Dallas woman’s 4-decade struggle to restore ner tamid finally rewarded
By Aaron Greenberg
Special to the TJP
PLANO — A piece of pre-Holocaust German Jewry is about to be given new life at Congregation Nishmat Am after a Dallas woman’s persistence over four decades finally paid off.
Sunday’s ceremony will mark a new chapter in the history of a ner tamid, the sanctuary lamp hanging over the ark. Jeanette Augusta Rashti, who first saw it in a German-American home in the 1970s, knew right away it was likely looted during Kristallnacht.
“I feel relieved that a religious item out of a synagogue that was destroyed is back where it should be, in a synagogue, not a trinket in a German home,” Rashti said. “But I never really thought I would get it after that second ‘no.’ ”
She acquired the lamp from the Florida couple over the winter, and offered it to Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen for his congregation’s sanctuary.
Dr. David Patterson, a Nishmat Am congregant and expert on the Holocaust, found photos of the synagogue in Lörrach, Germany burning, as so many others did on that November 1938 evening. The survival of an item that wasn’t of great monetary value was surprising.
“I’ve seen remnants of Torah scrolls saved, at times restored and put back into use. Those are very rare,” he said. “I’ve never heard of something like this. It borders on the miraculous. It’s a really remarkable thing to come to our community, not just Nishmat Am, but the Jewish community at large.”
Patterson, the Hillel A. Feinberg chair in Holocaust Studies at the Ackerman Center for Holocaust Studies at UT-Dallas, called it “a light that survives the darkness and continues, l’dor vador (from generation to generation).”
The dedication ceremony comes just ahead of the 79th anniversary of Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass Nov. 9 and 10, 1938), and will double as a remembrance of that night. The program at Nishmat Am, located at 2113 West Spring Creek Pkwy., will begin Sunday, Nov. 5, at 11 a.m.
“I’m overwhelmed with joy and reverence that this thing is going to be in my synagogue, and that it’s come full circle,” Rabbi Cohen said.
Rashti’s part in the story begins in the early 1970s. Her close friend Viv lived in Texas in the 1960s, but later moved to Florida. Viv’s family came to America from Germany in the 1920s. Her father sponsored the arrival of his nephew, Wolfgang, and Wolfgang’s wife, Ute, in 1968.
A few years later, Rashti was visiting Viv in Florida, and they went to Viv’s cousin’s home.
“They were showing me the house, and in the living room was a lamp with two Stars of David on both sides,” Rashti said.
“‘Oh yeah, it came out of a synagogue in Germany,’ he said, casually,” she related. “It upset me.”
Wolfgang wasn’t terribly friendly, she thought, and perhaps he got it from his father, who lived under the Nazi regime, unlike Viv’s father. As much as it troubled Rashti, she didn’t want to upset her friend.
“I never told her, because I didn’t want to hurt her and there was nothing she could do,” Rashti said. “I didn’t point out how much it bothered me. I have a feeling (Viv’s) father’s youngest brother might have been 22, 23 when the war broke out. I think he was one who helped destroy that synagogue in Lörrach, Germany.”
Viv’s parents had given up on speaking German after they came to this country, but the family was still targeted during the war — “it’s interesting how prejudice goes both ways,” Rashti said.
Viv, her friend of 50 years, died in 2001, but Rashti kept in touch with Ute and didn’t give up on the idea of buying the ner tamid, which was eventually used as a kitchen lamp. If anything, she was more determined as time went on and she became more connected to the Jewish community.
“I got more concerned when I joined Shearith Israel in 2007,” she said. “Then I began to feel really badly about it.”
Twice, she asked to buy it, and both times Wolfgang said no. Then, in December, Ute wrote a letter. When Rashti called, she found out Wolfgang was on dialysis.
“She said ‘I’ll sell it,’ really fast,” Rashti said.
Rashti paid more than $100 for shipping, but it arrived undamaged.
Although she has attended Shearith Israel over the past decade, she felt Cohen’s congregation could use the gift.
“He has always been so kind to me and has gone out of his way,” Rashti said. “They’re not a very wealthy synagogue, but are a very caring synagogue.”
Cohen said he met Rashti at the bar mitzvah of one of her friends’ grandsons at Nishmat Am about three years ago.
“She’s a wonderful lady, and we formed a close friendship, and when this came about, she called me with such excitement, and I can understand why,” he said.
Cohen recalled seeing the ner tamid for the first time.
“She was in awe when she unpacked it, and showed it to me,” he said. “The feelings that overcame me, there are no words to adequately describe the feeling of holding such a holy item in my hands. She said, ‘Rabbi, it’s a piece of history.’”
Cohen wanted to see how it compared to other sanctuary lights from that era.
“We actually searched on the internet for ner tamids in Germany in the 1930s,” Cohen said. “We found ones that looked almost exactly like what we had. You can see the exact same style. This was actually an oil lamp. It was converted later on, either in Germany or once it came with this family. You can see the little oil container underneath and where they lit the ner tamid.”
He pointed out that photos of the Lörrach synagogue from Kristallnacht show the sides of the ark, but not where the sanctuary light would be.
“But we know exactly where it came from, that was the synagogue,” he said.
Patterson noted the symbolism of its survival.
“The ner tamid has all kinds of symbolic significance, and the fact that it survived that period has a lot of meaning and significance as well,” he said. “It’s exactly what the Nazis set out to destroy, the eternal light of Judaism and Jewish teaching and tradition.”
It was soldered by one of Rabbi Cohen’s congregants, Jimmy McClintock, who cleaned off a dark coating from perhaps a century of use.
“It needed a little restoring to its old glory,” Rabbi Cohen said.
Rabbi Cohen thought the fixture was black, and Rashti described it as antique gold. But as McClintock cleaned it, he discovered something even more beautiful.
“He says ‘You wouldn’t believe it, the black is coming off,’” Cohen said. “The black, maybe a hundred years, the fumes and everything else, took what was gold and made it black. He washed it in soap and water and the black started coming off. The original color was gold leaf. We have this gorgeous, gold leaf eternal light.”
On Sunday, Rashti will tell her story, Rabbi Cohen will discuss Kristallnacht, and there will be songs, readings, a poem about Kristallnacht and recitation of Kaddish. Children from the synagogue’s school will participate as well. The ner tamid will be lit for the first time in its new home. Brunch will be offered afterward.
For Rabbi Cohen, remembering Kristallnacht and what followed is personal. Both of his parents survived Auschwitz, and lost their siblings and dozens of family members during the Holocaust.
“You think about this one night, the one night about 1,350 synagogues burned to the ground, and this was one of them,” he said. “Thirty thousand Jews thrown into concentration camps, 7,000 Jewish businesses destroyed.”
Rabbi Cohen said the ner tamid will serve as a memorial, but also “maybe a little hope for the future that our light should shine bright.
“The eternal light also tells the story of our people,” he said. “This is the perfect example of the eternal light that was supposed to be broken into pieces, but it was not, it represents the eternity of our people. Am Yisrael Chai (the nation of Israel lives).
“There’s a prayer we pray when we return the Torah to the ark, from Lamentations,” Cohen said. “The end is ‘chadesh yamenu k’kedem’ — restore our days as old. What does it mean? Restore the city of Jerusalem and the way it was when the holy Temple was in existence. Restore it to its old glory. And I think this is a perfect example of restoring something to its old glory.”