Berta Fogel commissioned this torah for the Poale Zedeck synagogue in Squirrel Hill to honor the memory of her parents and seven siblings who were murdered in the Holocaust. It has a beautiful light blue velvet mantel containing their names in gold writing, as well as a 3 tier silver keter (crown) with bells on the top. The torah cost about $25,000 dollars and took over a year to write. It is used often in the synagogue, especially for the High Holidays. This torah represents the desire among certain American Jews to commemorate relatives who perished in the Holocaust. Since Berta Fogel, the woman who commissioned this scroll, did not have any children, this was also her way of creating her own legacy while increasing Holocaust awareness.
History of Nowy Sącz, Childhood Home of Berta Fogel
Berta Fogel, the woman who commissioned this Torah in 1991, grew up in Nowy Sącz, Poland. This area has a Jewish history that parallels many other villages and towns of Eastern Europe. Its history is marked by periods of extreme oppression, contrasted with periods of acceptance and prosperity. As with most of Eastern Europe, Jewish life in Nowy Sacz was ultimately brought to an end by German occupation and establishment of a ghetto.
Although there are indications of a few Jews living in Nowy Sacz as early as the mid-fifteenth century, there was not a regular Jewish community until the mid seventeenth century. While Jews were originally banned, in 1637 an edict allowing Jews to settle was issued and then ratified in 1676 and again in 1682.
This edict brought an influx of Jews to the area, bringing economic activity that helped end the town’s economic difficulties. By 1676, a self-governing kahal (Jewish Council) had evolved, and in 1699, permission was granted to build the first synagogue which was ultimately completed 81 years later.
The Jewish community continued to grow, and by 1765, there were about 609 members. This number increased to 1,361 if you include the Jews who lived in neighboring areas. Jews thrived economically during this time as both merchants and craftsman.
The Austrian Empire captured the region in 1772 and established anti-Jewish regulations that resulted in economic hardship and decreased population. The Jewish Council’s privileges were restricted, and German became the required language at religious schools.
In 1867, the Austro-Hungarian Empire gained power and gave legal rights to all citizens, including Jews. Once again, Nowy Sącz prospered and Jews started settling outside of the Jewish Quarter playing an active role in the economic growth of the town, owning banks, restaurants, hotels and representing 48.5 percent of all merchants. During this time, Nowy Sącz also became a dynamic center of Hassidism under the leadership of Chaim Halberstam.
By 1900, Jewish culture and social life in Nowy Sącz was flourishing. The Jewish community had become a diverse group comprised of assimilated intelligentsia, progressives, prosperous merchants and artisans who identified with Reform Judaism, and the more impoverished Jews who tended to remain faithful to traditional Judaism.
Jews made up one third of the total population of Nowy Sącz during the interwar period. The strength of the Jewish community was best defined by its economic activity, significant number of religious institutions aside from the central synagogue, and creation of benevolent organizations, a library, an orphanage, theaters, and a gymnasium. It was a thriving, vibrant, politically active community.
The German occupation of Nowy Sącz ultimately brought Jewish life there to an end. Jews were conscripted into forced labor and had their Jewish institutions and stores taken away from them.
By 1941, the Nowy Sącz ghetto was established, and housed approximately twelve thousand Jews from all over Poland. Conditions were lethal, with 20 people often living in one room, and rampant starvation. By fall of 1941, Jews faced frequent executions and in August, 1942, the ghetto was completely liquidated. All remaining Jews in Nowy Sącz were rounded up and transported to the Belzec death camp.
After the war, a few Jews returned and unsuccessfully tried to revive Nowy Sącz’s Jewish Council. Between 1968-1969, the last remaining Jewish residents decided to emigrate. Today a small synagogue and Jewish Cemetery mark the Jewish history of Nowy Sącz.
Mrs. Fogel and Her Family
Mrs. Fogel’s family had been through more than most can imagine. Her family was influential and generous, but like many of the people in Europe during World War II, her entire immediate family was killed during the Holocaust. By commissioning a Sefer Torah, she not only honored her parents and siblings who died in the Holocaust, but also demonstrated the importance of remembering this tragic event so that it may never happen again.
Mrs. Fogel was born in Poland as Berta Landau. She had eight siblings, but one of them, Avraham, died at the age of eleven. Her father, Eliakim Gad Halevi Landau, and her mother, Rochel Landau, owned a successful import/ export business. In 1918, because of the upheavals of World War I, the Lindaus fled to Nowy Sącz, Poland (also called Tsanz). In Nowy Sącz , Berta met her first husband, Zev Hofstadter. After getting married, they lived together in Pressburg (Bratislava), Czechoslovakia until 1929 when they moved to Belgium. The rest of Mrs. Fogel’s family stayed in Nowy Sącz. Unfortunately, Mrs. Fogel’s parents and her seven siblings (Chaim, Favish Yehoshua Shraga, Yaacov, Esther Malka, Raizel, Toba Maryam, and Sarah Nuche) were murdered by the Nazis.
