Cover Recovered

The Toronto Star 1 April 2006
Marilyn Henry

NEW YORK—When Gavriel Wesel came safely home to Vienna after World War I, his wife, Miriam, sewed a cover for a Torah scroll at their synagogue to give thanks to God.

This week, 87 years later, the cover was returned to the New York grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Wesels, who have died. The return took place in the office of New York Governor George Pataki, who established the world's only public agency that helps Nazi victims and their heirs recover looted properties.

Because the Torah cover survived in a Nazi-annexed country during World War II, it is considered extremely rare.

The Nazis looted or destroyed almost all ceremonial or ritual Jewish objects, called Judaica.

"We gave up on it," said Aaron Bauer of Brooklyn, the Wesels' grandson. "This is a miracle. They destroyed I don't know how many thousands of things, and this one we found, and now we are getting it. Many people donated things (to the synagogue), and everything was lost."

In 1938, after the Nazi annexation of Austria, Miriam, then a widow, fled with her three children to Brooklyn.

Her Austrian synagogue, Marpe Lanefesch, was among those destroyed during Kristallnacht — the "Night of Broken Glass" — the anti-Jewish rampage of Nov. 9-10, 1938.

But the Torah cover, sometimes called a "mantel," survived. It became part of a private collection of Judaica owned by Max Berger, an Austrian Holocaust survivor who reportedly had obtained 10,000 objects. The Torah cover was part of a collection purchased by the city of Vienna in 1989 for the Jewish Museum of Vienna. It is not known how Berger acquired the mantel.

Vienna's cultural councillor, Andreas Mailath-Pokorny, presented the Torah cover to the Wesel heirs on Monday.

"By presenting this ritual object to the generations of heirs in the U.S. we are also conveying a piece of Viennese-Jewish culture," said Mailath-Pokorny, speaking to members of the family.

"The city of Vienna is committed to the return of art and cultural objects that were stolen during the Nazi period."

In an interview after the ceremony, Mailath-Pokorny said that the Jewish Museum would begin to investigate the prewar ownership of artifacts in its possession.

Mailath-Pokorny said the museum's findings would be publicized.

Bauer, the grandson, learned of the mantel's survival six years ago.

At Bauer's request, a friend travelling in Austria visited Gavriel Wesel's grave. With time to spare, the friend stopped at the Jewish Museum and recognized Wesel's name on the Torah cover on exhibit.

Austria originally resisted the family's claim for the mantel, in part because under Austrian law it was treated as Nazi-era synagogue property, which could not be returned to a private family. The New York State Banking Department's Holocaust Claims Processing Office, established by Pataki, negotiated with Vienna for five years for the return of the cover.

Pataki was in Albany, the state capital, on Monday, but said in a written statement that "the restitution of this family heirloom is another example of our ongoing efforts to seek justice for those who were victimized during one of the darkest periods in history."

The Vienna City Council on March 14 unanimously approved the mantel's return to the family as a gift.

Traditionally, Torah mantels, which are used to cover the scrolls, are decorated with Jewish symbols and often have embroidered inscriptions, in Hebrew or other languages, to commemorate the donor or an occasion. The Wesel mantel has an estimated value of about $3,600.

Bauer said the heirs would donate the cover to a synagogue in Brooklyn but have not decided which one to give it to.

The Wesel Torah cover is the second prominent Jewish ritual object to be returned in five years.

Much attention has been focused on the recovery of artworks that were looted from Jewish families during the Nazi era, but more needs to be devoted to ceremonial and ritual objects, said Tom Freudenheim, the former deputy director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

Judaica is difficult to identify and return because most religious objects — such as spice boxes, kiddush cups or Hanukkah menorahs — were made in multiples, said Lucille Roussin, a New York attorney who in 2001 helped recover an 18th-century Torah scroll breastplate for the heirs of Sigmund Dottenheimer of Gunzenhausen, Germany.

"Without an inscription that identifies the family, or some other unique feature, it is almost impossible to identify the owner, or for an owner to identify the object with 100 per cent certainty," said Roussin.

The return of the Torah cover to the Wesel family could inspire other families to search for Judaica.

"There are probably many things in individual hands and in museums that are potentially restorable, not just to families but to synagogues and communities," said Freudenheim. "There are plenty of objects with inscriptions on them, especially textiles. There should be much more effort to study ritual objects."
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