Oswiecim, Poland: Under sunny skies tinged with a hint of autumn, dozens of Jewish men and women from Long Island gathered in a courtyard near the site of Judaism’s greatest tragedy to fulfill the tradition’s last commandment.
It was from this same small courtyard 57 years ago that Jews from this Polish town, which the Germans called Auschwitz, were forcibly massed and deported to nearby concentration camps, to be used as slave laborers or sent to their deaths.
But on this day (120 days before the end of the 20th century) members of the Cherry Hill Minyan in Great Neck willingly assembled in this quaint square dominated by a Catholic church.
They have come a long way to dedicate a new Torah to the last standing synagogue building in Oswiecim, a city that was 70 percent Jewish before the Holocaust but now is empty of Jews, save for one lone survivor.
It is an act of defiance and completion, one that marks a departure from the tortured history of Polish-Jewish relations.
"It is good to see Jews return to Oswiecim to mark this new beginning," U.S. Ambassador to Poland Daniel Fried told an audience of Polish officials, Polish Jews and the Long Islanders during a cocktail reception on Sunday.
Several hours later, some of the 35 Cherry Hill congregants hold aloft a maroon velvet canopy attached to four 3-foot-long wooden poles. The canopy, or chupah, escorts the Torah scroll being carried into the bare synagogue by Larry Horn, whose family was one of three who funded the $30,000 Torah.
As dozens of Polish officials and the media watch, the minyan members sing "Od Avenu Chai" and dance their way from the courtyard about 50 feet into the synagogue: a bare, beige squat one-story structure with a gravel floor and holes in the walls as it undergoes a complete restoration.
It is a scene evoking deeply mixed emotions, carrying images of death and rebirth: a theme that has been playing out continuously in the history of the Jewish people for thousands of years.
"What happened in this area are events that should never have happened, and it causes me a great deal of pain," said Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, the minyan’s spiritual leader, addressing an audience of about 100. "I wish I would not have to be here."
Rabbi Tokayer recalled the murder of his sister, his grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins by the Nazis.
"That makes it a day that is sweet for the completion of the Torah and bitter for our remembering our past. It really is bittersweet," he said.
But Rabbi Tokayer also underscored the profound religious importance of completing the writing of a Torah.
"Most of us in our lifetimes don’t have the chance to participate in the actual writing of the Torah," he said.
The rabbi guided each congregant through the ritual: using the same turkey feather pen dipped in special ink to fill in an incomplete Hebrew letter on the parchment, symbolizing fulfillment of the last of Moses’ 613 commandment to "write" a Torah.
He said to complete a Torah for a synagogue located only a couple of miles from the Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps is truly historic. So to mark the occasion, the rabbi reintroduced an obscure custom to literally blot out the name of "Amalek," Israel’s biblical archenemy, using a separate piece of parchment. "Erase evil, erase it," he implored.
Indeed, it was a day of lasts and firsts.
The synagogue building itself is the first communal property returned by the Polish government to the Jewish community under a law approved several years ago. The building was purchased and is being renovated by the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation, the brainchild of Fred Schwartz, a Jewish philanthropist and retired businessman known to many New Yorkers as "Fred the Furrier."
It is the last standing shul of more than 35 that dotted this municipality before World War II, when there were 8,000 Jews in a city of 12,000. It will be the only functioning shul when renovation is completed next year.
Schwartz, who also plans to build a Jewish center next door to honor the heritage of the city’s 500 years of Jewish culture, is a member of the liberal Orthodox and eclectic Cherry Hill Minyan. His project recently caught the interest of several congregants, who came up with the idea to commission a Torah.
"I wasn’t really sure why we were giving a Torah at the beginning," Joseph Levine acknowledged during the ceremony.
But he said the true reason crystallized for him as he toured the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw two days before, seeing elaborate gravestones testifying to the life and accomplishments of the talented individuals who were killed. He realized how vibrant the Polish Jewish community was, and how those Jews murdered in the Holocaust and buried in mass graves were dehumanized.
"Our families and community are giving this Torah to try and help complete a first step towards providing a place for people to mourn their loved ones as individuals," Levine said.
Levine noted that the Torah cover was designed with a bittersweet theme: a gold-embroidered tree of life rising from the golden fire of the Holocaust. The inscription reads: "This [book] will be the answer if it is not forgotten by your descendants," a quote from this week’s Torah portion.
But the most emotional moment of the day belonged to Moshe Klueger, a 74-year-old Huntington man who vividly recalled his bar mitzvah in this building 60 years ago.
Tears welling in his eyes, Klueger recounted how he and eight brothers and sisters grew up in the three-story brick building that still sits directly behind the synagogue: a place his younger brother Shimon still lives in as the last Jew in Oswiecim (see sidebar).
Klueger spoke of the 51/2 years he spent in the Auschwitz concentration camp, from the ages of 16 to 21. He vividly recalled the wooden bench he sat on in the old Bobover shul known as Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue waiting to be called to the Torah.
"My father prayed here," Klueger recalled, losing the battle to stem his tears. "My grandfather prayed across the way at a shtiebel," he said, gesturing to the far end of the courtyard.
While visibly moved by the Torah dedication, Klueger said he is not sure about the long-term benefits of a renovated synagogue, which was used by the Nazis and was later a carpet warehouse.
"It’s a beginning," said Klueger. "Nobody knows how far it will go or what will be accomplished. But we have to do, and Hashem should bless you for starting it."
It was unclear what the Polish audience thought of the ceremony. Some guests, including priests and city government officials, sat stoically, seemingly bewildered by the maze of Jewish rituals performed. The rites including the blowing of the shofar and the priestly blessing with a tallit stretched over the heads of the Long Island children.
"It’s more interesting for the elderly people that remember prewar times, who often went to the same school as Jewish kids," said Wlodzimierz Paluch, Oswiecim’s vice mayor.
"But others in the city have expressed more pointed opinions."
Some people say the Polish art gallery [which rented the space next to the shul until recently] had to leave because the Jews are coming back and taking over," said a director of a local city organization who asked not to be named.
Schwartz, the Auschwitz Center founder, attributed the residents’ stoic behavior to their being "uncomfortable with an alien environment. It’s a lack of comprehension."
In any event, Schwartz said he doesn’t expect real dividends from his project until well into the next century.
"Only by showing the breadth and depth of pre-Hitler Jewish life can visitors today and even more importantly, visitors in 50 years, grasp the enormity of the destruction wrought on it," he said.
And when all the guests had left, the Jews from Long Island got down to business, saying Shacharit, the morning prayer, using the new Torah for the first time.
At about 12:15 p.m., 13-year-old Josh Feldman, whose father, Mitchell, was one of the donors, became the first in half a century to chant from the Torah in this city.
"It was really exciting," said the Westchester Hebrew High School student. "I was pretty nervous."
Then it was on to a tour of the concentration camps, a prospect that minyan member Rachel Wertheimer said made her shiver but one she felt compelled to take.
And it was back to shul one more timeñ to say the afternoon prayer of Mincha, with the new Torah in the ark.