By Gwynne Robins
Last year at Chanukah, the closely-knit Beit Midrash Morasha community was devastated as a fire in the roof of the old building tore through the synagogue destroying the pews, the ark and all its contents.
Community members wept as the firemen brought out the charred books and siddurim. The Sifrei Torah and all their ornaments had gone up in smoke.
In 1953 the Jewish Board of Deputies acquired books and silver artefacts found by the Monuments Men, a special team of art experts who followed the Allied armies to recapture the objects stolen by the Nazis.
“It used to be called plundering” Hermann Göring told the Nazi party. “It was up to the party in question to carry off what had been conquered. But today things have become more humane. In spite of that, I intend to plunder and to do it thoroughly.”
And thoroughly it was done — a well-researched team of looters followed the German troops into the conquered cities with lists of what to find and where.
The looted items found by the Monuments Men were distributed after the war around the world by the US Army, as part of the ‘Jewish Cultural Reconstruction’ programme (JCR) of the Jewish Restitution Successor Organisation. South Africa obtained 176 items (5%) divided between Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. (The Johannesburg share disappeared over a long weekend along with the Russian security guard.)
The Board official who cleared these items through customs wrote later: “Every item I touched with my hands seemed to cry out to me, and I am not ashamed to say that I could hardly keep back my tears. Every item had been the most treasured possession of synagogues in Europe, till the Nazis came, burned the synagogues, murdered the worshippers ruthlessly in circumstances of unspeakable horror and took possession of the silver as a reward for their crimes against humanity.”
These items arrived in South Africa with certain conditions, including that where possible they were to go to synagogues lacking such items.
Morasha now qualified and accordingly, the Cape Board has donated to them an exquisite pair of silver rimonim made in 1860 in Vienna during the then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It comes with circular metal tags labelled JCR to indicate its provenance.
After seventy years the rimonim are once again serving the purpose for which they were lovingly made, as ornaments to dignify a Sefer Torah.
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