Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Kangaroo Valley Torah (Revised)


Previously posted here and on other blogs the story has been further researched and revised for publication.

Images: Australian War Memorial Archives (via Ken V) 

"An Australian Light Horseman collecting anemones near Belah in Palestine".
Picture: Frank Hurley, 1918

The 3rd Australian Light Horse Regiment machinegun in action at Khurbetha-Ibn, Palestine.
Picture: Frank Hurley, New Year's Eve 1917
Squadrons of the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade in formation at Gaza
Picture: Frank Hurley, February 1918

An Australian Light Horse Field Ambulance wagon on the Philistine Plain, Palestine. Picture: Frank Hurley, 1918
The 2nd Australian Light Horse Regiment behind the front line barricades at Nalin in Palestine, one man passing across a grenade.
Picture: Frank Hurley, January 17, 1918

Official photograph at Gallipoli taken in early 1919 for The Australian Historical Mission showing a landing barge, wire and entrenchments.
Picture: George Hubert Wilkins

Four camel ambulances attached to the Imperial Camel Corps at Rafa - used as a base for the attack on Gaza.
Picture: Frank Hurley, 1918

Australian Flying Corps planes in Palestine. Picture: Frank Hurley, 1918

The Kangaroo Valley Torah

This is a true story.

Kangaroo Valley  is a small rural community in the Kangaroo Valley in the Southern Highlands of NSW about 160 kilometres south of Sydney. According to the last census there are only 844 people in the little town and region but very likely there would have been many more a hundred years ago. The region boomed after the passing of the "free selection" land reform legislation in the 1860's and settlers from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland and from the regions, towns and cities made claims for plots of prime farm land across the state. 

The Kangaroo River that runs through the valley has a history of floods as angry and dangerous as in any part of the country. The little town's bridge over the river is Australia's oldest suspension bridge and was completed in 1898 two metres higher than the original timber bridge that washed away in the largest flood since 1870 just two months before the new bridge was opened1. The keystone to the northern end pier  had been laid  on 3 September 1896 by a local businessman, Israel Karnofsky,  just four months after construction had commenced. Loveridge and Hudson, the builders of the new bridge had previously worked on a number of significant projects in Sydney including the rebuilding of Customs House at Circular Quay and what the RTA describes as the renowned High Victorian architectural style Great Synagogue, Elizabeth Street, Sydney2.

Bridges and other structures washed away  and near misses are not uncommon in Australia. In the mountains to the west of the Tweed Valley there are the remains of two bridges across the head waters of the Tweed River, arches standing like pyramids,  that did not last the first serious wet season after the forties. These landmarks dot the country. There are people in Brisbane who are only now able to reclaim homes destroyed in the 2011 flood that swept away miles of pontoons, wharves, decks, moorings, river front restaurants and but for the courage and skill of a single tug boat skipper very nearly a bridge from the Brisbane River after the mismanagement of a major dam that was built after the last great flood of 1974 that as a young student I witnessed first hand. 

All but a tiny minority of Australians are new to this country, even those of us who were born here into Australian families and know no other country.  This is a land settled by people who paid scant regard to the indigenous people who had a lot to teach about a land that we still have much to learn. An Australian river in full flood is a terrifying thing to be in the way of and so it would have been one day in the 1920's when the Kangaroo River again burst its banks forcing the people of the town and valley from their homes and farms.

Among them were Charlie and Hannah Cox  who with Hannah's family ran the local general store.  However Charlie Cox was an unusual man. After getting his young bride and family to safety he returned to the home to salvage whatever could be saved from the rapidly rising waters and one thing in particular that was precious to Hannah beyond words . An expert horseman as all the men in the valley would have been,  he rode and swam his horse to the abandoned homestead and grabbed and strapped to his belt what he could. From a cupboard he retrieved Hannah's treasured possession, wrapped it in oilskins and belted it tightly to his back. Riding and swimming for miles in torrential rain he and his horse made their escape through the flooded valley to high ground where Hannah waited anxiously. 
What was this object that Charlie Cox, brave man that he certainly was, risked his life to save without a moment's second thought?  It was a Sefer Torah.  For non-Jewish readers a Sefer Torah is the hand written scroll which records in Biblical Hebrew the Pentateuch, the holiest book in Judaism.  Written by special scribes they can take more than a year to produce and must be faultless. They are produced to the most exacting of standards according to specifications that are from the ages. They are venerated in Jewish religious tradition. The surface must not be touched by human hands. Even the accidental dropping of a Sefer Torah requires the severe atonement of all present and years ago when the Central Synagogue in Sydney burned down destroying the Sifrei Torah it housed, Sydney rabbis directed forty days of mourning and fasting. 
Hannah Cox was Jewish, born Ettie Hordice Rosenberg and the daughter of Annie Leigh Rosenberg, nee Karnofsky , and remarkably she was the niece of Israel Karnofsky who laid the keystone of the suspension bridge across the Kangaroo River in 1896. But that does not explain why she was in possession of a Sefer Torah. Torahs are kept in the "ark" of a synagogue where they are central to the service.  Once having found a home in a synagogue a Sefer Torah is not supposed to travel. If they move it could only be because the Jews have been moved.

