NEW YORK (Jan. 22)
An old man who was the practicing Chief Rabbi of Lodz from the late 1940’s to about 1979 wants to return for occasional visits to his home, but the Polish government won’t let him.
Rabbi Zev Moreino, who now lives in Brooklyn and has a small congregation, says he doesn’t know why the Polish government will not allow him and his wife to return. Friends and sympathetic legislators who have intervened on his behalf have not been able to get a straightforward answer from Polish officials, and, on the face of it, even Polish officials no longer seem to remember why he won’t be allowed to return.
Moreino’s and his wife’s Polish passports have expired and the Polish government refuses to renew them. Both retain their Polish citizenship and a huge apartment in Lodz with hundreds of books that are moldering.
‘TO FULFILL MY HOLY OBLIGATIONS’
The Polish-born rabbi, described by some as an outstanding intellectual, with an acerbic wit, a prolific writer who is prone to disputations and vitriolic prose when attacking enemies, and a champion of lost Polish Jewish causes, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he wants to return to Lodz occasionally “to fulfill my holy obligations” to the roughly 350-member congregation be left behind some 15 years ago when he came to the U.S. after strikes of the Gdansk port workers toppled the autocratic leader of the Polish Communist Party, Wladyslaw Gomulka.
The tall, gaunt, intense, white-bearded rabbi who is well into his 70’s, said that until five years ago he was able to visit Lodz for a few weeks each year to meet with his congregation but that his passport has since expired. He said that as Chief Rabbi of Lodz he was also the president of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland and claimed that as the only ordained Orthodox rabbi he was also, by extension, the Chief Rabbi of Poland.
Since he can no longer return, there is neither a Chief Rabbi nor a community religious leader. “I am being persecuted without having been tried,” he said, “nor is there any seeming motivation for being deprived of the opportunity to return,” he said in Yiddish, Hebrew and in faltering English.
DISPUTE WITH POLISH AUTHORITIES
But there does seem to be a reason, albeit unofficial and unspoken, for the Polish government’s refusal to renew his passport. A student of the Lodz Jewish community who met the Chief Rabbi in Lodz and in New York and spent considerable time talking with him, said that Moreino and Polish authorities had been in dispute over a number of issues.
According to the student, Moreino has been involved over the years in a campaign to have the Polish government pay compensation to the Jewish community for hundreds of buildings which were owned by Jews before World War II but which were declared “heirless” after the war. Moreino feels that compensation for these properties–former schools, hospitals, communal buildings Talmud Torahs — should be paid to its rightful owner to be used as needed to revitalize Jewish education and culture.
According to the student, Moreino has also criticized the Polish government for its insensitivity to Jewish needs, not only for its attitude toward the former Jewish properties but also for its neglect of Jewish cemeteries, many of which are in a state of disrepair. Moreino also crossed swords with government bureaucrats. The student cited one small incident:
An official of the state-owned telephone company came to Moreino’s home one morning to tell the rabbi that he would not install a long-awaited phone. Moreino, dressed in the traditional garb of an Orthodox rabbi, stood his ground. He argued with the man in fluent Polish for a few minutes and convinced him to install a phone right there and then.
APPEALS ON BEHALF OF THE RABBI
Earlier this month, New York City Councilman Noach Dear urged Mayor Edward Koch to look into the rabbi’s situation while visiting Poland this week where his parents were born. Dear wrote to Koch pointing out that the refusal of the Polish government to renew Moreino’s passport “is an intolerable discrimination not only in regard to the Chief Rabbi and his Rebbetzin, but also in respect to the entire Jewish population in Poland, deprived of the services of their one and only rabbi in that country.”
New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind also appealed to Koch to intercede, noting that the rabbi’s plight might be construed by some “as an effort to liquidate the only rabbinate office in Poland.”
Moreino and his supporters in the U.S. have pointed out that the rabbi is asking no more for the Polish Jewish community than that accorded in other East European countries where Jewish communities have their own leaders and spokespersons. Moreino cited Rumania specifically where the Jewish community has a Chief Rabbi and spokesperson in the government, Moses Rosen. After all, Moreino reflected, it’s not too much to ask for.