As Israeli rescue teams were rummaging through the rubble in the Turkish city of Antakya after last week's devastating earthquake in hopes of finding survivors trapped underneath, a local elderly Jewish man approached them holding something unique in his hands — two centuries-old Book of Esther scrolls that were kept in the local synagogue before the shock.
The articles hold special meaning to the local Jewish community as they contain a book from the third section of the Hebrew Bible.
The teary-eyed man approached Major Haim Otmazgin, commander of the ZAKA search-and-rescue force, with an unusual request.
"The last head of our community has now tragically passed and with our proximity to Syria, I'd hate to see the scrolls fall in the wrong hands. Please guard them and make sure our community is remembered," he said.
Moved by the elder's request, Maj. Otmazgin accepted the duty of keeping the artifacts safe.
"In my capacity as a ZAKA volunteer of several decades, this is one of the most moving moments of my life," he said. "I'm truly honored to save such a significant historical document and to make sure the heritage of Antakya's Jewish community remains intact, even after the quake reduced it to nearly nothing.
In the next few days, we will confer with a Chabad emissary in Istanbul in order to find out whom we should entrust the scrolls with."
The Israeli mission returned home safely on Wednesday after toiling to save lives under harsh conditions for days. While the Israeli rescuers managed to pull almost two dozen survivors out of the rubble, they also retrieved many bodies of people who weren't as fortunate, such as the leader of Antakya's Jewish community Saul Cenudioglu and his wife Fortuna.