By Menachem Z. Rosensaft
Vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants
I cannot for the life of me decide, with apologies to Shakespeare’s Lafeu in All’s Well That Ends Well, whether Rick Zitelman is a knave or a fool. Regardless, he has a great deal to answer for and should not be allowed to evade public excoriation. Zitelman is co-founder and president of Save a Torah, Inc., the purportedly charitable foundation through which the now disgraced Wheaton, Md., bookstore owner Menachem Youlus peddled what Youlus represented as Holocaust-era Torah scrolls he claimed to have “rescued” at great personal peril. Youlus, an Orthodox rabbi and sofer, or Torah scribe, told his well-intentioned but gullible marks, among other things, that he had found two such Torah scrolls buried in what he called a “Gestapo body bag” in a Ukrainian mass-grave of murdered Jews. He also boasted that he discovered another scroll under the floorboards of a barrack in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, a “rescue” that was described for years on the Save a Torah website alongside photographs taken at the camp at the time of its liberation by British troops in April 1945.
If these tales appear fanciful, the product of an over-active yet not particularly sophisticated imagination, it’s because they are precisely that. “Which is not to say,” as I first wrote on this site in January of 2010 after Martha Wexler and Jeff Lunden had first raised questions about Youlus’s operation in a Washington Post Magazine article, “that Youlus’s accounts could have withstood serious scrutiny. He apparently has never provided any provenance for the Torah scrolls he sold for thousands of dollars each. No reputable archivist, historian or Jewish community leader in Poland, Ukraine or Germany can substantiate any of his claims.