From Lomza to Chicago
As a domestic retations judge for the Circuit Court
of Cook County, Gerald Bender is bound to promote justice in the court system. But
he recently facilitated justice in a different arena: returning a lost and
nearly destroyed Torah home to the Jewish community. Bender's friend Dr. Marek
Kaminski, a Catholic emergency medicine
Acting on Bender's behalf, Kaminski, who visits Lomza twice a year, negotiated the purchase of a Torah found on the floor of a Lomza building about to be demolished. Kaminski brought the Torah back from Poland in late August; after Bender has the Torah repaired and checked over, he'll place it with a local synagogue-he hasn't decided which one-to be put into regular use.
The texture of the Torah's parchment indicates it was written around World War I, according to Rabbi Mordechai Tarkieltaub, a local scribe, who inspected the Torah. Tarkieltaub told Bender that 90 percent of Torahs saved from the Holocaust are beyond repair; despite its age and the way it was found, Bender's Torah was in very good condition, the scribe said. It was missing only the first five parshiot, or weekly Torah portions, of Sefer Bereishit (the Book of Genesis) and began with the portion of Toldot.
Of Biblical proportions
How Bender, a Lincolnwood resident, and Kaminski, from Eagle, Wis., came to be partners in the affair is a story that could have been taken from the Bible itself. Kaminski had a friend in Chicago who needed an attorney; he recommended someone he knew, who subsequently overcharged her.
In early 1996, Bender, then practicing law privately, represented the woman as she tried to win back her money from her first attorney. Kaminski testified on her behalf, against the lawyer he had initially recommended. Bender, meanwhile, had taken the case pro bono; so, as a sign of appreciation, Kaminski said that on his next trip to Lomza, he would buy Bender whatever he wanted. Bender asked for a kiddush cup and a mezuzah.
Lomza's Jewish population was more than 18,000 by 1941, according to the Lomza Yizkor Book (Israel, 1952), but like many towns in Poland, it has virtually no Jews left among its population of approximately 45,000. Kaminski couldn't find a mezuzah; but he did acquire, from an old friend who deals in antiques, a Torah scroll remnant, which he gave to Bender.
In July of 1997, Bender went to Poland himself and met the dealer, from whom he bought more Jewish artifacts. When he asked where the broker's Judaica items came from, the broker told him that many objects are found when buildings are torn down, in the cracks and under the foundation. During his trip, Bender also visited the mass graves of 12,000 Jews, in which he said 7,000 Jews are buried. Bender believes that his grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins are likely buried there.
By October of 1997, it had become known in Lomza that Kaminski, whose brother owns a photo studio there, was interested in purchasing Judaica. The antique dealer, whom Kaminski knew from his high school days, told Kaminski's brother that a Torah had become available. He sent pictures of the Torah to Kaminski, who forwarded them on to Bender, who in turn was immediately interested. Kaminski negotiated a price, and bought the Torah for Bender during his trip to Poland in February of this year.
Kaminski brought the Torah to Warsaw, where Dr. Caspar Jurgens, a Luthern, German attorney, petitioned the Polish government to permit release of the Torah from Poland. The Polish Ministry of Culture, through Roman Weinfeld a friend of Benders, consulted with the Jewish Institute of Warsaw, which examined the Torah and identified its age. Jurgens, according to Bender, made at least four trips into Poland to secure the permit, which was issued this year in June.
During his vacation to Poland this past August, Kaminski picked up the Torah, which had been held by Weinfield. Bender and Kaminski held an ad hoc ceremony in Wisconsin over Labor Day Weekend. (picture) "Marek asked me for a kippah and asked me to make a blessing on the Torah," said Bender.
Brother's in faith
Kaminski said that his passion for this cause stems from an intellectual, emotional, and religious maturity. "I came to the United States 20 years ago, and only then did I realize how much was lost. There was a whole Jewish culture that was flourishing [in Lomza]."
The most important factor in his mind, he said, was "when Pope John Paul II called Jews 'our brother's in faith,' and called any antisemitic inclination a sin. I consider myself a conservative Catholic; it's our moral duty to try to preserve what was left," said Kaminski, who insisted on carrying the Torah back on the plane himself, rather than shipping it, in order to preserve its honor.
Kaminski also recruited a few friends and founded a society for the restoration of a Jewish cemetery just on the edge of town. The group will help repair fallen headstones and restore proper order to the cemetery, the smaller of two Jewish cemeteries in Lomza.
"Because the Catholics are taking care of [all] the cemeteries and there are no Jews there, it's a moral obligation on the Catholics," Bender said quoting Kaminski.
After learning that the Torah began with Toldot, Bender pulled out some memorabilia, confirming that Toldot was his Bar Mitzvah portion.
"I checked the Bible I received [at my Bar Mitzvah.] Then I checked the invitation. Then I checked my [CD-ROM]," he said.