So how did Hannah Cox come to have a Sefer Torah which her gentile husband rescued from a flood? You can be certain there were no synagogues in Kangaroo Valley and Hannah and her family may have been the only Jews. But the answer lies not in her family's history but in her husband and in Australian history.  

Charlie Cox had been Corporal Charles Edward Cox of the Australian Fifth Light Horse Regiment who had been a 22 year old tinsmith from Horse Shoe Creek, NSW when he enlisted in Brisbane in the AIF on 19 October 1914 and when his unit embarked for the Middle East on the 21 December 19143 where he was to be wounded in action and awarded the Military Medal4 for bravery.  Earlier his regiment saw action at Gallipoli without its horses and later served as long range patrols in the Sinai. In December 1916 it advanced into Palestine where Charlie was to be wounded most likely in one of the battles for Gaza.

The Australian Light Horse went on to help liberate the land from the Turks along side the allies including the Jewish Legion when after the Balfour Declaration of November 1917 the regiments helped take Jaffa, Haifa and  Jerusalem which was then the only city in the world with a Jewish majority. Almost a century later the Australian government, with incredible insensitivity to both Jewish and Australian history, has now adopted a policy that declares as "illegal" Jews living in the wrong part of Jerusalem from which they were ethnically cleansed in 1948. 

The Kangaroo Valley Torah came from Palestine, looted no doubt at some point in the history of the region from a dhimmified and oppressed Jewish community and rescued from a bazaar by Charlie or a comrade who knew what it was and returned with it to Australia where Charlie presented it to his Jewish sweetheart. It had become part of the flotsam of war and revolution that so savagely swept the world. Whether the Torah was native to Palestine or had come to Palestine in the first or second aliyahs with Zionist Jews from Russia or Europe driven by the pogroms of the nineteenth century likely will never be known. Charles was soon to marry Hannah and the Torah became a treasured family heirloom. A family bible with a difference from a time when most families had family bibles.

It is at this point the story gets interesting. 

Charlie and Hannah prospered after the war and they moved north and took over The Wells Hotel in Tweed Heads on the Qld/NSW border before the Second World War. It doesn't look far on a map but Tweed Heads is over a thousand kilometres from Kangaroo Valley, about the same distance as from Istanbul to Jerusalem.  They made a fortune during the war aided by the presence of thousands of Australian and US servicemen whose armies used the region for "rest and recreation" leave. It's an ill wind etcetera.

Later the family bought and ran for decades the Regal Theatre in Coolangatta literally across the street and interstate and later still built the Tweed Heads Drive-In cinema at the height of the drive-in movie craze of the sixties and seventies. 

The Torah moved north with the Coxes and was kept carefully wrapped in a cupboard in their home. In 1960 Rabbi A Fabian5 of the Brisbane Hebrew Congregation met the Coxes at a funeral he conducted in Brisbane  and as a result was to make an appointment to inspect a parcel in the family home in Tugun.  He records that he experienced a really thrilling moment when [he] opened the old parcel and found the most perfect Torah Scroll carefully wrapped and in an excellent state of preservation6.  

So where is the Kangaroo Valley Torah now? It has been many years since I had last seen it but I know exactly where it. Indeed I saw it again just a few days ago.

When Hannah passed in 1961 the Sefer Torah passed briefly to her family including her three children, Colin, Valerie and Aileen (now all deceased).  Later Colin served as an alderman on the Gold Coast City Council. When the Gold Coast Hebrew Congregation was formed in Surfers Paradise in the same year their mother died Valerie and Aileen were foundation members. Proud Jews all their lives they remained members until their deaths.

So it is not surprising that the family had come to a decision on what was to be done with the Scroll even before Hannah's death and incredibly the war hero Charlie Cox who had already  rescued the Scroll twice was to perform one last act in the life of the Scroll.  In the words of Rabbi Fabian he restored the historic Scroll to the House of Israel7. 

Charlie Cox presented the Torah on behalf of the  family to Rabbi Nathan on 29 October 1961 a few months after Hannah's death.  In doing so he was to keep secret his extraordinary role in the life of the Torah the full details of which were not to emerge outside of the family until after his death. For him his part was incidental, meant nothing or perhaps something that should pass with time and tide and not tarnish or detract from what he saw as an enduring honour to the memory of his beloved Jewish bride.   He however conveyed Hannah's  express wish to the Rabbi that the Scroll be used by "a Jewish congregation on the Gold Coast".  There was only the one and it had just been formed.  But first the Sefer Torah had to be restored and for this it was sent first to Sydney for assessment and then to Israel.  The work took many months and it cost the family more than a man's annual salary but the work was done and the Torah was returned to Australia for a second time8.   

After the work it was presented with due ceremony and celebration on 1 July 1962  to the tiny shul which was then a converted cottage on part of the site where the existing communal buildings now stand. By invitation the  Dedication service was conducted by Rabbi Fabian9.   There it found a permanent home where it has rested for more than half a century and now the full story should be told.  Rabbi Fabian knew the Torah was historic but it has an extraordinary provenance that even he was not aware of.  It may well be the most travelled Sefer Torah since creation. It is a genuine and sacred artefact of Australia's history. 

[Endnotes deleted]

cross posted Geoffff's Joint

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