Steward of Jewish History

Steward of Jewish History

Darrin Kafka spent the last five years locating and restoring Holocaust-era Torahs.

Five years ago Darrin Kafka was simply a man traveling through Israel who thought he might purchase a Torah for his synagogue. Now, almost 300 Holocaust Torahs have passed through his home, many finding homes in synagogues across the world.

Kafka, an Ashburn resident and son of a Holocaust survivor from Germany, has spent the last several years working with rabbis and people around the world to locate and restore historic Torahs. Many of the Torahs that come through his home date back more than 200 years.

"Intrinsically a Torah doesn’t have much value," Kafka said. "I am not trying to make a profit from these; I am trying to bring them back to life."

IN 2002, when Kafka was in Jerusalem he thought he would buy a Torah for Kol Ami, the small synagogue where he was a member.

"I happened upon a kind of magical Jewish consignment shop," he said. "And I asked if they would have any Torahs."

Kafka began speaking with the store’s owner, David "Dudu" Saidman, a Sephardic Jew whose knowledge of the Holocaust was minimal.

"He told me if there were any Holocaust Torahs in the shop they would be up in the attic," Kafka said. "I found one in a corner."

The Torah Kafka found was folded, back and forth, like a fan, he said, a clear indication of a Torah that survived the Holocaust.

"Torahs would be folded like that so they could be shoved into a coat pocket and smuggled out of a village," Kafka said. "I had heard stories, but to find one was really thrilling."

NEW TORAHS can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $100,000 because they generally take about a year for a sofer, or scribe, to write by hand and a prayer must be said over each section.

"I was able to purchase that first Torah for $4,500," Kafka said.

Three days later, Kafka went to Saidman’s shop again and was told another Holocaust Torah had been located. Then, a few weeks later, right before Kafka was scheduled to leave Israel, Saidman said he had found a third. Once he was in the states, Kafka received a call from Saidman. A fourth Torah had been found and would be shipped with the first three.

"The biggest synagogues in Washington have two or three Torahs and here I was with four," Kafka said.

When the Torahs arrived, Kafka started making phone calls and found that several Jewish organizations and smaller congregations did not have their own Torahs and would love the opportunity to purchase one.

"It was very easy to find homes for them," he said. "People wanted them to be used."

FROM THERE Kafka’s involvement in locating and placing Holocaust Torahs has only grown. People contact him from around the world, particularly Israel, and tell him they have found old Torahs.

"With Israel struggling for so many years, things just got put in the attic and forgotten," he said. "When people hear what I am doing it stirs their memory."

Stacy Lechtman, Kafka’s fiancé who works with him, said she was surprised how many Torahs there were available.

"I was fascinated that so many Torahs had survived the Holocaust and so many of them had made it Israel," she said. "Some of them have been in hiding for 60 years."

OF THE 300 Torahs that have come through Kafka’s home, he has only been able to restore 30 of them.

"It takes a sofer to go through, digitally take a photo of the Torah and compare it with the original," he said. "If a small portion needs to be rewritten it is not a big deal, but many cannot be saved."

Kafka said he is shocked at times by the destroyed state of many of the Torahs that come before him. He has seen Torahs that have been slashed, some that have footprints cut out where soldiers used them for extra padding in their shoes, some that have been burned and even several that had been cut up and were being used for painting canvas in an art school.

"There are so many ways that they have been destroyed," he said. "I want to do what I can to bring some of them back. The Torah is heart of the Jewish people."

The oldest Torah in Kafka’s possession is a Sephardic Torah, used by Jews that originated on the Iberian Peninsula. Along the top, scorch marks can still be seen where someone attempted to burn it.

"Someone must have put it into the fire, but someone else was able to get it out before it was destroyed," Lechtman said. "It is singed along the top, but none of the words were destroyed."

IF A TORAH can be restored, one of the sofers Kafka works with will work to make it kosher, ensuring all the words are clear, and prepare them to be placed in a synagogue.

People travel from around the country and the world to Kafka’s home in Ashburn to look through the Torahs and choose which one they would like. Kafka said the selection process is fascinating to him.

"When they first come, they will do it in an antiseptic way," he said. "Then there will be someone in the group who will say there is a Torah that speaks to them."

Once that happens, Kafka said the transformation is marvelous to watch.

"There is a magical attraction that happens," he said. "It starts as a transaction and ends as a relationship. Sometimes people will leave with two or three Torahs when they only come for one because they cannot choose."

Kafka himself admits that he forms attachments to the Torahs that are restored under his care and it can be difficult to part with them.

"It’s an odd feeling, knowing that all the people who owned these Torahs were murdered," he said. "In Judaism we have something called Tikun Olam, which means to repair the damage in the world. I feel that this is my little corner of that."