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Cantorial Comments - Parshat Bereshit                              October 26, 2019 - 27 Tishrei 5780

10/25/2019 10:39:07 AM

Oct25

 “It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930),
author of the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

 

On Kol Nidre evening this year, I was honoured to deliver a d’var tefilah on the subject of rationalism within spirituality. Many of us find it challenging to reconcile a rationalist worldview with the existence of spirituality and holiness, but I believe that these are not at all mutually exclusive.  To illustrate, I offered the story of a “fabled” holocaust artifact, that while it was a simple inanimate object, it could serve as a witness to the Nazi atrocities, a symbol to represent the murdered family who owned it, and as an enduring legacy to both the beauty and resilience of the Jewish spirit.  I argued that it is through these stories that an object can be imbued with significant religious meaning, i.e. holiness.  Congregants expressed their shock when I dramatically revealed the original artifact from my story, and since then, I was very humbled to learn that so many had found the story moving, and expressed interest in learning more about this beautiful artifact that I have since been loving calling the “Iron Hakodesh”.  And so this week, I am pleased to share the whole, original, and undramatized story.

 

One of my guilty pleasures is to watch Do-It-Yourself videos on YouTube.  These include videos on wood furniture making, wood turning, blacksmithing and antique restorations.  I find that videos like these are just as entertaining for me to watch without any sound, which makes them ideal for some relaxation before going to bed.  It was just over a week before Rosh Hashanah when one night, as I watched a completely random antique restoration video of a badly rusted charcoal clothing iron, I was very surprised to notice that the piece had Jewish symbols sculpted into it.  I didn’t immediately consider the idea that the iron was a holocaust artifact, but the fact that it was a clearly very old and beautiful looking Jewish object inspired me to learn more about it. 

 

After watching the video several times, I browsed through the comments section on the webpage.  Although the video had only been online for two weeks, it had already inspired a fair bit of discussion.  The craftsman, himself, was wondering about the symbols, describing them as a pair of lions flanking a candelabra, and a six-pointed star on the other end of the iron.  Some of the messages in the post helped identify them as Jewish symbols, the Judean lions, the menorah, and the Magen David, but there wasn’t any discussion on where the iron was found, or anybody asking about its history.  I contacted the craftsman through Facebook and I asked him where he had found it.  He replied that he found the iron at a garage sale in the Polish town of Wroclaw, and took it back to his shop in the Czech Republic to restore it.  A little bit of research on antique irons revealed that charcoal irons were used very commonly throughout Europe up to the 1940s, but irons with decorative sculpting were often custom, hand-forged pieces owned by wealthy families and not often discarded as junk.  An item with Jewish iconography hand-forged into solid cast-iron metal from pre-1940 found in Poland almost certainly indicated that this iron was a holocaust artifact.  I looked up Wroclaw on a map, and I couldn’t help but noticed that it was only about a 20 minute drive away from Auschwitz.  There was much more that I wanted to learn about the iron, but at this point, I decided that it belonged in a Jewish home, and I contacted the craftsman again to arrange the purchase.  The iron arrived at my home only two days before Yom Kippur.

 

It has been an honour to display the iron in my home as a mantel piece, and I have enjoyed bringing it to shul and telling its story.  With the help of a few members of our community, I have since learned that the town of Wroclaw was originally the German town of Breslau, and that the iron’s original owners would have mostly likely been wealthy German Jews and not Poles.  I imagine a large beautiful German Jewish home that has been empty for months after its original owners were taken by the Nazis to the camps.  I imagine a gentile family usurping the home and casting away any objects with Jewish symbols, candlesticks, a mezuzah, and it would seem, even a clothing iron.  I managed to find an expert in antique irons who has also been able offer more information.  He concluded that it was most likely made between 1910 and 1930 by a company called Moravia Ironworks, a Jewish family-owned iron goods company based out of Olomouc, in the modern day Czech Republic which specialized in iron fences, benches and housewares.  Its company logo was simply the Magen David.

 

Shabbat Shalom,
                   --ChazJ

Wed, November 20 2019 22 Cheshvan 5780