When Nazi officials confiscated the faded white Torah covering, they stamped the Reichsadler — the emblematic German eagle and swastika — onto the inner fabric. The valuable 1868 piece, stitched in Transylvania, was intended for display in the Central Jewish Museum in Prague, what Nazis conceived as the “Museum and Historic Archive of the Extinct Jewish Race.”
Recently, L.A. lawyer Lisa Stern shook her head while contemplating the piece, now part of her and her husband’s extensive Judaica collection.
“They said we’d be a vanished people, yet we’re the ones who are still here and they’re not,” she said.
Collecting since 1992, the Sterns see their work as more than the gathering and restoration of antique ritual pieces. For them, it’s about preserving a tangible link to a rich heritage from which there are precious few relics.
“Life was always very tenuous for Jews. There were pogroms, expulsions. Despite our 5,000-year history as a people, there is relatively little in terms of books and artifacts,” Alan Stern said. “As American Jewry assimilates, for a lot of people, these things don’t hold much value anymore.”
Through loans to museums, such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Sterns hope to change that. They don’t collect items just to mothball them — they encourage viewers to read from the timeworn 18th century Torah scrolls, and to feel the heft of a Kiddush cup or the leathery thickness of centuries-old parchment.
Among the pieces in their collection is a unique late 19th century yad (Torah pointer) made in St. Petersburg by renowned Fabergé craftsman Michael Perkhin, who created some of the company’s iconic Imperial Eggs between 1886 and 1903. The piece is of deep green nephrite, ringed with pearls, featuring gold threads and a ruby ring on the delicate hand’s index finger.
The Sterns have an original, first-edition printed Talmud from Venice, Italy, published by Daniel Bomberg in 1522 after the Belgian printer got permission from the Vatican to print Hebrew-language books. They own a collection of eight antique shechita knives, used in the kosher slaughtering of animals, and a 17th century Dutch brit milah set, used for circumcisions. They also own rare sifrei Torah and illustrated Megillah scrolls, Torah breastplates and traditional oil-burning menorahs.
Many of the artifacts in their collection survived the Holocaust through their owners’ ingenuity — they were smuggled out to friends and neighbors, hidden in attics and walls or buried in the ground. Many were sold during and after the war, when families needed money for food and clothing. Nazis targeted some of the most valuable Jewish ritual pieces to display in museums they envisioned to commemorate the “defunct race” of Jewish people, Alan Stern said.
“One never knows where treasure is to be found,” Lisa Stern added. “Sometimes we get calls from a family who wants to make sure that a particular piece or heirloom gets to a person who treasures it, who cleans it, who preserves it and then puts it into public display. It’s our greatest pleasure to see our artifacts in various public settings — we get a lot of nachas seeing the education that is spun off from exposure to these artifacts.”
Each piece boasts its own story of loss, determination and hope.
Lisa Stern received a tattered German haggadah from a legal client that once belonged to Heinrich Stahl, head of the Jewish community in Berlin during the Third Reich and founding director of Victoria Insurance Group, one of the oldest still active in Europe. Stahl died at Theresienstadt in 1942, after penning a living will instructing his descendants to protect their legacy. Stern’s client, Gaby Stahl Lansing, was Stahl’s granddaughter.
“Everyone comes from a proud tradition. Everyone’s family comes from somewhere,” Lisa Stern said. “What better way to hone in on that question than seeing a piece from history, tying it to where we are today, and recognizing we are links in that chain?”