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Exploiting The Holocaust For Personal Gain
Mon, 10/22/2012 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Menachem Z. Rosensaft
Menachem Z. Rosensaft

Menachem Youlus, the sofer, or Torah scribe, who peddled Torah scrolls that he falsely claimed had “survived” the Holocaust, was sentenced in Manhattan federal court on Oct. 11 to 51 months in jail, followed by three years probation. He got what he deserved.

For years until he was exposed in a January 2010 Washington Post Magazine article by Martha Wexler and Jeff Lunden, Youlus defrauded well-intentioned Jews who believed his outlandish tales that he had repeatedly risked his life to locate these Torah scrolls and bring them out of Poland, Ukraine, Germany and other parts of Europe where millions of Jews had been annihilated during World War II.

Youlus supposedly found two Torah scrolls in a Ukrainian mass grave where they had been buried for decades alongside the remains of murdered Jews. He told one of his marks that he had come across another Torah under the floorboard of a barrack of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. He said that yet another of his scrolls included panels that Jews had taken with them into the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, and that he had been able to miraculously recover.

“Every single Torah that I rescued has a story,” Youlus boasted on the website of Save-a-Torah, the Maryland-based tax exempt Save-a-Torah foundation through which he perpetrated his serial fraud.  It turns out that not a single one of his stories contained even a kernel of truth. He was never in Europe. He purchased the scrolls from used Torah dealers and resold them at a profit. 

As federal prosecutors Nicole Friedlander and Janis Echenberg, assisted by U.S. Postal Inspector Greg Ghiozzi, painstakingly made clear in the indictment to which Youlus pleaded guilty last February, Youlus knowingly and intentionally lied every single time he claimed that a Torah scroll he was offering for sale had any connection whatsoever to the Holocaust. Youlus, who purports to be a rabbi, turns out to be nothing more than a con man, a charlatan.

Youlus preyed on the emotions of individuals who donated the so-called Holocaust Torah scrolls they had bought from him to synagogues as a gesture of solemn remembrance, only to discover that he had sold them nothing but shadowy facsimiles. He also solicited charitable donations from bar and bat mitzvah children that he diverted to his personal use. As U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon said at his sentencing, “It’s a strange story, it’s a sad story, it’s an incomprehensible story.” 

Many of Youlus’ victims are unable to point an accusing finger at him. These voiceless victims include all the Torah scrolls that were ripped to shreds, spat upon and burned by Hitler’s henchmen as part of Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” When I first heard that Youlus claimed to have found a Torah scroll in a barrack at Bergen-Belsen, I knew he was lying. Both my parents were liberated there by British troops on April 15, 1945.  Six weeks later, in order to contain a raging typhus epidemic and after taking some 35,000 survivors to a nearby German army base that became the Displaced Persons camp where I was born, the British burned every single one of the camp’s barracks down to the ground. No barrack has stood there for more than 67 years. Only mass graves remain. I know because I have been there many times to recite Kaddish.

The inviolability of Holocaust memory is another of Youlus’ victims. He is not the first to distort and falsify it. Others have fictionalized their past to aggrandize themselves or denied the Holocaust altogether to further an anti-Semitic ideology. Youlus’ motivation was pure greed. He cynically exploited the memory of the dead to enrich himself illicitly to the tune of more than $990,000, which he has now been ordered to give back to his victims. 

The millions murdered by the Third Reich deserve a rigorously factual and scrupulously honest remembrance. So do the hundreds of thousands of Torah scrolls, prayer books and other sacred Jewish writings and religious artifacts that were decimated in the Holocaust together with thousands upon thousands of Jewish communities, Jewish homes, synagogues and chasidic prayer rooms across Nazi-occupied Europe.

Judaism places a premium on truth. Indeed, 365 days a year, Jews are commanded during the morning prayer service to revere and respect God, in private and in public, by acknowledging and speaking truth. In light of Youlus’ demonstrated contempt and disdain for truth, it is legitimate for us to question whether he has any regard for or allegiance to any Jewish religious and ethical values.

Judge McMahon grasped the severity of Youlus’ crimes, which, she said, “frankly turns my stomach.” Calling his behavior “brazen” and “horrible,” she told him, “The fact that you are a rabbi trained in a religious tradition makes it that much worse.”

Youlus wants to be incarcerated in a federal prison facility in upstate New York. Perhaps he can instead be assigned to a cell next to Bernard Madoff’s in the Butner Federal Correctional Complex in North Carolina. The two belong together.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is general counsel of the World Jewish Congress and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. He teaches about the law of genocide and World War II war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.

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It could also be mentioned that if people weren't so keen to believe some nasty stereotypes about Eastern Europeans then not so many would have fallen for his stories in the first place.

Isn't this really bigger than one charlatan? How many people are making a living off of the Holocaust? This should be a metaphor for a greater issue, namely Torah (and Judaism) have such a wealth to offer, its meaning is not enhanced by connecting (or over emphasizing) the connection to the Shoah. People should treasure the Torah scroll because of what it is not where it has been. I don't think he should have to give a cent back. Let him rot in prison, but let those who bought those Torah's realize the true beauty of their purchase.