Documenting a Torah's travels

'A Torah Returns to Poland' is a true story about a Torah Scroll that survived the Holocaust, was found in Manhattan and returned to Poland.

torah 88 (photo credit: )
torah 88
(photo credit: )
"It's a good ending, a really nice ending," said writer and cinematographer Ellen Friedland, barely an hour after landing in Israel on Thursday. "The history of Jewry is a history of, you know, ups and downs in different communities worldwide," she continued, "Diaspora, wandering, exodus, and resettling, re-rooting and returning. The story of this Torah scroll is in fact a mirror of the story of Jewish history." "This Torah scroll," the subject of a short film titled A Torah Returns to Poland to be screened in Israel for the first time Sunday evening at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, was a relic of the 19th-century European Jewish community of Strasbourg. Written in 1876, it survived the Holocaust in Poland and arrived in Manhattan's Lower East Side, where Marie and Harley Lippman found it and decided to return it to Poland. "My wife and I wanted something more meaningful [than a party] for our daughter's bat mitzvah," Harley Lippman told The Jerusalem Post last week. "We wanted our daughter to do something that would carry on." Inspired by the story of Jerusalem high school girls on a trip to Poland who discovered dolls made partly out of cut-up fragments of a Torah that were being sold on the street by a vendor who called them "Jew dolls," the Lippmans decided that the mitzvah of their daughter's bat mitzvah should be the return of a Torah scroll to the Polish Jewish community. The Torah's return in June 2005 was a surprisingly robust affair. The day before the planned hachnasat sefer Torah, the joyous street celebration of bringing a new Torah scroll into a synagogue, a group of some 170 IDF officers on a visit to Poland heard out about the event and asked to join. "We were dancing in the streets, people - IDF officers - were crying," recalled Lippman, who is a presidential appointee to the Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad. "It was an amazing thing." "It was one of the most amazing 'treks' of our lives," Brig.-Gen. Haim Ronen, the IDF's OC Armaments Corps who commanded the IDF group, told the Post. "The land of Poland, the residents around us, people singing and dancing - it was a bat mitzvah with IDF fighters, pilots, officers, and dancing and happiness, the kind you can't buy." Summing up the experience, Ronen said simply, "the IDF in uniform with a Torah scroll in the streets of Warsaw." Friedland, who together with her cinematographer husband Curt Fissel has been documenting the regeneration of the Polish Jewish community over the past decade, (the pair created the film about the scroll's return), believes that "giving a Torah to the Jewish community in Poland is a recognition from the outside Jewish community that there is in fact a Jewish community in Poland. It is a reaffirmation of their existence, their commitment, their ability to feel connected to the wider Jewish world. You don't give a Torah if there's no Jewish community." Harley Lippman is likewise no stranger to Polish Jewry. A Fulbright scholar and exchange student in Poland in the mid-1970s, the first American exchange student to study political science in a communist country in Eastern Europe, Lippman "discovered pockets of Jews living in fear" following the final 1968 expulsion of Jews from the country. His interest in the country has always been strong. "Being a Jew and having relatives who came from that part of the world, and knowing that the Holocaust was mostly implemented there, I wanted to be there," he says of those student days. For the Torah scroll, as well, it's a rare kind of homecoming. Written in 1876, the scroll went on a long and arduous journey with the Jews from the community in which it was created. While its last recorded location was in Strasbourg, it was discovered long after the war in Poland and, in need of repair, was taken to a scribe in New York City. "When we realized it came from Strasbourg and knew it had been found in Poland, the question became how it went from Strasbourg to Poland," said Friedland. "We spoke with a lot of historians, looked at possibility that it had been written in Strasbourg and was then given to the Jewish community in Warsaw. But that's not what it said on the etz hayim [spindle]. And the Jewish community in Warsaw was so much bigger and more significant than that in Strasbourg." The only way the scroll could have gotten to Poland, according to historians and experts, was "if it went with its community," with the Jews of Strasbourg to the concentration and death camps of Poland in World War II. The Torah's return to Europe is also a story of Polish Jewry's renewal. A community that only a few years ago numbered around 8,000 is estimated by some at 30,000. And more come to light every day as young Poles discover the documents of parents and grandparents showing they were Jews who chose to deny the fact in order to assimilate into post-war Poland. "Even after Hitler, pogroms through the fifties, and the expulsion in 1968, this is a victory," said Lippman. "People are discovering they are Jewish, standing at their parents‚ deathbeds and hearing that their parents were too scared to tell them their whole lives. Under the radar, the community is growing." Danny Grossman, a retired lieutenant colonel and fighter pilot in the IAF who as head of the American Jewish Congress office in Israel helped to organize Sunday's movie screening, believes "it's very similar to what I learned as a young pilot." "One of the first lessons I ever learned," he recalled to the Post, concerned maintaining close ties with the families of the fallen pilots. "Ostensibly, [we do this] to strengthen the families. But the real benefit is that they will strengthen us a thousandfold. It strengthens our own sense of why we're doing things, our own identity as Jews. Strengthening grieving families increases your sense of why you're fighting, you identification with your unit." Similarly, Grossman believes, "bringing a Torah to Poland will strengthen the community in Poland, but the real benefit is that this strengthens Jewish self-awareness in America. This made a huge impact on the lives of Israeli officers who themselves symbolize the Jewish nation defending itself. It ties the Jews from different generations and from different continents into one people, and gives all of us meaning. You start with something you're doing for someone else, and it comes back and repays you a thousandfold." Though he hopes "to inspire other people, particularly in New York City, to do things that are meaningful" with their Jewish events, for Harley Lippman, the goal was simpler, parental: "You wonder when you have a child what you can do to give them meaning."