COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — As Holocaust survivors languished in displacement camps around Europe at the close of World War II, the U.S. Army gave them some of their first tangible connections to their faith since before the war: passages from the Talmud.
Now two pieces of that limited printing have ended up in the hands of an Ohio rabbi, who used one in a pre-Passover service on Friday even as historians ponder their rarity.
The two tractates, or passages that help make up a collection of religious and civil law known as the Talmud, are dated 1946 and offer guidance on marriage and vows.
They were created to help displaced Holocaust survivors whose belongings, including religious materials, were destroyed during the war. Some experts say it’s unclear how many copies were printed or how many exist today, but they all agree they’re a collector’s item that offers a glimpse into a unique printing agreement that U.S. armed forces had following the war.
Rabbi Areyah Kaltmann, who runs the Lori Schottenstein Chabad Center in Columbus, snagged the two tractates from a New York City auction house for $600 on March 21. The Australian native said he owns several other tractates published in later years.
“I like these things because they’re meaningful,” the 45-year-old said.
The Talmud is a compilation of Jewish oral law and stories about 1,500 years old. Historians and archivists say it’s also one of the few religious materials the U.S. Army ever authorized for publication.
Abby Meyer, who works at New York-based Kestenbaum and Company, which specializes in selling Judaic items and sold the books to Kaltmann, said the auction house has sold only a handful of single tractates in its more than 20 years in business.
Lenore Bell, library director at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., said the books are probably the first two tractates of the Talmud to be produced in Germany with the authorization of the U.S. Army after the war.
“What’s significant is the publication itself and how important it was to provide these texts to help rebuild the religious lives of survivors,” she said. “And the U.S. Army contributed to that process.”
The tractates, called Kiddushin and Nedarim, are the only two published in 1946 because they were the most complete copies available at the time. They were published by the Va’ad Hatzalah — an emergency Orthodox rescue group that helped displaced rabbis — and the Rabbinical Council, a group made up of U.S. chaplains who were Jewish. The council was authorized to work for the U.S. Army in Germany.
Distribution was limited because of scarce materials and resources to print. But Bell said they were important printings because they got into the hands of survivors earlier than others.
Bell said a more famous and complete set of tractates was published between 1948 and 1950 with the help of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which provided health care and other forms of aid to displaced Holocaust survivors. The JDC, along with the Rabbinical Council, which represented the U.S. Army, published a 19-set volume of tractates to make a full Talmud.
Menachem Rosensaft, vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, said the full set of books were more symbolic by the time they were published between 1948 and 1950 because the U.S. had relaxed its immigration laws and many displaced Jews had found permanent homes in the U.S., Israel and elsewhere.
He called those books, also known as the Survivors’ Talmud, a psychological milestone for the survivors.
“It meant you had a continuation of a centuries-old tradition,” said Rosensaft, who was born in Germany’s Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp in 1948. “It gave the survivors a tangible sense that their heritage had not been destroyed.”
Back in Columbus, Kaltmann read the end of one of his tractates during a traditional ceremony before the beginning of the Jewish Passover holiday, which begins at sundown. Passover celebrates the biblical story of the Jews’ liberation from slavery and exodus from Egypt. It begins with a traditional meal called a seder.
The ceremony Katmann held usually calls for only one person to recite the end of one tractate, but he and his three sons completed the end of a tractate each in honor of Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, who was recently killed with his two sons and a girl in Toulouse, France.
“It was so meaningful,” Katmann said of the ceremony. “Here we had four volumes of Talmud, which were used at a very difficult time in Jewish history. Now, after more than 60 years, theses volumes are being used to inspire new generations.”
AP investigative researcher Randy Herschaft in New York contributed to this report.
American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee: http://www.jdc.org
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: http://www.ushmm.org
Chabad Columbus: http://www.chabadcolumbus.com