The saved parchment
There it was – a piece of torn brown leather rolled in a dilapidated piece of cardboard. When it was unrolled, there were words of explanation that indicated this was a part of Judeo/French history (translated to English for my readers):
“Algiers – Parchment saved from the remains of the Grand Synagogue, during the uprising 9–11 December, 1960.” And below those words was the signature of the finder. Unrolling the scrolled up leather, the words of the Torah, carefully hand-printed in indelible ink, I felt the need to find out more about the past of this shred of history from those horrendous war-torn years in Algeria.
This sliver of Jewish past had been discovered in the attic of a small seaside house in France and was brought to me by the grand-daughter of the French Red Beret paratrooper. Her mother had discovered it when clearing up after his death and had given it to her daughter who was going to visit Israel. In December 1960, the Red Beret was posted to Algeria when tensions there were being exacerbated by the National Liberation Front after a period of semi-calm. During that week in December 1960, de Gaulle came to Algeria. His visit led to the bubble of resentment and anger that had been on hold to burst and led to a rebellion fired by the Muslim rebels. This eventually ended on December 21 with a high toll of death, injury, damage and devastation of buildings and businesses. The events also made the Jews of Algeria eventually realize that they were indeed no longer welcome there and that they must search for an alternative home.
So a remaining shred of a Torah scroll can now bring to our hearts a picture of the ancient and main synagogue in the Kasbah of Algiers where Jews and Arabs had lived in harmony for many decades. But the incensed Muslims forgot about this in their determination to make a point about Algerian Independence, and on December 11 they broke into and desecrated the synagogue. A description of the scene from the memories of a member of the community brings to life the picture of the destruction: “They entered the holy place and went on a rampage, tore memorial plaques off the wall, ripped up symbols of our faith, sullied books and Torah scrolls, smashed and emptied the lockers where tallitot, tefillin and prayer books were kept and torched everything.”
But then the Red Berets arrived and managed to overcome them and occupy the remains of the synagogue. And this was how a shred of a torn Torah scroll was taken as a memento of the destruction of an ancient and once respected building which is now rebuilt as a mosque. Another sentence from the personal memories that I managed to trace online made me think of how devastating hatred and wars are and how they bring about such a lack of respect and understanding:
“The French Paras occupied the place, camped on the floor of our Temple, ate, drank and, adding insult to injury, they set up a Christmas tree.”
It was then I wished that I had met the Red Beret myself and heard his thoughts about those violent few days in the Kasbah with blood, hatred and killing leaving total devastation. He must however have held some respect in his soul, for he picked up the shred of the Torah scroll and kept it safe during all those years and now finally it has found its home here in Israel.