This article was first published in JWeekly.
When Charlotte Smith reads from the Torah at her bat mitzvah next month, she will be “holding history,” she says.
The sefer Torah that Charlotte will hold and read from June 29 in front of her friends and family at the Smith-Madrone Winery in Napa Valley is a very special one for her family. The sacred scroll survived the Holocaust and traveled over two continents and an ocean to be read from, 75 years later, by the great-great-granddaughter of the man who safeguarded it from the Nazis.
Unbeknown to Charlotte’s family, the Torah has been in Marin for the past several decades. It was only through a combination of serendipity and amateur sleuthing on the part of Charlotte’s mother (and Hamburger’s great-granddaughter) Julie Ann Kodmur that the St. Helena family discovered the scroll’s nearby whereabouts.
The Hamburger Torah derives its name from David Hamburger, who kept it at home in the small town of Fürstenau in the northwest corner of Germany. Hamburger was the de facto head of the town’s small Jewish community, and its members would gather in his house for religious services. A horse and cattle trader, Hamburger used to like to sit in his garden and tell Torah stories to his children Bette, Ruth and Siegfried; his wife died in the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918.
Siegfried managed to immigrate to San Francisco in 1938, as did Ruth with her husband and young daughter. Bette married a Dutch Jew and moved to Holland. Bette, her husband and their twin daughter and son died at Auschwitz.
David Hamburger remained in Fürstenau and was hidden overnight on Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938 by friends at the local Catholic hospital. The next day, he made it out of Germany to Holland by train. He took a portrait of his wife and the Torah with him.
While his wife’s portrait did not survive the war, both Hamburger and the Torah emerged intact after being hidden for eight years by various farmers and priests in the Dutch countryside. Hamburger, who remarried after the war, chose to remain in Holland, and the Torah stayed with him.
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© 2013 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.