The JCC Holocaust Torah Scroll, which originated from Forst-Lausitz, Germany, made a strenuous journey alongside a Jewish refugee named Jakob Weinblum as he searched for a safe haven during World War II. Jakob rescued the Torah as he fled for his life, showing how much he valued his religion and culture. Thanks to Weinblum’s efforts, this Torah still exists today and can be appreciated for its beauty and its fascinating story.
Section 1: Jakob Weinblum and his Journey
Jakob Weinblum was born in a middle class, loving home in Forst-Lausitz, Germany in 1921. As Jakob grew up, Hitler rose to power and the conditions for the Jews in Germany deteriorated. The Weinblum family decided it was time for them to leave before it was too late. As a deeply spiritual 18-year-old, Jakob felt a close connection to the Sefer Torah that was located in his synagogue and decided to take it with him.
On what would be one of the last ships out of Germany, Jakob and his family traveled to Shanghai, one of the few countries taking in refugees. The scroll traveled with him in his duffel bag. When the war ended, Jakob traveled to New York City, however he did not bring the Torah with him. Instead he gave the scroll to his brother Siggy who would take it to San Francisco and keep in his home, until he gave it back to Jakob in New York City. While living in New York City, Jakob visited the synagogues in the area and looked for one that would take in his Torah. However, because the Torah was too damaged for ritual use and some of the letters had been smudged, none of the synagogues would take it. The Torah would stay in Jakob’s house for the next 30 years.
There are limited documents about Jakob’s personal life but we do know that he got married and had children in New York. While Jakob was living with his family in New York City, Siggy had moved from San Francisco to Pittsburgh with his family. In 1977, on a visit to see his brother, Jakob meet with Rabbi Sydney Rackoff of the Tree of Life- Sfard Synagogue. Rabbi Sydney Rackoff was amazed to hear about the Torah that Jakob had rescued and was thrilled to take it for his synagogue. Jakob brought the Torah to the Tree of Life-Sfard Synagogue where they held a ceremony and celebration in its honor. Unfortunately, two months after the ceremony, Jakob Weinblum passed away suddenly at the age of 56, but not before he was able to give his Torah a home.
Section 2: The Jews of Brandenburg
The savior of the JCC Torah, Jakob Weinblum, originated from Forst- Lausitz, Germany. To fully understand the significance of where the Torah has traveled, it is critical to have a grasp on the Jewish communities located in Forst- Lausitz, Germany, and Shanghai, China before and during the World War II era.
Forst- Lausitz is a small town in the state of Brandenburg, Germany, which is located in the north east region of the country. The first Jews to settle in Brandenburg arrived in the year 1267. Although there is not much information known about their community life during this time period, it is understood that there was one synagogue in the town, and that Jews owned private places to worship and pray. Later during this time period, a liberal charter granted Jews freedom to travel outside of their city quarters and gain citizenship, thus being able to live a comfortable life.
Unfortunately this was comfortable life did not last long. During the year 1510, Jews were not only expelled from Brandenburg, but were also restricted from attaining certain occupations. Instead, they were forced to work in low-prestige positions including peddling, money lending, and pawn broking. During the year 1520, blood libels resulted in the expulsion of most Jews from Brandenburg. In 1710, there were only five families living in the state with civil rights; later a community was established that accumulated twenty one families.
In the 1860’s (before World War I), there was an expansion in Jewish population in Brandenburg because of of Jews emigrating from Poland. During the 1925 census, approximately 469 families were counted in the region. By the year 1939, however, there were only 253 families.
In 1939, the Kristallnacht riots targeted the Jews of Brandenburg along with many other Jewish communities in Germany. Weinblum saved his Torah from the destruction that befell many Jewish ritual objects that night.
After the war, the Jewish population in Brandenburg was almost non existent. However in 2014, the first synagogue since the night of Kristallnacht was established there.
Section 3: History of the Jews in Shanghai
As the Holocaust raged in Europe, Shanghai served as a temporary haven for Weinblum, his family, and their Torah. The Weinblum family fled from Germany in 1939; they traveled to Shanghai because it was the only country that allowed refugees with no passport or visas to enter.
When making the journey to Shanghai, Jews left behind their homes, successful businesses, families, and friends in order to ensure their safety.
Due to the mass arrival of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, overcrowding became a major issue and the people found themselves living in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. It was also hard for these individuals to find jobs since they held positions that were not desirable in Shanghai at the time, such as, doctors, musicians, lawyers, etc. Many had to rely on philanthropists to aid them financially. Conditions deteriorated even further once Shanghai fell under Japanese military control. Despite these unfortunate struggles, the Jewish refugees living in Shanghai managed to escape Europe and survive the war.
Section 4: Tree of Life Sfard and Pittsburgh Synagogues
Temple Beth Israel moves to White Oak (Article from Metro Newspaper)
In 1977, forty years after it had left its synagogue in Germany and followed the Weinblum family to Shanghai and New York, Jakob’s Torah finally found a home. With the support of Rabbi Sydney Rackoff of the Tree of Life-Sfard Synagogue, Jakob’s Torah finally became part of Jewish community of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area.
Tree of Life-Sfard synagogue was a result of a number of institutional mergers. The Tree of Life Synagogue, was charted on January 4th, 1898 in New Brighton as an Orthodox synagogue. Soon after, in 1908 in McKeesport, another synagogue was in the process of being built. Its members named the synagogue the Sfard Anshe Galicia. In 1910, it would merge with another institution and become become known as the Sfard Congregation. In 1973, the Tree of Life and Sfard Congregation merged together and bought land to build a new synagogue in White Oak. This synagogue housed Jakob’s Torah for for twenty-two years until it closed its doors. But before the congregation folded, they donated Jakob’s Torah to the Rudolph Family Holocaust Center which installed it in at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill. The Torah currently resides at the JCC in Squirrel Hill accompanied by signage telling its remarkable history.
Bartrop, Paul. “Wartime Shanghai and the Jewish Refugees from Central Europe: Survival, Co-Existence, and Identity in a Multi-Ethnic City”. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012.
Ben- Sasson, Haim et al. “Germany”. Encyclopedia Judaica, Berenbaum and Skolnik, eds. 518-546. (2007)
Deutsche, Welle. “Brandenburg Sees First Synagogue since Holocaust”. DW Made for Minds. 2 Nov, 2014. http://www.dw.com/en/brandenburg-sees-first-synagogue-since-holocaust/a-18035449
“Kristallnacht.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005201
Levin, Steve. “A Century of Jewish Worship Ends as McKeesport Loses Its Last Synagogue.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. May 26, 2000
Naimark, Norman. Russians in Germany: A History of the Soviet Zone of Occupation, 1945-1949, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Ristaino, Marcia. Port of Last Resort, Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001
“TBI: Temple History.” Temple B’nai Israel. http://www.tbiwhiteoak.org/AU/history.html
“TREE OF LIFE SFARD — LOOKING BACK INTO HISTORY.” Temple B’nai Israel http://www.tbiwhiteoak.org/AU/tolhx.HTML
Margaret Smylka, “White Oak Temple Celebrates Centennial.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 8, 2012