah curtain, with two leaping stags strikingly referring to the name of the donor. Louis and Rosalie Rosenblatt refrained from such obvious references, although of course the Hebrew inscription contains their names.

Below the large coat of arms, which with the two standing lions and the crown is reminiscent of the coat of arms of Bavaria, to which Lower Franconia has belonged since 1814, there is a quote from the book of Genesis (32:11): “I didn’t deserve it for doing so much for me.”

The inscription was transcribed by Divora Liss, curator of the exhibition at the Mishkan Museum. She calls the Würzburg curtain extraordinary because of its impressive size and artistic design; in the show she supplements it with other Torah curtains, also from Europe, which are also richly embroidered, and with Torah cloaks made of fabric, in which the Torah scrolls were wrapped.

Textile works by five contemporary Israeli artists form the contrast. Among them are a modern wedding canopy, a Torah curtain made from memorabilia from a deceased, and a combination of Talmudic texts and plastic bags on a piece of canvas.

The Torah curtain survived the pogrom night of 9./10. Nov. 1938

But how did the Würzburg Torah curtain end up in the northern Israeli museum? The explanation lies in the Third Reich. On the night of November 10, 1938, during the pogrom that went down in history under the trivializing name “Reichskristallnacht”, SS and SA men, including University Rector Ernst Seifert, visited the church. They smashed windows and furnishings, smashed candlesticks and rituals, and set fire to the Torah scrolls.

In contrast to the baroque synagogue in Heidingsfeld, which went up in flames, the demolition squad on Domerschulstraße refrained from setting fire, as there were many houses in the immediate vicinity that belonged to non-Jews. During the raid, documents from the community were stolen, as well as what appears to have been the Torah curtain from 1881.

While the files went to the State Archives in the Residenz on the orders of the Gestapo, ritual implements made of metal and textiles ended up in the Luitpold Museum on Maxstrasse, either directly or indirectly. During the bombing raid on March 16, 1945, the house was hit directly, resulting in the loss or damage of numerous items. Outsourced items fared better, including Jewish rituals brought to the residence, which was only partially destroyed.

In 2018 and 2019 the exhibition “‘Seven boxes with Jewish material.’ From robbery and rediscovery 1938 to today” in Würzburg and Munich. The accompanying volume traces how the fortress was used after the war as a collection point for cultural assets, including stolen Jewish property. However, the metal Judaica that lay in those “seven boxes” fell into oblivion in the Main Franconian Museum of Judaica and was only rediscovered in 2016.

The path of the Torah curtain probably led through the collection point in Offenbach

Other ritual implements, mostly textiles, were sent to a central collection point in Offenbach in 1947, as requested by the Americans. The Torah curtain from 1881 must also have been underneath.

In many cases, the investigators in Offenbach could not find any more owners because they had been murdered. In other cases, as in Würzburg, there was again a small Jewish community, but this no longer had a synagogue in which a Torah curtain could be hung. Abandoned material went to a successor organization, the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization (JRSO), which distributed it to Jewish museums and synagogue communities worldwide.

The Mishkan Museum in Ein Harod was one of the recipients – namely the Würzburg Torah curtain that is now on display in the exhibition. Dvora Liss even knows the number under which the surrender was noted: B50.02.1790, 152/009.

Louis Rosenblatt and his family moved to Nuremberg in 1889. The synagogue on Domerschulstraße was converted into a municipal crafts school in 1939 – fitted with a false ceiling.

The property on which it stood is now behind the archive and library building of the diocese and once again belongs to the Jewish community, which has had a new place of worship on Valentin-Becker-Strasse since 1970. The Jewish documents stolen on November 10, 1938 have been in an archive in Jerusalem since the 1950s.

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