The number on Marge Fettman’s left arm is too blurred to read, but the 88-year-old Holocaust survivor knows it by heart: “21,880,” she says.
One of few remaining Holocaust survivors, Fettman lost her parents and other relatives at Auschwitz. She survived, she said, because she was put to work making gun and airplane parts.
Her husband, Daniel Fettman, a fellow survivor whose parents also died in the Holocaust, died in 2004.
On Sunday, the mother of four honored her loved ones by donating a handcrafted Torah scroll to the Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie. Donating the scroll, which she dedicated to her parents, her husband’s parents and her husband, fulfilled a lifelong desire to help preserve the Jewish faith, she said.
“In my heart, I felt that the biggest mitzvah I could do is to donate the Torah, so (future generations) can read it,” Fettman said. “The Torah is our guide.”
It was an increasingly rare moment for a community that once had hundreds of Holocaust survivors.
Rabbi Yochanan Posner of Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie said Fettman is the last such survivor in his congregation.
“This is something that’s happening less and less often,” said Posner. “That she’s here and healthy, that’s very special. And she’s leaving behind something to last beyond her physical lifetime.”
A Holocaust survivor donated a Torah scroll almost 10 years ago, but the man died before the scroll was completed, Posner said.
A symbol of the Jewish people’s dedication to preserving their faith, Torah scrolls are reproductions of the five books of Moses. They’re considered sacred objects and can take more than a year to make and cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Crafted by professional scribes, the scrolls are handwritten on about 200 feet of parchment paper made from the hides of kosher animals, said Yochanan Nathan, a Chicago scribe who wrote some of Fettman’s scroll. The scribes use a special ink of burnt olive oil, gall nuts, alcohol, pomegranate peels, pear tree sap and copper sulfate. It can take about 1,000 hours to precisely re-create, using a feather quill, the more than 300,000 Hebrew characters that make up the Torah, Nathan said.
“The main point of it is the continuation of the Jewish heritage,” Nathan said. “This is how the Torah has been passed on from generation to generation.”
Fettman ordered the scroll from Israel, where most professional scribes live, Nathan said. Her granddaughter Aviah Saltzman escorted the scroll back to the United States, never letting it out of her sight.
Saltzman remembers being hit with a “philosophical moment” while she was riding a bus in Israel, carrying her grandmother’s scroll.
“I was thinking, it’s pretty cool because my bubby was in the Holocaust and her parents were killed when she was young,” Saltzman said. “I was thinking it’s so nice that she’s able to donate this Torah in their memory. … They never thought they’d be in Israel. They were in Europe, and they were being mass-murdered. I was thinking, that’s pretty cool that I’m able to carry this Torah through Israel.”
At nearby Seneca Park, Fettman watched quietly as her daughters and grandchildren took turns sitting with Nathan and touching his quill while he applied the final letters to the scroll. Once the ink dried, people took turns carrying the scroll to the synagogue, dancing and singing along the way.