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Special Report

Her mission: Jewish document recovery

NCR Staff

A group of Catholics played an unusual role, one symbolic of healing centuries of hostility, during a Jewish ceremony on July 31 at ReMa Synagogue in Krakow, Poland.

The R'fa-aye-nu Society -- whose honorary chairman is Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago -- enabled Catholics and Jews to join in a ceremony to return an exquisite, handwritten Torah scroll to the synagogue. Catholics were invited to carry the poles sustaining the sacred canopy under which the Torah is escorted through the synagogue and touched by those present.

The ceremony symbolized years of effort by Mira P. Brichto, a retired professor of literature from Cincinnati, and supporters of R'fa-aye-nu (translated "heal us") to bridge interfaith polarities in Poland and other Eastern European countries where historical wounds still define the relationship between Catholics and Jews.

Bernardin did not attend the Torah rededication, but Pope John Paul II sent the cardinal a message in June expressing hope that the event would "in its own way, contribute to the healing of the spiritual breach between Christians and Jews."

The ceremony at ReMa Synagogue was scheduled to occur at a tense time for some parts of Poland. In July, the country commemorated the 50th anniversary of a 1946 pogrom when 42 members of the Jewish community were beaten to death in the town of Kielce by a riotous, and some say largely Catholic crowd.

Polish government officials and the nation's Catholic bishops attempted to turn the Kielce ceremonies into what Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz called a "steppingstone" toward improved relations between Polish Catholics and members of the Judaic faith.

But many Poles were not pleased at the reminder of this chapter of history, when, reportedly, rumors of a blood libel -- the alleged stealing of a Christian child -- incited a massacre that Jewish people worldwide point to as one of the cruelest examples of post-World War II anti-Semitism.

A group of right-wing Catholics allegedly reprimanded a government official for sending an "unfortunate and unnecessary" letter to the World Jewish Congress apologizing for the pogrom.

During one ceremony, according to The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, an Auschwitz survivor wore a concentration camp uniform and carried a poster calling the Kielce killings "the shame of the Polish Roman Catholics."

Kalman Sultanik, vice president of the World Jewish Congress and president of the Federation of Polish Jews in America said that "only when a complete and truthful historical account of Polish-Jewish history has been recorded shall Poles and Jews be able to engage in an open, constructive dialogue that will bear fruit for future generations."

The R'fa-aye-nu Society is dedicated to promoting the kind of dialogue and historical clarity of which Sultanik spoke. But understanding why the return of a sacred Torah could provide salve for the wounded relationship between Catholics and Jews in Poland requires a historical perspective. The Torah returned to the ReMa Synagogue is just one of a treasure of Jewish religious books, documents, newspapers and correspondence the R'fa-aye-nu Society is attempting to recover in the former communist countries. Much of Jewish historical literature and records are stored in Catholic institutions throughout Europe, Brichto said.

"When villages were emptied out (under Nazi occupation), more often than not, the village priest would take these materials to the monastic library," Brichto said. "Who else knew how to read and write?"

Brichto, who has dedicated 17 years of her life to gaining access to such material, said these documents are extremely important for the Jewish community and for scholars of Judaism. "Records, correspondence, these are very important in Jewish religious life. This is our responsum, our interpretation of Jewish law -- like case law -- and it is scattered all over Europe," Brichto said.

Recovering religious texts is also key, she added, because in Jewish tradition, education, a highly valued asset, "is so tied to the ultimate value of learning, of understanding God and God's law, to the Torah and the Talmud." The Torah is as central to Jewish worship as the Eucharist is to Catholic Mass.

Catholic Poland, in medieval times a haven for Jews forced out of Western Europe, became home to the world's largest Jewish community and contains a rich collection of Jewish documents from that era.

In the 14th century, King Casimir the Great extended laws recognizing Jews as a distinct legal, national, religious and cultural Judeo-Germanic language group. Prior legislation already protected Jews from defending Poland and from the obligation to speak Polish. Casimir punished anti-Jewish acts. Thus, during a 400-year period inspired by Casimir, Jewish life thrived in Poland.

Brichto said "articles, books, publications from this time are very important."

Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski, in his Poland: A Historical Atlas, wrote: "The Jewish community constituted an autonomous, Yiddish-speaking nation within the Polish state. Poland made possible the survival of the Jews as a nation by giving them unique political and cultural autonomy for several hundred years. Modern Jewish legal and governmental culture as well as education system, philosophical concepts and religious beliefs evolved in Poland." Pogonowski's father, Jerzy Pogonowski, was arrested by the Nazis for helping the Jews in Warsaw.

This knowledge of the existence of stores of Jewish literature inspired Brichto to found the R'fa-aye-nu Society. It also led to unusual friendships between between cardinals, generals and the indefatigable Brichto, and it inspired a program to bring much-needed medical supplies to Catholic hospitals in Eastern Europe, all in the name of interfaith healing.

The journey began when Brichto was contacted in 1979 by a group of traditional rabbis in the United States who shared a concern for the lost literature. Brichto's brother, Jacob Pollack, was among the group. "My little brother thought I might know how to go to such places," Brichto, 68, said. At the time, she said, she was afraid to approach the communist Polish government about the project. "I did not want to alert the communists to a valuable cache of resources they might be able to sell," Brichto said.

Since many of the materials were in the hands of Catholics, Brichto shifted her attention to the church. Bernardin was at the time archbishop of Cincinnati. Several years before, Brichto had initiated dinner gatherings between Bernardin and "the reigning gurus" from Hebrew Union College.

Thus, with her sights set on Poland in 1980, Brichto appealed to Bernardin for help. A letter from Bernardin gained Brichto and her brother an appointment with Cardinal Franciszek Macharski of Krakow, the former see of John Paul II.

The appointment was switched to Gdansk, however, where Macharski was attending a 10-year commemoration of a historic dock workers' strike. Trailed by Polish secret service agents who were confused by these American Jews who went from synagogues to cathedrals, the two arrived at the Gdansk bishopric.

The following morning, before meeting the cardinal, a priest escorted the visitors to the Gdansk cathedral, the largest in Poland. Brichto said she was struck by empty spaces on the walls where religious paintings had once hung. The paintings, the priest told her, were stored during the war for safekeeping, and the government later gained possession of them and refused to return them to the church.

It was the parallel between the loss of the paintings and the Jewish community's loss of its written legacy that put Brichto and Macharski on common ground. Macharski, Brichto said, told her the church preferred to leave empty spaces because replicas would allow the communist government to "make of us (Catholics) folklore."

Brichto solemnly told Macharski, "You cannot make folklore out of ashes. You (Catholics) are still here. You can fight. Our people are not here. We are ashes. All we have are our documents."

Little else was needed, Brichto said, to convince the cardinal that the Jewish people should have full access to documents in the hands of the church. "You are in the right. You should have the originals. We should have copies," Macharski said, according to Brichto's account.

Fifteen years later, the R'fa-aye-nu Society, formalized as a nonprofit agency in 1993, has made strides in conserving collections of manuscripts and early printed books threatened by physical deterioration.

The R'fa-aye-nu Society's Bibliographia Judaica project is supported by experts from the Hebrew Union College Library in Cincinnati, the Catholic University School of Library Science, the Jagiellonion University in Krakow and the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. These institutions will catalog and house microfilm copies of the documents located by R'fa-aye-nu.

Brichto said she hopes access to this store of secular and sacred documents "will deepen and enhance understanding of the complex interaction of the past millennium, particularly between Jews and Christians in Central and Eastern Europe."

The R'fa-aye-nu Society's brochure reminds readers that much of "Jewry's self-perception is linked to its collective memory of enmity, indifference and hostility encountered in the Christian ambience of Europe." Within that memory, "myths and nostalgia abound." R'fa-aye-nu emphasizes the need to "develop a way to confront our mutual past, as painful as that process may be, and to build upon the best in today's relationships."

Brichto said her years of work as founder of R'fa-aye-nu is her attempt to honor those Jews whose "line is wiped out, whose immortality is destroyed" because of the Holocaust. "It seems what we owe them in the very least is to remember who they were and what they said, what they wrote and laughed and cried at," Brichto said. "They were the last links in their line."

The way to access their line, Brichto said, "is not through the movies or through Holocaust museums, because that is commemorating their deaths," but rather through accessing the history these people left in writing.

National Catholic Reporter, August 9, 1996