Menachem Z. Rosensaft: The Holocaust Torah scrolls’ scam and the quest for accountability

Menachem Z. Rosensaft: The Holocaust Torah scrolls’ scam and the quest for accountability

The following article by World Jewish Congress General Counsel Menachem Z. Rosensaft was first published on the Washington Post’s On Faith blog. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.

I cannot for the life of me decide, with apologies to Shakespeare’s Lafeu in All’s Well That Ends Well, whether Rick Zitelman is a knave or a fool. Regardless, he has a great deal to answer for and should not be allowed to evade public excoriation. Zitelman is co-founder and president of Save a Torah, Inc., the purportedly charitable foundation through which the now disgraced Wheaton, Md., bookstore owner Menachem Youlus peddled what Youlus represented as Holocaust-era Torah scrolls he claimed to have “rescued” at great personal peril.

Youlus (pictured below with Zitelman), an Orthodox rabbi and sofer, or Torah scribe, told his well-intentioned but gullible marks, among other things, that he had found two such Torah scrolls buried in what he called a “Gestapo body bag” in a Ukrainian mass-grave of murdered Jews. He also boasted that he discovered another scroll under the floorboards of a barrack in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, a “rescue” that was described for years on the Save a Torah website alongside photographs taken at the camp at the time of its liberation by British troops in April 1945.

If these tales appear fanciful, the product of an over-active yet not particularly sophisticated imagination, it’s because they are precisely that. “Which is not to say,” as I first wrote in January of 2010 after Martha Wexler and Jeff Lunden had first raised questions about Youlus’s operation in a ‘Washington Post Magazine’ article, “that Youlus’s accounts could have withstood serious scrutiny. He apparently has never provided any provenance for the Torah scrolls he sold for thousands of dollars each.

No reputable archivist, historian or Jewish community leader in Poland, Ukraine or Germany can substantiate any of his claims. The very idea that the very same Germans who routinely desecrated and burned Torah scrolls should have reverently placed two such scrolls in a ‘Gestapo body bag,’ whatever that is, and buried them alongside hundreds, if not thousands, of naked Jews in a mass grave defies not just credibility but logic. It gets worse. Youlus could not have come across a Torah scroll, or anything else for that matter, in the barracks of Bergen-Belsen, where both my parents were liberated, for the simple reason that all the barracks of that camp were burned in May 1945 in order to contain a raging typhus epidemic.”

In response to the first wave of accusations against Youlus, Save a Torah commissioned, not Holocaust historians or experts in forensic bibliography, but Rabbis Yitzchok Reisman and Itzhak Winer, two allegedly “independent” Torah scribes (in Hebrew, soferim) to determine the age and general geographic area of origin of eleven Torah scrolls, and whether or not they were ritually suitable for synagogue use. When they predictably concluded that the scrolls in question were indeed more than 70 years old and had been “written in Poland or other parts of Eastern Europe,” Zitelman crowed on the Save a Torah website that Reisman and Winer had “confirmed what we have always known: Rabbi Menachem Youlus is an expert sofer who has restored numerous Torahs to the highest of standards, often at his own expense,” and that “The soferim found no evidence to contradict any information provided by Rabbi Youlus to the purchasers of his Torahs. All of the Torahs examined by the soferim were found to be written in pre-Holocaust years in Eastern Europe, as Rabbi Youlus had determined.”

It was as if a forensic art expert, asked to authenticate a suspicious Renoir, were to declare that the canvas under examination had been painted somewhere in Western Europe sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century: A perhaps factually accurate, but utterly meaningless, tidbit of information.

In March of 2010, I formally asked Maryland’s attorney general and secretary of state on behalf of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, to “investigate whether Save a Torah has been soliciting charitable funds under false pretenses, including from idealistic teenagers who donated significant portions of their bar and bat mitzvah gifts to Save a Torah.”

That summer, Zitelman signed a formal Assurance of Voluntary Compliance with the Maryland secretary of state, who regulates Save a Torah, that his outfit henceforth would describe the provenances of purportedly “rescued” Torahs only “if there is documentation or an independent verifiable witness to such history.” A year later, in August of 2011, Youlus was arrested by federal authorities in New York City. Late last week, Youlus pleaded guilty in federal court in Manhattan to charges of mail and wire fraud, admitting not only that he had made up the dramatic histories he ascribed to the Torah scrolls he was hawking, but that he had diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars to his personal use.

All of which brings us back to Zitelman, the businessman who, whether wittingly or not, appears to have facilitated Youlus’s fraudulent scheme and now seems anxious to remain under the radar screen of public scrutiny. Zitelman was quoted on Feb. 2 in The Washington Post as saying that Save a Torah was „misled by an individual whom we trusted.” Next he will tell us that he is „shocked, shocked,” by Youlus’s scam.

By his own self-description, Zitelman is a “graduate of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Economics and a major in Accounting” who “began his career in public accounting at Ernst and Ernst (now Ernst & Young) where he spent two years in the audit and tax divisions” and “is also a Registered Investment Advisor and Registered Principal with the Securities and Exchange Commission.”

Presumably, Zitelman knows something about obtaining appropriate documentation prior to issuing reimbursements from a tax-exempt entity like Save a Torah that solicits charitable donations from the general public. And yet, Zitelman told Martha Wexler and Jeff Lunden in December of 2009 that “the only paperwork” he ever received from Youlus was “an invoice the rabbi himself writes up for each Torah.”

Say what? No airline tickets or hotel receipts? No back-up to support any of the trips to Poland, Ukraine and Germany which we now know never happened? Not a single scrap of documentary evidence to substantiate a single purchase of a Torah scroll? Did Zitelman ever ask Youlus any questions? Did anyone ever actually audit Save a Torah’s books?

It does not appear that Zitelman had any basis other than Youlus’s uncorroborated fantasies for believing that Youlus had ever been to Eastern or Central Europe, let alone obtained even a single Torah scroll there. Nevertheless, Zitelman insisted on the Save a Torah website after entering into the Assurance of Voluntary Compliance with the Maryland authorities in July 2010 that his organization “continues to be committed to its mission of locating and acquiring Torahs which have survived the Holocaust …”

Following Youlus’s guilty plea, the Save a Torah website still claims that “Save A Torah was launched with the noble goal of rescuing Torahs that survived the Holocaust or were forcibly taken from Jewish communities and placing them again in Jewish communities where they could be used and treasured. We deeply appreciate the support that we continue to receive from our friends and the greater Jewish community and are evaluating how best to continue our mission.”

What mission? There is nothing to suggest that Save a Torah has ever “rescued” a single Torah scroll from anywhere other than perhaps the possession of another US-based dealer. Even chutzpah has its limits.

For months after Youlus’s deception was evident to anyone with an IQ in the triple digits, Zitelman continued to allow Youlus and Save a Torah to solicit charitable funds by exploiting Holocaust memory. Even the plausible deniability defense, by definition, requires at least a modicum of plausibility to withstand the laughing test.

Youlus stands exposed as a matter of law as a charlatan who desecrated the memory of the Holocaust and the sanctity of Torah scrolls for the sole purpose of enriching himself. He faces a prison term and will be required to make restitution to his and Save a Torah’s victims to the tune of more than US$ 800,000.

It remains to be seen, however, whether Zitelman and others at Save a Torah who kept their heads in the sand after evidence of Youlus’s fraudulent scheme had become incontrovertible, will ever offer, at the very least, a public apology for their role in this entire abomination.