New Orleans Holocaust survivors ink letters in remarkable Survivor Torah

Anne Levy inks her letter as sister Lila Millen looks on

The last of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah is that every Jews should participate in the writing of a Torah. Two Holocaust survivors in the New Orleans area accomplished that on June 4, in a scroll with a remarkable history.

For the past five years, the goal of the Survivor Torah Project has been to find Holocaust survivors all over the world and have them do the lettering in a damaged scroll that was recently discovered in Poland, with the ultimate goal of having the restored scroll presented to the State of Israel and housed at the synagogue at the president’s residence in Jerusalem, to be used by communities around the world.

Anne Skorecki Levy and Lila Skorecki Millen added their letters in a ceremony at the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, each of them holding the arm of Jonny Daniels, who heads From the Depths, a foundation that keeps the memory of the Holocaust alive and assists Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust.

Before doing the lettering, Levy said “we are the lucky ones,” saying they survived because of their parents, “who were always a step ahead of the Germans in their planning” and realized they were in danger.

Looking at the scroll, Levy said “I can’t believe I am going to do this.”

Millen said “it is an amazing experience, to live through what we have lived through, and to come to this day. It is absolutely amazing.”

Aaron Bloch, director of the Federation’s Center for Jewish-Multicultural Affairs, said the event was part of the “unwavering commitment to fighting against antisemitism, and to preserve the memories of those who endured unimaginable suffering.” The Federation and the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Louisiana co-hosted the event.

Bloch added, “Each letter rewritten by our local survivors represents not just a physical act, but a powerful symbol of resilience, courage and determination.”

Rabbi David Gerber said that each completion of a Torah scroll “is a testament to the eternal spirit of the Jewish people.”

Addressing the survivors, Gerber said “your strength, your courage, your resilience are a boundless inspiration. We are honored to stand with you today,” and that their stories will be an inspiration for generations to come.

New Orleans City Council President J. P. Morrell brought greetings from the city, saying “we should all look to our neighbors as brothers and sisters.” He added, “To witness history as two Holocaust survivors lend their hands to rebuilding this Survivor Torah on Holocaust Survivor Day is incredibly profound.”

District A Councilman Joseph Giarrusso III also attended the ceremony.

Surprise Find

Daniels started From The Depths a decade ago, “with the aim of helping the younger generation know a little bit more about the Holocaust.”

He explained that there had been more Jewish cemeteries in Poland than in the United States and Israel combined, 1,300 in all, and most were destroyed in the war. Tombstones were taken and used as building material in roads, even in constructing the Warsaw Zoo.

One of the foundation’s programs, the Matzeva Project, recruits volunteers to go to small villages throughout Poland to find gravestones that had been repurposed, and recover them if possible.

Sometimes, the visits had surprises. At one home, he recalled, the owner told the volunteers that a tree out back was where four Jews had been buried. “The people who were living here were killed, and they were buried right there,” the resident explained. “We didn’t know what to do, they are still there.”

Five years ago, University of Warsaw students Joanna Kopacka and Bartek Krzyżewski were going door to door in the northern village of Filipow, a town of 1,800. They came to the home of Kazimierz Wróblewski, an elderly shepherd, who said he did not know of any stones, but he seemed to get quite nervous. Eventually, his wife came into the room and told him to “tell them.”

The shepherd was seven years old when the war started, and he remembered watching through the window as the Jews were rounded up, including his neighbor, the rabbi. His father pulled him from the window and told him not to watch, then some moments later, there was a pounding at the door.

It turned out to be the rabbi, who gave the boy’s father a bundle and said “look after this until I come back, or another Jew will come to look for it.”

The rabbi never came back, nor did any of the town’s roughly 280 Jewish residents, who had been sent to Treblinka.

Wroblewski did not give the students any details about the bundle or show it to them, since neither student was Jewish. The students then contacted Daniels, who went to the house, and Wroblewski told him “I’ve been waiting for you for 75 years.”

