“Our synagogue was attacked during Chanukah of 1980,” explains Rabbi Alan Lachtman. “A couple of neo-Nazis broke into the sanctuary and set it on fire.” The two arsonists were arrested and jailed, and one of them, incredibly, later renounced white supremacy and Nazism after having met Jewish doctors and inmates in prison. and later worked with the FBI to foil further attacks. He made a public and televised apology to Temple Beth David and Rabbi Lachtman in 1983.
According to Rabbi Lachtman, an older couple, Joseph and Beyla Malatsky, told him a Torah scroll they owned had been smuggled out of Germany or Austria in the early 1940s, hidden in the bottom of a trunk. While they were still active in the synagogue, he says, they would bring it out on Simchat Torah for hakafot. Time passed, and 20 years after the arson attack, “Mr. Malatsky was very sick and wanted to sell it, and the temple bought it from him. Supposedly, the sofer who put it together wrote it in 1911 or 1912, and it was rescued from a German family in 1940 or ’41. So it’s had a long life.”
The Holocaust scroll epitomizes both loss and redemption. “This scroll missed our synagogue’s attack, when we lost some of our original scrolls. We still have two of the Torah scrolls that survived that fire with only smoke damage, so all three Torahs have survived Nazi hatred.”
It’s hard to imagine how a Torah scroll could even fit in standard luggage of the time, much less a false bottom compartment, until Rabbi Lachtman enters the sanctuary and opens the ark. Flanked by the two Torah scrolls that survived the arson is perhaps the smallest complete Torah in our region, with parchment sheets only about a foot high and miniaturized lettering to match. The sofer probably used a magnifying lens to help with fine details.
Why would someone make a Torah scroll that small? “I just think it was easier to move around,” says Rabbi Lachtman. “It might not be less expensive than a full-size one because the work is so fine.”
The scroll is not much bigger than a typical Megillat Esther, and the wimple is too loose for it, but the Torah cover, which matches those for the larger scrolls, was custom-made for it in 2000 for the 20th anniversary commemoration of Temple Beth David’s rebuilding. “We had a hard time finding the right-sized rimonim [Torah finials],” he says.
As Rabbi Lachtman unwraps and opens the scroll, it’s evident that it’s still in remarkably good shape, the lettering neat and precise, the handles still bearing brass trim and traces of gilt decoration. “This was probably intended for private use,” he says.
The scribe didn’t follow the modern practice of starting each column with the letter vav, which supports an early date for its creation. But how it came into the Malatskys’ hands remains unclear, in part because Temple Beth David, like many smaller synagogues, doesn’t have the resources for a historical archive.
However, the Malatskys have deep roots in the Jewish community of the San Gabriel Valley and are still remembered fondly. Michael Several, who leads the History Committee at Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center, says that over the decades, a series of sequential mergers among the smaller Conservative congregations in the San Gabriel Valley has meant that many of their records and yahrzeit plaques have ended up together at PJTC, where his committee is trying to sort them out and preserve them. Several of the original members also remain active in the community.
According to Several’s research, Joseph and Beyla Malatsky were among the founding members of El Monte’s B’nai Israel Temple Center in the late 1940s. “B’nai Israel was part of the postwar suburbanization of LA,” he says. “Orange groves were flattened and houses went up all over the San Gabriel Valley.”
B’nai Israel started as a social group of families who held services in their homes until they could afford a building. Joseph Malatsky served as B’nai Israel’s lay leader for ten years, from 1947-1957, when the congregation hired its first ordained rabbi, and taught religious school after they formed Foothill Jewish Temple Center in 1964.
Suzy Kustner, who grew up in El Monte’s B’nai Israel congregation, was friends with one of the Malatskys’ daughters and remembers the parents well.
“Joe Malatsky was sort of the rabbi when we were growing up,” she says. “My younger sister died in childhood and Joe performed the funeral. Beyla was a librarian for the El Monte Public Library, and very bright,” she recalls. “The old library is now the El Monte Historical Museum, but back then she was the head librarian.”
A friend of Kustner’s, David Kading, was the son of an El Monte mayor who helped found B’nai Israel. He also knew the Malatsky children and says Joseph Malatsky taught him and led the service for his bar mitzvah.
Neither of them remember the diminutive Torah scroll the Malatskys later brought to Temple Beth David, but they don’t think the Malatskys were refugees or had European accents.
Public records reveal that Joseph Malatsky was born in 1910 in Chelsea, Massachusetts, to parents who had left Russia around the turn of the century and owned a rag shop. He graduated from high school in 1926 and attended Boston University in the early 1930s, and in October of 1943 enlisted in the US Army as a private at the age of 33. Not much else is readily available about where he may have been sent or when he came back. But four years later he was in El Monte and married to Beyla, who according to the 1940 census was born in Manitoba about 1917 and lived in El Monte with her Russian-born mother and several siblings. So neither one had obvious family ties to a Holocaust scroll that came out of Germany.
However, just after the war, the Jewish Welfare Board’s War Correspondence archives listed Joseph Malatsky as a regional volunteer representative for Massachusetts, and he continued to volunteer into the 1950s. By then, most of the remaining volunteers on the rolls were rabbis and chaplains; ordinary servicemen and –women had dropped out to continue their civil careers and families. Joseph Malatsky found a way to do both as he helped build the postwar Jewish community here.
The Jewish Welfare Board formed during World War I to identify and serve American Jewish soldiers in the field. It became part of the USO, but played a much larger role during and after WWII. One mission expanded its survey tools for identifying and counting American Jewish soldiers with new statistical methods to estimate Jewish populations in individual towns, cities, regions and whole countries. Some volunteers conducted test runs stateside before deploying these methods in Europe.
After the war, the Jewish Welfare Board continued in Europe tracking survivors in the refugee camps. Its population estimates were the first major attempt to capture the scope of the Holocaust accurately and helped shape the official reporting numbers. There’s nothing to indicate that this kind of activity was what brought the tiny Holocaust Torah scroll into the Malatskys’ keeping, but what remains is Joseph Malatsky’s enduring sense of commitment to both the local and worldwide Jewish communities.
As for the Holocaust Torah scroll, Rabbi Lachtman says, “The last couple of years of its life in Germany were kept under wraps, so to speak. We treat it very gingerly—it’s really wonderful because children can hold this Torah.” The Torah cover, made from kippot from the synagogue’s bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, bears the words L’dor vador, “From generation to generation.”
DEBORAH NOBLE IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.