By Samantha Hirsch
Working at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust for the past three years, I’ve been absorbed in producing public programs, but haven’t spent much time thinking about what it means for this institution to be a living memorial. Recently, I had a unique opportunity to experience the Museum in an entirely different way.
I learned from our Collections department about a special object on display at the Museum, a “living artifact.” This particular living artifact is a Megillah (also known as the Scroll of Esther, which tells the story of Purim). This Megillah is taken off display annually for the holiday of Purim and loaned to a Jewish congregation, who read the story directly from this scroll during the service.
What’s so special about this scroll? After liberation during WWII, a survivor of the Terezin Ghetto in Czechoslovakia gave this scroll to US Army Chaplain Rabbi Eugene Lipman and asked him to return it to Rabbi Leo Baeck – Rabbi Baeck had read this particular scroll with fellow Jews when they celebrated Purim in Terezin.
Rabbi Lipman did as requested and contacted Rabbi Baeck. Rabbi Baeck explained that since he had no congregation, he wanted Rabbi Lipman to keep the scroll and use it every Purim with his own congregation with the additional request to tell the story of this scroll being used in Terezin.
Rabbi Baeck’s wishes were realized. Rabbi Lipman read this Megillah with his congregation, Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C. Upon his retirement, the scroll was handed down to his son, Rabbi David Lipman, who in turn loaned the Museum this artifact on the condition that each year it be read in a synagogue on Purim.
This year, I was asked if I wanted to bring the Megillah to the synagogue my family attends for the congregation to have this honor. After an enthusiastic response from Rabbi Neil Schuman and staff, plans were made, and I was playing the roles of congregant, Museum staff, and artifact courier. Traveling with an artifact was stressful (there was a bit of pressure to return the precious cargo in the same state it came in!), but hearing Rabbi Schuman chant from the scroll was such a wonderful experience that my stress took a backseat. The sanctuary was buzzing with congregants and attendees in costumes stamping out Haman’s name and celebrating Esther’s triumph — a story of Jewish survival read directly from a survivor of a different kind: this Scroll of Esther once read by prisoners of Terezin.
The Megillah is back on display in the Museum’s Core Exhibition. Next year another lucky congregation will have the opportunity to roll open the scroll and continue the tradition of sharing both the story of Esther and the story of this scroll.
Samantha Hirsch was Producer of Public Programs at the Museum.