“That was incredibly powerful,” Daniels reflected.

The shepherd went to his couch, lifted it up, and Daniels retrieved the bundle from the floor. Inside was a partial Torah scroll that had been hidden there since 1939. His wife was the only other person who knew about it, and he said he held on to it all those years because he thought it was the right thing to do. He also told Daniels that if he died, “my son would probably have found it and thrown it in the bin.”

Over the 75 years, though, he had used some of the “good material” during especially hard times, to make a bag for his wife, insoles for worn-out shoes. “He didn’t do it out of malice, he didn’t know better,” Daniels said.

At the end of the visit, the shepherd asked him to exit through the back door, so his neighbors would not notice.

The experience brought home to Daniels the connection the Jewish people has to the Torah, whether religious or not. “We are the people of the Book. That’s the Book.”

He knew “we had this incredible opportunity to bring this Torah back… it deserves to be spoken about, it deserves to be shown, it deserves to be used,” and decided that Holocaust survivors should be the ones involved in restoring the scroll.

Daniels started taking the scroll around the world, but he said there are at least 100,000 letters left, and “I’m one person and we’re a foundation” that has to fundraise constantly. “We’ll do the best we can,” he said.

The project had to stop for over three years because of the pandemic, and because of the war in Ukraine, where the foundation is heavily involved. The foundation helped in getting over 20,00 Jews out of Ukraine, including many Holocaust survivors, and also facilitated the escape of some Righteous Among the Nations.

The foundation also brings Congressional representatives to concentration camps and other historic sites. Alabama Rep. Barry Moore was recently on one of those trips.

Daniels has spent a lot of time in Canada with the scroll, and Florida has “been unbelievable, you can imagine how many survivors are there.” A visit to a community often leads to other communities learning about the project and bringing him in, or finding other Holocaust survivors in an area where he has already been. “I’ll drive anywhere to meet survivors,” he said.

Before New Orleans, he had spent a week in Mexico City and surrounding areas, meeting with 11 survivors, and before that he was in Toronto, Canada. The New Orleans connection came through Robert French, the new CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, who Daniels has known since childhood. “Robert’s nephew was my best friend, growing up in London,” he said.

French said he saw Levy’s talk at the community Holocaust commemoration, and knew that he had to bring Daniels to town.

Daniels said the Torah is “a positive story from a horrendous time.” He said the symbolism of the scroll is “so strong because the Torah was saved, but it was also broken.” Even though Holocaust survivors survived, “they did not survive fully intact.”

Daniels said it is important that the project be inclusive and acceptable to everyone in the community. “Everyone should feel part of it.”

He added that though the project is about a Torah, it is “not particularly a religious project.” He said some survivors have been reluctant to take part, because they may have lost their belief in God or are angry at God. “That’s not the point” of the project, he said, and he encourages them to take part anyway.

“It’s kind of hard to explain how much it means, not just for the families and the people involved, but for the survivors themselves,” he said. The act is “a kind of closure and beauty,” with the “knowledge that they are taking part in a project that will remain. This Torah survived and will continue to survive as a result of the survivors taking part.”

Sometimes the survivors have been surprised by their emotions. Daniels went to the home of a survivor in Canada, an artist “with a very simple life.” Doing her letter “triggered all these remarkable memories,” including how her grandfather had dedicated a Torah in honor of his grandchildren all those decades ago.

The section currently being done is toward the end of Exodus. A scribe has outlined the letters in a section, and Daniels fills them in with the survivors.

After doing her letter, Levy said the experience was “amazing.”

Daniels thanked those who attended the New Orleans ceremony for attending on relatively short notice, and on what he acknowledged was a “difficult day” for the community, which was still in shock over the death of 17-year-old Belle Adelman-Cannon just 24 hours earlier.

Then he was off to the next community, to have the next group of survivors do their letters.