As one of the people duped by Rabbi Menachem Youlus, the self-styled “Jewish Indiana Jones,” it was strange seeing a fictionalized version of his story on the stage at Theater J.
In 2005, I interviewed Rabbi Youlus after my Potomac congregation acquired two of his Torahs. Unlike the Washington Post reporters who eventually exposed him, I did not try to track down obscure sources in Eastern Europe to verify his stories. Naively, I took him at his word.
Watching Renee Calareco’s play, “G-d’s Honest Truth,” I found myself amused and irritated by turns. Calarco chose to turn the whole sordid business into a satirical comedy built around an
upscale, middle-aged Potomac Jewish couple and their problems with children and grandchildren, identity, friends, status and religion – while mostly sidestepping the real issues raised by the Youlus scandal.
The central issue for me was and remains, why was I and so many others so completely fooled by this man?
Youlus, who eventually pleaded guilty to mail and wire fraud for falsely selling what he claimed were Torah scrolls rescued from the Holocaust to synagogues and Jewish communities over a period of several years, is currently serving a 51-month prison term.
Youlus captivated audiences with his tales of derring-dos in Eastern Europe. He spoke of cloak-and-dagger negotiations with ex-Nazis thugs to buy scrolls looted from synagogues; of digging up Torahs buried for decades; of tracking down elderly priests and illiterate peasants who had hidden Torahs. He even described finding one Torah hidden in a metal box in Auschwitz and another in Bergen-Belsen after partly falling through a floor-board in a World War II-era barracks.
Then more outrageous the story, the more people believed him. In the play, this is exaggerated far beyond belief when the Rabbi is shown peddling a diary extract allegedly written in English by Anne Frank to the incredulous couple in exchange for a $50,000 donation to the Jewish Day School. The real Youlus, according to prosecutors, defrauded the charity he founded and its donors out of $862,000, diverting a good chunk of it into his personal accounts.
Perhaps we can partially explain why people believed Youlus so easily because of the simple fact that he was a rabbi. But a deeper reason, I believe, is that the story he told us was one we were all too anxious to grab on to.
Confronted with the enormity of the Holocaust, I believe we are powerfully drawn to uplifting stories that enable us to construct positive messages from the cataclysm. That also explains the continued fascination of survivors’ stories. Here again, I plead guilty, having written the story of my own father and uncle’s survival.
Don’t misunderstand: I am not saying that such stories are in any way illegitimate or that attention should not be paid to them. In fact, so many of them are powerful and compelling chronicles of human courage, determination and perseverance against almost unimaginable odds. They do and they should inspire us.
But survivors’ stories can, if taken in isolation, blunt the enormity of the Holocaust by presenting us with a series of “happy endings.” The survivors survive. They go on to build new lives in new countries. Future generations are born. As the song goes, Am Yisrael Chai – the Jewish people live. But the six million victims remain silent. With a few exceptions, like Anne Frank, they could not tell their stories.
Youlus appealed to the same sentiment, although in his case it was about Torahs rather than individuals surviving miraculously. Still, the message was the same. The Nazis tried to destroy our Torah as well as our people, but somehow we pulled through. Here, look at this scroll, every letter written with love by a scribe in Poland or Romania a century ago. Imagine what this scroll went through – and what it survived. And here we are today in suburban Maryland or New York or New Jersey, reading this same scroll!
Of course, the more outlandish the adventure that Youlus invented to explain how a particular scroll came into his possession, the more exciting it was to hold it, read from it and lift it aloft in front of the congregation.
As memories fade and survivors pass away, I worry that succeeding generations will start to sugarcoat the Holocaust. Yes, every survivor has his story and so many of those stories are so very compelling. But let’s never forget the victims.
There may have been some individual happy endings, but the Holocaust as a whole offers no such resolution. It should be seen for what it was: a tragic and evil event with no silver lining.
The writer is the vice president for communications at J Street.