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Lost and found: Torah’s journey ends in discovery



For almost 40 years, Zimbabwean Brian Brom has wondered what happened to the Torah his father leined from as head of the tiny Gwelo (now Gwero) community in rural Zimbabwe. “After my father died suddenly in 1982 at the age of 60, every Jew soon left Gwelo,” remembers Brom. “My father came to Gwelo in 1936, and was the only one who could read from the Torah. He was the leader of the community, and held it together.”

So it goes without saying that the family felt closely connected to this particular Torah, which seemed to disappear into thin air in the late 1980s. Not only that, but the family faced more tragedy after Brom’s father’s sudden and early death. Brom’s brother, Dr Les Brom, died in a car accident in 2005. Soon after, Brom dedicated a park to his brother in Israel. And in recent weeks, he discovered that this park is just a few kilometres from where the Gwelo Torah was eventually found.

“My father lost his entire family in the Holocaust in Lithuania. The other members of the Gwelo congregation were either British or German, with no real knowledge of taking services, leining, or Yiddishkeit in general,” says Brom. “My father took all the services for more than 40 years, and he and my mother kept the community together, especially after numbers started to dwindle. In effect, the Torah was in the Gwelo community for more than 80 years and before that in Europe for 20 years – its estimated age is 150 years.

“That’s why it was so important for me to connect with the Torah and re-establish a connection to my father’s neshoma [soul],” says Brom, who left his hometown when he went to study accountancy in South Africa. However, he always maintained a connection. “I never gave up my Zimbabwean passport, and I travel often between Harare and Johannesburg,” he says. He often visits Gwelo, where his father is buried, and ensures that the 52 graves in the Jewish cemetery are maintained.

“For decades, I searched for the Torah. I had given up hope of finding it, and then a few months ago, I read an astounding article describing what had happened to it,” he says. Discovering its whereabouts and its incredible journey was “a mind-blowing experience. I almost passed out reading the article.”

Brom had stumbled across a Jerusalem Post article by Richard Shavei-Zion describing a daring plan in 1987 to smuggle the Gwelo Torah out of Zimbabwe so that it could be taken to Israel for safety and use by a new community. The person who completed this risky mission was Capetonian Gilad Stern, who placed the Torah in the backseat of his station wagon to make it look like part of his children’s toys on a family holiday – essentially hiding it in plain sight. The plan worked, and the Torah was safely escorted over the border in spite of hostile border guards. It was taken to Cape Town and then Israel.

After the event, Stern decided he would never do something so risky again, and eventually forgot about it. It was only by chance that it recently came up in a conversation and was eventually relayed to Shavei-Zion, and then separately to the SA Jewish Report.

These two articles changed Brom’s life. “It was divine providence. It was like my father came back to me,” says Brom, who hosted an emotional and lively gathering on 2 August at the Beit Yatir settlement, the place where the Torah has been actively used all these years. Brom and his wife, Audrey, travelled especially to Israel for the occasion and hosted a day-long celebration to mark this miracle. The Torah was re-dedicated with a new mantle cover, inscribed with the words, “Honouring the Gwelo Hebrew Congregation, Zimbabwe. In loving memory of Myer Brom, leader of the community’s services over 40 years.” Brom and his children leined from it, just as his father had done for four decades in a different place and time.

Wanting others to share in his joy, Brom invited every Zimbabwean he knew in Israel, as well as South Africans and other family and friends to join him in the celebration. The group took buses to the venue, and the event included speeches, dancing, singing, eating, and reminiscing. For Brom and everyone there, it was an unforgettable day.

“This experience has exposed memories and emotions I didn’t even know I had,” says Brom. “It was like my father came back to us, after 45 years. Everyone was crying. It’s like the renewal of life – a living, breathing legacy. My father and his leadership of the community were never memorialised until now. It was like something was missing, and we’ve finally filled that gap and come full circle. It’s comforting to know that the guardians of the Torah in Yatir treated it with respect and dignity rather than it being relegated to a dusty attic or geniza [hiding place].”

Brom isn’t active on social media, yet the story has “gone viral” and he has been contacted by friends all over the world delighted to hear about his discovery and celebration.

It’s not the end of the story, as Brom will now maintain a connection with the Torah’s community. The area now holds a special place in his heart as it memorialises his father and brother’s lives.

Meanwhile, the 150-year-old Torah is in perfect condition, and has never had to have any repairs. “[Former Rosh Beth Din] Rabbi [Moshe] Kurstag came to the event with 30 family members. He said the lettering is of an incredibly high standard and quality. It has truly stood the test of time.”

Brom is deeply grateful to Stern for risking his own safety and that of his family to smuggle the Torah out of Zimbabwe, and is also thankful to all those who played a part in getting it to Israel.

Stern couldn’t make it to the celebration, but is delighted that the story unfolded in this way. He says that at the time, his part seemed insignificant, but now he sees the wider picture and he’s glad he could play that role.

“When Brian contacted me, I was blown away,” says Stern. “It’s filled in the puzzle piece I never fully understood. It’s like when someone donates an organ, something of that person lives on in someone else. And now this Torah and the Zimbabwean Jewish experience lives on in Israel.”

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  1. sidney hyton

    Aug 14, 2023 at 8:18 pm

    very exciting and moving.Your friends sidney & esther hyton chicago U.S.A

    keep in touch

  2. Merv Barnett

    Aug 17, 2023 at 8:56 pm

    What a wonderful historical story.

    I lived in Salisbury and travelled many times through Gwelo, Queque ad Gatooma on the way to Bulawayo for Habonim functions.

    Be well and hopefully in peace wherever you may be living now.

  3. Richard Shavei-Tzion

    Aug 18, 2023 at 4:54 pm

    It is important to note that the person who was responsible for bringing the Sefer Torah from South Africa to Israel and who arranged and organised the incredible event as described in the article, was Roy Scher, one of the Durbanville Scher clan, now living in Jerusalem.

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