A Torah ark built for survivors in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust was to be the centerpiece of an upcoming public sale. Instead, a legal dispute has caused it to be pulled from the auction block just days before going under the hammer.
Originally built by US Army Corps of Engineers soldiers for a post-World War II Displaced Persons camp in Krumbach, Germany, the ark had been put up for auction by Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch to raise funds for his financially strapped Living Torah Museum and associated food pantry program in Brooklyn.
Stopping the sale is Rabbi Chaim (Hyman) Rubin, the son of the Auschwitz survivor and Hasidic rabbi, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Rubin, who brought the ark to the US from Europe and used it in his Boro Park congregation for decades. Rubin claimed that although the ark had been on longterm display at the museum, Deutsch did not have the right to consign the ark for sale without the permission and cooperation of the Rubin family.
Rubin filed suit in the Supreme Court of the State of New York on September 9. At a hearing two days later, a judge issued a temporary restraining order, and the Krumbach Torah Ark was removed from among the lots to be offered at Guernsey’s Auction House’s “Humanity & Inhumanity” auction on September 19 at Fifth Avenue Synagogue in New York.
In an interview with The Times of Israel prior to the filing of the lawsuit, Guernsey’s president Arlan Ettinger said that there was no reserve (minimum) price set for the ark.
“There is nothing to compare to this. It is completely unique and without precedent. It’s almost impossible to gauge its worth. I think it’s priceless,” he said.
According to court documents, the Invaluable.com auction website listed an initial bid of $250,000, with an estimated final bid of $1-2 million. The listing has since been removed from the site.
When asked for a response to the unexpected situation, Guernsey’s stated that, “While the disputing parties are trying to resolve their differences, absent resolution, Guernsey’s has decided to withdraw the Ark from the auction.”
In the suit brought by Rabbi Chaim Rubin, he said that his father, the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Rubin, known as the Ropshitz-Muzhayer Rebbe, gave the Krumbach Torah Ark to Deutsch nearly two decades ago for display at his museum. However, Rubin asserted that it was transferred to Deutsch on the condition that he “not sell the Holy Ark or transfer it to another organization or to make any change without the permission of the Tzaddik, the Admor of Ropshitz or Boro Park,” according to legal documents.
Following his father’s death in 2007, Rabbi Chaim Rubin became the Admor, or Grand Rabbi, of the Ropshitz Hasidic dynasty. His son, Rabbi Jacob, is the custodian of the late Ropshitz-Muzhayer Rebbe’s business records, including a key document brought into evidence.
The document bears Deutsch’s signature and apparently attests to his agreement to the terms stated in the court filing. In a conversation with The Times of Israel, Deutsch claimed that certain aspects of the document in question were “bogus.” The document is currently in the hands of an expert witness who will issue a report on it.
Deutsch also took issue with the complaint’s calling into question the institutional legitimacy of the Living Torah Museum. The court documents state that the Living Torah Museum is not an accredited museum, does not have a board of directors, and does not have clearly articulated deaccessioning guidelines.
“We are a private museum and are open by appointment only. We aren’t a public museum that must have set opening hours,” Deutsch rebutted.
“We are a project of a congregation. We teach and we feed the hungry. We aren’t the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” he said.
The plaintiff’s attorney, Baruch Gottesman, emphasized in a phone call with The Times of Israel that the complaint of breach of contract and breach of promise have been brought only against Deutsch and The Living Torah Museum, and that the inclusion of auction house president Ettinger as a defendant was merely necessary to stop the auction of the Torah ark.
“And I also want to clarify that while it has been implied that this suit is about money, it absolutely is not. It is about assuring the proper fate of the Torah ark — that it be in line with the Holocaust education and Hasidic philosophy of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Rubin and his dynasty,” Gottesman said.
Attorneys for Deutsch and the Living Torah Museum did not respond to a request for comment.
Following World War II and his liberation from Auschwitz, the Hungarian-born Rabbi Menachem Mendel Rubin reunited with his wife Chana and eventually arrived a DP camp in Krumbach, a Bavarian village in the Swabian region between the Danube and the Austrian Alps. There, he set up a Jewish community, including the first post-Holocaust kollel (a learning community, in which all men devote all their time to religious study) in Europe.
The Torah ark was built by the American soldiers for Rubin’s kollel yeshiva and synagogue. It stands 250 cm (98 inches) tall, 172 cm (68 inches) wide, and is deep enough to hold a Torah scroll. Constructed entirely from wood, its pillars are painted in a faux marble finish. Deutsch said that as far as he knew, it was the only Torah ark from the DP camps to have survived.
Affixed above the ark’s door is a plaque with the following inscription in Hebrew:
After the 1937-1944 tyranny against European Jewry, may God avenge their blood, the extermination camp refugees gathered with the yeshiva at Krumbach (may the name of evildoers we wiped out), by the the leader of the yeshiva the rabbi and genius, R. Menachem Mendel Rubin, shlit”a, the Holy Ark was made and used at the study hall of the yeshiva.
According to Deutsch, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Rubin had written to his uncle, the Satmar Rebbe (who was at the time still in Europe), asking for a Torah scroll for the Krumbach congregation. In an alternate version of events presented by the plaintiff in court documents, a man who had witnessed the burying of Jewish religious items in 1941-42, directed Rubin to the site. Three Torahs and a page of Talmud were dug up and were transferred to the Krumbach yeshiva.
Thanks to assistance from the American Joint Distribution Committee, the Krumbach Ark made its way to New York along with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Rubin and his wife Chana, on the SS Marine Flasher, departing from Bremerhaven, Germany. The April 19-29, 1948 voyage coincided with the Passover holiday.
The Torah ark was in use for many decades at Rubin’s Congregation Yeshurun on Ocean Parkway until, according to Deutsch, it was replaced by larger and more modern arks. (According to lawyer Gottesman, the Krumbach Ark went into disuse in the early 2000s when safes were installed in the congregation’s Torah arks, and it was physically impossible to install one in the Krumbach Ark.)
“Rabbi Menachem Mendel Rubin approached me in 2002 asking me to take the Krumbach Ark for our museum, because it had been placed in storage by congregants. It was in a garage where rain water was leaking on it,” Deutsch said.
“He felt strongly that the Holocaust had to be presented from the Orthodox Jewish perspective and not just from the secular perspective, so the museum was an appropriate home for the ark,” Deutsch added.
Deutsch was not surprised when this reporter told him that the auction house’s Ettinger had noticed that the ark had been disassembled into several pieces and glued back together at some point.
“I hired people to disassemble it and bring it over. For the first few days after we got it, we were drying it with blow dryers. The wood had become so warped that we had to glue it back together,” said Deutsch. “I feel proud to have saved it.”
Ettinger said that the object’s patina shows its journey. “But it could easily be restored,” he said.
Before the lawsuit was filed, Ettinger told The Times of Israel that he hoped that whoever bought the Krumbach Torah Ark would give it to a prominent Holocaust education institution like Yad Vashem or the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, or to a prominent synagogue. Deutsch said he would be similarly pleased to see the ark in such institutions with large audiences.
However, this may not necessarily be what Rubin has in mind for the ark.
The parties to the lawsuit have been ordered to return again to court on December 12, and they have been encouraged to try to work together toward a resolution to the dispute before then, if possible.
In the meantime, the auction by Guernsey’s will proceed this Thursday as planned — minus the Krumbach Torah Ark. The auction will include letters written by famed artist Marc Chagall during the Holocaust, a historic collection of documents relating to the establishment of the State of Israel, and a recording never heard before in its entirety of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressing an audience at County Hall in Charleston, South Carolina on July 30, 1967.