An Israeli Disaster Victim Identification (ZAKA) team taking part in rescue efforts in Turkey’s earthquake-stricken areas salvaged historical Jewish scrolls of the ancient Book of Esther from the partially destroyed Antakya Synagogue in Hatay province, and took them to Israel before returning them to the chief rabbinate of Turkey.
The Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism confirmed the safety of the two-centuries-old book on 19 February, two days after its delivery to the Turkish Jewish community. It is accused in social media of indifference to the issue, while the Israeli team has been criticised for carrying the artefact out of the country without permission.
The Esther scrolls, valued by the local Jewish community as they contain a book from the third section of the Hebrew Bible, were found by an elderly Jewish man who handed them over to Haim Otmazgin, commander of ZAKA, according to YnetNews.
Otmazgin said that the old man requested him to guard the scrolls against “falling into the wrong hands” and to make sure their community, that had been decimated by the disaster, was remembered.
“I’m truly honoured to save such a significant historical document and to make sure the heritage of Antakya’s Jewish community remains intact, even after the quake reduced it to nearly nothing,” said Otmazgin.
The synagogue, built in 1890 and serving the Jewish diaspora in Hatay’s central district of Antakya, was partially destroyed in the twin earthquakes that struck Turkey’s south and southeastern provinces on 6 February.
On 9 February the dead bodies of the head of Antakya’s Jewish community Şaul Cenudioğlu and his wife Fortuna were found by ZAKA volunteers beneath the rubble of their home, collapsed as a result of the earthquakes which took more than 40,000 lives in Turkey and Syria.
Twitter users from Turkey have questioned the role of the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism in the safety of the parchments and accused the officials of leaving the preservation of the historical book to individual efforts.
Haim Otmazgin and the Israeli forces, who retrieved nearly two dozen survivors from under the rubble of collapsed buildings during their Turkey mission, were also criticised for taking the scrolls with them to Israel without the permission of the Turkish authorities and outwith the knowledge of the local Jewish community.
With those who lost their lives in the disaster and the synagogue becoming unserviceable, the 2500-year old Jewish life in Antakya came to an end, Turkish Chief Rabbinate Foundation lamented.