Surrounded by her children and grandchildren, Holocaust survivor Marge Fettman showered blessings and kind words on the 500 people who came on Sunday, Aug. 11, to celebrate the completion of the Torah she commissioned to memorialize her late husband, parents and in-laws.
Lifting up her sleeve to display a fading patch of green, where the Nazis had once branded her as prisoner No. 21880, Fettman, an 88-year-old native of Romania, said: “G‑d gave me a good idea—to have a Torah written. It is our guide. I want the Torah to be used to teach people about Judaism.”
Congregants, family members and well-wishers took turns sitting next to scribe Rabbi Yochanan Nathan as he inscribed the closing verses of Fettman’s Torah scroll with a quill pen and special kosher ink. The ceremony took place in an open tent, under clear blue skies, in a park adjacent to Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie.
As the sofer filled in the final letters, children crafted special three-dimensional Torahs mounted on dowels to be used as flags held aloft during the procession. The booth was hosted by Junior Gan Israel Day Camp.
Amid singing and dancing, Fettman followed her descendants as they carried the Torah written in honor of their forbears to its new home.
‘A Vanishing Group’
Rabbi Yosef Posner, senior rabbi of Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie, Ill., recalled that when he and his wife Zeesy came to the Village of Skokie in 1981, he had a regular Talmud class with elderly survivors. “Many remembered learning the same subjects as children in Poland before the Holocaust. When we prayed in the morning, you would see many of the men expose tattooed arms when they rolled up their sleeves to put on tefillin.”
Returning the new Torah scroll to the ark following its first reading in the Skokie synagogue on Aug. 12.
Back in in 1977, when one in every six residents of the Chicago suburb was either a survivor or a relative of one, Neo-Nazis marched through Skokie’s streets in uniform. The firestorm of debate and litigation this provoked, and the raw emotions generated by this affront are remembered to this day.
In the decades since the demonstrations, “one by one, they left us,” said Posner. “There are still survivors among us—one is a 90-year-old man who walks close to a mile each way to synagogue every week and unlocks the door every morning for the 6:30 minyan—but they are a vanishing group.”
Like Fettman, those who survived the war as children and young adults are now in their mid-80s and beyond.
Rebuilding Their Lives
Fettman (then Lanxner) lived with her parents and siblings in the Romanian town of Szaszregen when the Nazis herded the Jews into a ghetto in the spring of 1944. They were soon put on cattle cars bound for Auschwitz.
“When we arrived,” she explained, “Dr. [Josef] Mengele stood there flicking his whip, sending some of us to the right and others to the left. I was separated from my family. Since I had the snacks we had packed for the children, I was concerned that they would be hungry. I wanted to bolt to the other side to be with them, but Mengele saw and shouted at me in German, ‘Are you a fool?’ I stayed where I was, and my life was spared.”
Marge survived the war and in 1946 married Daniel Fettman, a fellow survivor. The couple immigrated to the United States in 1949 and rebuilt their lives together. They had both lost their parents and a number of siblings, but they were determined to create a future that would make their parents proud. Daniel founded a successful chain of grocery stores, and they raised their children in the same Jewish traditions they had known in their youth.
After Daniel passed away in 2004 at age 83, Marge wanted to do something special to honor his memory and that of their parents. Since their parents had been very religious Jews—dedicated to living their lives in accordance with the Jewish traditions—she resolved to commission a Torah scroll, to perpetuate their legacy.
A Torah scroll contains the Five Books of Moses and is the most sacred object in Judaism. An authentic handwritten parchment scroll can take up to a year to craft. It is then stored in the ark at the front of the sanctuary and removed for readings only during services.
“She [Marge] wanted the Torah to be used to teach Judaism and Jewish traditions to the next generation,” said Posner, “so she decided to house it at Lubavitch Chabad, which is known for being on frontier of Jewish education and outreach to all, regardless of affiliation and prior experience. The writing of a Torah is a re-enactment of the revelation at Sinai, and each new Torah written takes that revelation to new heights never before experienced.
More than 500 celebrated the completion and dedication of the Torah scroll.
“Marge had told us that she wants the Torah to be at the vanguard, used to bring the sweetness of Judaism to people everywhere. So we will be lending it out. We already have four fledgling Chabad centers lined up that will be making use of this scroll, and this is just the beginning.”