Coincidences lead pair to lost Torah in Poland

CHICAGO (JTA) — Gerald Bender, a Chicago-area domestic relations judge, recently aided justice in a different arena. This summer, he helped rescue a Torah forgotten for decades in a Polish building.

The story is one of coincidences, luck and maybe even fate.

One of Bender's friends, Marek Kaminski, a Catholic doctor, happens to come from Lomza, Poland — the hometown of Bender's late father.

Kaminski, who lives in Wisconsin, had a friend in Chicago who needed an attorney. He recommended someone, who subsequently overcharged her.

In early 1996, Bender was then practicing law privately. A Lincolnwood resident, Bender ended up representing 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 had taken the case pro bono. So as a sign of appreciation, Kaminski said he would buy Bender whatever he wanted on his next trip to Lomza.

Bender asked for a kiddush cup and a mezuzah. 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 mid-1997, Bender went to Poland himself, met the dealer and 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.

A few months later, it had become known in Lomza that Kaminski was interested in paying cash for Judaica. The antique dealer told Kaminski that a Torah had suddenly become available.

The Torah was found in the floor of a Lomza building about to be demolished.

He sent pictures of the Torah to Kaminski, who forwarded them on to a very interested Bender. Kaminski then negotiated a price and bought the Torah for Bender during his trip to Poland in February.

Kaminski brought the Torah back from Poland in late August.

After Bender, who declined to reveal what he paid, has the Torah repaired and checked over, he plans to donate it to a local synagogue for regular use.

The texture of the Torah's parchment indicates it was written around the time of World War I, according to Mordechai Tarkieltaub, a rabbi and scribe who inspected the Torah.

Tarkieltaub told Bender that 90 percent of Torah scrolls saved from the Holocaust are beyond repair. Despite its age and where it was found, the scribe said, Bender's Torah is in very good condition.

Kaminski said his interest in this cause stems from an intellectual, emotional and religious maturity.

"I came to the United States 20 years ago," he said, "and only then did I realize how much was lost. There was a whole Jewish culture that was flourishing" before the Holocaust.