“I have strong arms. Let me give you a hug,” Sylvia Reiser says to most new people she meets.
But hugs are not what rivets listeners to the petite blonde 86-year-old as she tells of being rounded up by Nazi soldiers with her parents in their Romanian town of Chernivtsi, and being made to stand in a square — a formation she knew prefaced a firing squad or concentration camp.
On Sunday, Reiser became the first Holocaust survivor to inscribe a Hebrew letter in the 123-year-old Czechoslovakian Torah acquired by a sister and brother of Beth David Congregation, Miami’s oldest Jewish congregation.
The congregation is restoring the Torah, Judaism’s sacred scrolls, and invited Holocaust survivors and South Florida leaders on Sunday to inscribe Hebrew letters onto the parchment as part of a ceremony honoring Holocaust Awareness Week, which ended Sunday. U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia wrote the letter Mem, signifying the number 40 and the spiritual concept of purity, and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz wrote the letter Yod, signifying the number 10 and the idea of humility and the hand.
The letter that came up for Reiser was Aleph, number one, the first in the Hebrew alphabet.
“You are a leader,” said Rabbi Menachem Bialo, 29, a scribe with Sofer On Site of North Miami Beach, which has restored hundreds of rescued Holocaust Torahs.
The Beth David Torah is one of 1,564 Torahs rescued from Czechoslovakia after its cities and towns were emptied of Jews by the Nazis during World War II. According to Rebecca Pfeiffer, one of the people leading Beth David’s restoration project, this Torah was made in 1890 for the Czechoslovakian town of Mlada Vozice.
“The Torahs of Czechoslovakia were exceptionally beautiful,” Bialo said.
Prague, the capital, had a vibrant Jewish community whose leaders established a Jewish Museum in 1906. In 1939, the Nazis, which occupied Moravia and Bohemia, Czechoslovakia’s two major provinces, closed the museum. Prague’s Jewish leaders persuaded them to reopen it in 1942 as a repository for Jewish artifacts from the decimated Jewish communities and synagogues.
The scrolls sat abandoned after the war, as most of Prague’s Jewish community had perished. Eric Estorick, an American art collector, discovered them in 1963. Some were spattered with blood, some contained messages from Jews as they were taken to the camps.
“Save us,” said one.
Estorick found a British philanthropist, who donated money to bring the Torahs to London’s Westminster Synagogue, said Susan Boyer, a founding member of the Czech Torah Network, which catalogs and lends the Torahs to synagogues and temples around the world.
“There they were, stacked floor-to-ceiling on four floors of an old brownstone,” said Beth David Congregation member Barbara Lefcourt, who stopped at Westminster while on vacation almost 30 years ago.
Although the Holocaust had not touched her family directly — her parents, Sidney and Sylvia Lefcourt, were born in the U.S. and moved to Miami in 1936 — she never forgot what she saw.
“The sight affected me deeply. They reminded me of dead bodies,” Lefcourt says.
Lefcourt and her brother Jeffrey donated money to the Network to present one of the Holocaust Torahs, as they’re called, to Beth David on their parents’ behalf. It’s on permanent loan to the congregation, which is restoring it.
“A Torah has to be perfect,’’ Pfeiffer said. “If even one letter is damaged or missing, it can’t be used.’’
When completed, the Torah will serve worshippers again for the first time since the Holocaust began.
“The Torah contains 613 commandments, and the last is that every single Jewish person should write one,” says Bialo.
Due to lack of time and training, today that’s not possible.
“We write the scroll for them,’’ Bialo said. “They participate by holding the quill with me. We say a blessing, and together we write a letter. We become their right hand.’’
Bialo uses a kosher turkey feather for his quill and ink made of gum, vinegar and honey to add sheen. Although everyone has a personal preference for the Hebrew letter he or she wishes to inscribe, “You write whatever letter needs to be restored next,” says Bialo. “We call it God’s raffle.”
Reiser still wonders today where she got the strength to confront the Nazis when she was 10. She walked across the square where the Nazis had arranged the Jews, and addressed two SS guards surrounded by Doberman Pinschers.
“I don’t remember what I said or what pushed me to do it,” she says. “They told me to take my parents to the barracks and wait.”
The Reisers were spared from the camps.
“From a spoiled brat, I became a very feisty, strong girl,” she said.
After the war, as an 18-year-old, Reiser helped smuggle Jewish refugees from displaced persons camps over the Alps into Italy and onto Palestine. Eventually, she and her husband settled in Israel. She came to the U.S. 13 years ago.
“I could take on the whole world. We saved so many people. But not everyone is like me.”
Bialo has attended more Torah inscriptions than he can remember, including with his late grandfather, a Holocaust survivor.
“Who would think that in 2013, we’re restoring a Torah that was meant for destruction? It’s a dream that was undreamable,” he says. “When you see a person sitting down and holding a feather, it’s a miracle.”