By Jody Goldsmith
1814 was a long, long time ago. Napoleon Bonaparte and the French beat the Russians (and later that year he was exiled to Elba); the British destroyed many landmarks in Washington, D.C., including the Library of Congress; Francis Scott Key authored “The Star Spangled Banner” (all part of the War of 1812); and The Times of London was the first paper to be printed on an automated and powered press.
It was also the year that a large Torah was inscribed somewhere in Sephardi Europe, and bought by my great-great-great-grandfather and his brother. Written on deerskin, rather than calfskin parchment, it was very large but quite lightweight. By the early 20th century, the Torah resided in the synagogue in the beautiful town of Eschwege, Germany, north of Kassel.
It is now in Annapolis in the Congregation Kneseth Israel sanctuary, not a museum piece but regularly used during Shabbat and holiday services. This is the Torah my father, Karl Kappel Goldsmith, chanted from during his bar mitzvah in June of 1934. This is the Torah from which I chanted my bar mitzvah parshah, Toldot, in December 1967, and our son, Jacob, chanted his bar mitzvah parshah, Mishpatim, in January 1994, and our younger son, Adam, chanted his bar mitzvah parshah, Naso, in May 1998. Several of my nieces and nephews have also chanted from this Torah for their b’nai mitzvah. What is remarkable is that this Torah exists at all.
It was early 1938. My father’s father, Ludwig Goldschmidt, had several businesses that had done very well, but with the rise of the Nazis the Goldschmidt world was crashing down. My father’s sisters, Adelheid and Margret, were in Palestine and obtained visas for the rest of the family. My father’s uncle, Walter, living in New York City, also obtained visas for the family for the U.S. But my grandfather was not allowed to go to the U.S. because he was a colon cancer survivor who still had some serious health issues. Regardless, my grandfather insisted that my father come to the U.S. Though I love Israel and have been there several times, I am very grateful to my grandfather for that decision.
My father, Karl, was getting ready to move to the U.S., and a crate was put together of many of the family’s possessions. The Nazis started their destruction of Jewish properties in Rotenburg.
Word quickly spread, and the Jewish community of Eschwege knew trouble was right around the corner.
My grandfather told my father to get the family Torah so it could be packed in the crate and sent out from the country. There were 13 Torahs in the synagogue. Six of them (one being the Plaut-Goldschmidt Torah) were taken from the synagogue by the shamas, Herr Fraenkel, per the instructions of the Religious Chairman Herr Loewenstein. They were in Herr Fraenkel’s house, under his bed, for safekeeping.
My father rode his faithful bike to Herr Fraenkel’s house and asked for the Torah. Herr Fraenkel said no, not without asking the Religious Committee chairman first. So off Karl went to Herr Loewenstein’s house and asked him if the Plaut-Goldschmidt Torah could be taken to be shipped overseas. Once again, the response was no.
Karl went back to Herr Fraenkel’s house and asked for the Torah again. When Herr Fraenkel asked him if he had asked Herr Loewenstein, my father said yes and was promptly given the Torah.
Good thing Herr Fraenkel asked nothing further.
Off went the 17-year-old boy on his bike with the Torah stuck under his arm. It went in the crate with the bike. The Religious Committee was rather unhappy as soon as they realized they were duped.
On Nov. 9, 1938, my grandfather escaped from the house as the Nazis entered bent on destruction. It was Kristallnacht. My grandfather ended up being the only adult male Jew not incarcerated in the Buchenwald concentration camp.
And what happened to the other 12 Torahs? The seven in the synagogue were torn and destroyed. (The synagogue was not burnt like most others because it was next to the newspaper plant and there was fear of the fire spreading.) The five Torahs in Herr Fraenkel’s house were rolled down a steep alleyway and burned.
During the 1980s, the Germans sponsored many return trips for the Jews who left just before or during World War II. My father stayed involved with Eschwege, especially because he was responsible for its denazification after World War II.
My father coordinated the return trip with the local government for October 1989. The Eschwege Jews came from around the world. And so did the one surviving Torah. Karl brought it back, and 50 years after Kristallnacht, the Torah was chanted from during a
service in the town hall.
And in Annapolis it lives on today.
Jonathan D. “Jody” Goldsmith is the president of Congregation Kneseth Israel in Annapolis.