Lights of Redemption

by | in History

Once Buried in Warsaw, These Menorot Are Now on Display in Jerusalem

67” high by 42” wide

67” high by 42” wide

In May of 1943, SS General Jürgen Stroop triumphantly blew up the huge synagogue building that stood on Tlomackie  (pronounced Tlomatskyeh) Street, on the edge of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. To the Jews of Warsaw, the dedication of this palatial shul in 1878 had symbolized the culmination of over 1,000 years of vibrant Jewish life in Poland. To Stroop, its destruction symbolized the final victory of the Nazis over the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto.

“What a marvelous sight it was. A fantastic piece of theater. My staff and I stood at a distance. I held the electrical device which would detonate all the charges simultaneously . . . .  After prolonging the suspense for a moment, I shouted: Heil Hitler and pressed the button. With a thunderous, deafening bang and a rainbow burst of colors, the fiery explosion soared toward the clouds, an unforgettable tribute to our triumph over the Jews. The Warsaw Ghetto was no more. The will of Adolph Hitler and Heinrich Himmler had been done.”

Kazimierz Moczarski, Conversations with an Executioner (New Jersey, 1981).

76” high by 45” wide. Photos: Shlomo Kashtan

76” high by 45” wide.
Photos: Shlomo Kashtan

The Orthodox congregation, also known as the Great Synagogue of Warsaw, or the Chorshul, but seemingly referred to most often simply as the Tlomackie Street Synagogue, had seating for about 2,000. It employed such world-famous cantors as Gershon Sirota and Moshe Koussevitzky, and its services were attended by the most prosperous elite of Warsaw Jewry.1

The two Chanukah menorot pictured here, each of which measures over five feet tall, belonged to the synagogue, but it is not clear exactly where in the building they stood.2 Cast in brass, and typical of the eighteenth-century Galician style, they each feature elaborate ornamentation and the Polish national symbol, the white eagle, on top.

Around the time of the Nazi invasion of Poland and the start of World War II in Europe, the rabbi of the synagogue, filled with a sense of foreboding of what was to come, devised a plan to help some of his congregants escape from Poland while at the same time saving some of the shul’s treasures. Together with the synagogue secretary, he moved some major artifacts—these two menorot among them—to a secret underground hiding place. He then approached the Polish ambassador to Sweden (presumably since Sweden was a neutral country) and asked him to find someone who would pay a large sum for the menorot. He would then use the money to help Jews escape from the coming inferno.3

The ambassador was successful in his search. He found a willing purchaser in Marguerite Wenner-Gren, whose husband, Axel, had founded the Electrolux company and who had already demonstrated great concern for the plight of Europe’s Jews. Marguerite was a mildly successful American opera singer when she and Axel met in a whirlwind romance, and after her marriage she played hostess to some of the most celebrated personalities in politics and entertainment in their several residences around the world.

Some years after the war, in 1960, the Wenner-Grens happened to meet Sir Isaac Wolfson, a businessman and philanthropist who headed Britain’s Orthodox community and who was heavily involved in establishing various new institutions in Jerusalem. He described to them his plans for the new seat of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, to be named Hechal Shlomo after his father, and for a great synagogue to be built next to it. Moved by his vision, and in commemoration, as she wrote, of the Tlomackie community and in honor of the hundreds of refugees who managed to escape as a result of her purchase, Marguerite decided to donate the menorot for placement in the new synagogue. That shul was not to be built for many years, however, and meanwhile they were housed in what became the Wolfson Museum of Jewish Art, located in the Hechal Shlomo building.

The exterior of the Great Synagogue of Warsaw, destroyed by the Nazis in 1943.  Photos courtesy of the Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw

The exterior of the Great Synagogue of Warsaw, destroyed by the Nazis in 1943.
Photos courtesy of the Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw

Marguerite, who was also a poet, expressed her feelings about donating the menorot in a poem which is displayed along with them:

You ancient lamp

Tell the remnant of your people Israel

your ­chronicles,

Illuminated by the candles,

Evoking the nighttime melody of David’s lyre

Tell your remaining children that you have

returned home,

To your holy synagogue,

In the hands of a non-Jewish woman

Who has for many years

Safeguarded you.

The interior of the Great Synagogue of Warsaw

The interior of the Great Synagogue of Warsaw

Today in Warsaw, a massive glass skyscraper stands at the site of the former Great Synagogue.4 An area on its ground floor serves as a visitors center for the many Jews who visit Poland on the trail of family members who perished in the Shoah.

Today in Jerusalem, there is a new great synagogue, adjacent to Hechal Shlomo, but the menorot have sensibly been kept in the museum where they are the impressive cornerstones of its fascinating collection of relics of the destroyed magnificence of European Jewry.5

David Olivestone, the former senior communications officer of the OU, now lives in Jerusalem.

Notes

1. For more information about the synagogue, visit http://www.sztetl.org.pl/en/ article/warszawa/11,synagogues-prayer-houses-and-others/. See also Ewa Małkowska, Synagoga na Tlomackiem (Warsaw, 1991) and Eleonora Bergman, “Nie masz boznicy powszechnej,” Synagogi i domy modlitwy w Warszawie od konca XVIII do poczatku XXI wieku (Warsaw, 2007).

2. Six tall menorot flanked the synagogue’s bimah, but it can be seen from photographs of the shul’s interior that these were electrified.

3. This account is based on documents found in the Sir Isaac and Lady Edith Wolfson Museum of Jewish Art in Jerusalem (see below), but the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw has no record of it. Indeed, outside of the museum, there seems to be no recognition of Marguerite Wenner-Gren’s act of saving so many Polish Jews. Although seemingly deserving, she has not been granted “Righteous Among the Nations” status by Yad Vashem because her actions do not meet its guidelines “that a non-Jewish person risked his or her life, freedom and safety, in order to rescue one or several Jews from the threat of death or deportation . . . . ” (www.yadvashem.org).

4. Marking the seventieth anniversary of the shul’s destruction, a 1:10 scale plywood model of the synagogue building was installed near the site of the original shul on Tlomackie Street this past May. Next door, the building of the Jewish Historical Institute, which somehow escaped destruction, houses a significant collection on the history of the Warsaw Jewish community and of its sufferings during the Nazi period, including artifacts from the Warsaw Ghetto. A major new institution, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, is set to open in Warsaw in 2014.

5. Most visitors to Jerusalem seem to pass by the museum, which is a great shame as its varied collections include many important items. For more information concerning the museum, visit http://eng.hechal shlomo.org.il. My thanks to Keren Hakak and Yael Diamant Pfeuffer of the museum staff, as well as to Dr. Eleonora Bergman of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, for their generous help in providing information and photographs. 

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2013.

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