In 1938, Mrs. Fogel and Mr. Hofstadter moved to England – a move that saved their lives, since the Nazis took over Belgium in 1940. In 1949, they moved to the United States. After her husband’s death in the 1980s, Mrs. Fogel married Joseph Chaim Fogel and lived in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. After he died, Mrs. Fogel continued to live in Squirrel Hill until her death in 1994.
Mrs. Fogel cherished her family history, and in particular relished hearing stories about her illustrious great-great-grandfather, Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, who was the Rabbi of Prague in the 18th century. He was known as a very intelligent man and someone who loved Judaism. For example, he was once asked for his opinion on a rabbinical conflict that had been going on in Prague in the mid 18th century. One Rabbi was accused of giving amulets with healing powers that had references to Sabbatai Zevi, a 17th century Jewish mystic whom the mainstream Jewish community banned as a heretic when he claimed that he was the Messiah. Instead of taking sides like most people, Landau strove for peace and mentioned that he respected both Rabbis. This demonstration of wisdom and passion encouraged the leaders of the Jewish community of Prague to invite him to become the Rabbi of Prague when the position was vacant. He also wrote many books of religious commentary, and was deeply mourned at his death.
By commissioning a sefer torah, Bertha Fogel honored her parents and siblings who died in the Holocaust. She also believed that by doing this, she fulfilled the 613th commandment of the Pentateuch. Since Berta Fogel didn’t have any children, this was her way of creating her own legacy while also spreading awareness of the Holocaust.
Ceremonies for Creating the Torah
When Berta Fogel decided to commission this Torah, she embarked upon a painstaking and expensive project. It is very difficult to commission a kosher Torah and it involves many ceremonies and rituals. The torah takes about a year to create by a well-trained scribe who first bathes in a mikvah. Once the torah and ornaments are made, the preparations must be done for the celebrations related to dedicating the Torah.
These celebrations include closing off streets for the parade and planning a date for the dedication. Once the celebration day arrives, the congregation parades the streets carrying the new Torah until they finally the synagogue. The procession for this 1991 Torah Scroll started at Mrs. Fogel’s house on Melvin St. in South Squirrel Hill at 10:30 A.M. and ended at the Poale Zedek synagogue. In most torah processions, the owner carries the torah underneath a chuppah (canopy) with their family, but Mrs. Fogel did not have any family members there except for one of her cousins. However, Rabbi Pfeffer, a leader of Poale Zedeck who was there for the service, mentioned that many people came to the ceremonies to welcome the torah and support Mrs. Fogel.
As the torah approached the synagogue, the prayer leader acknowledged Berta Fogel in his incantations. Then, congregation members brought the torah scrolls that were already in use at Poale Zedeck outside to symbolically welcome and greet the new torah. Poale Zedeck had twelve other torahs in their possession at the time: five that were in service and seven that were not in service.
When congregants returned all of the Torahs back to the synagogue, the ceremony commenced and there was singing and dancing. Congregants repeatedly circled the table where the Torah is normally read while singing songs associated with Simchat Torah, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the conclusion of the annual cycle of public readings from the Torah. They also recited some of the prayers associated with the dead in order to commemorate Fogel’s murdered relatives.
The final ceremony was a “Siyum Hasefer” [completion of the scroll], in which the sofer finished the Torah by inscribing the very final letters. As per custom, congregants contributed money to symbolically “buy” these final letters, after which the funds were donated to support the synagogue. The rabbi then placed the new Torah scroll in the ark along with all the other scrolls. After the ceremony, the guests were welcomed to the social hall for a festive meal.
Bishop Pete. “Skilled Scribes Reproduce Sacred Torah.” The Pittsburgh Press. 21 August 1991: 43
“Board Meeting of February 3rd, 1991.” 3 February 1991. Rauh Jewish Archives, Poale Zedeck Records, mss#595 (Box 5, Folder 1)
Cygielman, Arthur, and Stefan Krakowski. “Nowy Sacz.” Encyclopaedia Judaica, Berenbaum and Skolnik, eds. Macmillan Reference USA, 2007, 326.
“Executive Committee Meeting of May 11th, 1991.” 14 May 1991. Rauh Jewish Archives, Poale Zedeck Records, mss#595 (Box 5, Folder 5)
Fogel, Berta. “Siyum Hasefer and Dedication of the new Sefer Torah.” 2 June 1991. Program. (personal collection of Rabbi Joel Pfeffer)
Mindel, Nissan. “Rabbi Ezkiel Landau.” Chabad.org. Kehot Publication Society, 1993, http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/111912/jewish/Rabbi-Ezkiel-Landau.htm
“NOWY SĄCZ.” Virtual Shtetl. http://www.sztetl.org.pl/en/city/nowy-sacz/
Pfeffer, Joel. Personal interview. 2 Feb. 2017.
Tkach, Harry. “Hundreds at Squirrel Hill congregation celebrate arrival of donated Sefer Torah.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 3 June 1991: 3. Google News. Web. 5 April 2017.