By Alex Putterman
GREENWICH — Barry Stein had recently joined the newly formed Congregation Shir Ami when he took a trip to Poland to find the birthplace of his grandparents. Before he left, he was told by Shir Ami spiritual leader Rabbi Vicki Axe to keep an eye open for a Torah during his travels.
On the trip, while buying paintings in a Krakow art gallery, Stein mentioned his search for a Torah to the gallery owner but was rebuffed and eventually headed home without one. Months later, as Stein prepared for a return trip to Poland, the gallery owner contacted him with the name of a friend who knew a woman with a Holocaust-era Torah.
As the story goes, it was the early 1940s, and the Nazis were evacuating Jews from Saydlowiec, Poland. The rabbi of the town’s synagogue gave the temple’s Torah to a non-Jewish man for safekeeping. