During World War II, Jews were forbidden from entering the Saski Gardens in Warsaw. But last Friday night about 100 Polish and American Jews, joined by 180 Israeli soldiers, danced, sang and paraded a 129-year-old Torah through the gardens to its new home.
The parade took the group from the site of the former Great Synagogue, which now is a skyscraper known as the “Blue Tower,” through the gardens, down the streets of Warsaw and to the Nozyk, the city’s main operating Orthodox synagogue.
The Torah came home to Poland via a circuitous route. It was commissioned in 1876 from a Strasbourg scribe by a Polish Jewish family who lived in Warsaw.
By last year, it had made its way to a Torah broker on the Lower East Side of New York, who sold it to Harley and Marie Lippman.
The Lippmans purchased the Torah for a special purpose: Their daughter Juliet was having her bat mitzvah, and they wanted to bring meaning to the event in a way that seemed absent in many of the celebrations they’d attended.
“Bat mitzvahs in New York could be so tacky it was frightening,” Marie Lippman said. “I did my duty as a Jewish mother.”
Harley Lippman has what his wife calls a “love story with Poland.”
In 1975, as a college student, he received a Fulbright scholarship to study in Warsaw and Wroclaw.
“My friend said, ‘Harley, life behind the Iron Curtain, let’s go,’ ” Lippman told JTA.
Though his grandmother, who was born in Poland, cautioned him about anti-Semitism there, he eagerly jumped into Polish life, learning the language and making Polish friends.
“When I was in Poland in ’75,” there were virtually no Jews, he said, recalling that when he did meet a Jewish couple in Warsaw they greeted each other like family.
Today there are believed to be at least 5,000 Jews in Poland, and Harvey Lippman said he was deeply moved by the reception they had given him.
Lippman, who runs Genesis10, an information-technology consulting company in New York, is chairman of the American Jewish Congress’ governing council, a member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committees’ executive committee and on the board of the Anti-Defamation League.
Juliet Lippman’s bat mitzvah was held Nov. 6, 2004; her Torah portion, Chaye Sarah, told the story of the death of Sarah, and how Abraham buys a plot of land for her in Canaan, modern-day Israel.
The Lippmans were pleased to be able to connect the story to their own experience with the Torah.
“Chaye Sarah is about taking care of the dead,” Marie Lippman said, “and what is Poland if not an immense Jewish cemetery?”
“If everybody leaves, if all the Torahs leave, who will be left to take care of the dead?” she asked.
The family felt it was important not only to give the Torah to the Polish Jewish community but to see for themselves how Jewish life is re-emerging.
“It’s a lot more meaningful to come to Poland then to FedEx a Torah,” Juliet Lippman said.
The family, which includes daughter Nina, 16, and son Adam, 9, as well as Juliet, 13, met with members of the Polish Jewish community who briefed them on Jewish life here today.
They also visited a soup kitchen and met elderly Jews who eat there daily, as well as a Righteous Gentile who takes her lunch there.
“This Torah represents an American Jewish family not forgetting their family, their roots,” Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, told JTA.
Polish Jews were grateful for the gift, but some say that housing the Torah in the Nozyk, the synagogue affiliated with the official community, will exclude members of Beit Warszawa, the city’s progressive congregation, along with others not registered with the official Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland. Beit Warszawa members largely were absent from the dedication.
Some people also used the occasion to reflect on the sadness of the past.
“I’m feeling bad about this place,” said Leszek Kedziralow, standing by the lobby fountain of the “Blue Tower” on the site of the former Great Synagogue, which was blown up by the Nazis in May 1943 as a symbol of victory over the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
He was there, he said, out of a sense of duty.
“It’s not a question of faith but of giving a testimony: We are still alive,” he said.
More than 20,000 Israelis visit Poland every year, but most don’t see more than the death camps and cemeteries dotted throughout the country.
But the parade route was enlivened by the presence of jubilant Israelis, who had came to see the death the camps and wanted to attend the Torah dedication once they heard of it.
“It’s very weird to be here,” said Yaniv, a 25-year-old soldier. “We’re taught that we should hate Poland. We’re learning here, and we see another angle. It’s different from what we thought.”
The Torah and the parade made its way to the Nozyk Synagogue just before Shabbat began.
The Lippmans stood at the central dais, along with their friend Rabbi Adina Lewittes of New Jersey.
“The passion and dedication of this community to ensure continuity of Jewish life has been infectious,” Lewittes said.
“We’re giving this Torah back to Poland,” Harley Lippman said in his speech. “We are here to return what is yours. It’s about remembering the past to know your future. This is a homecoming.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.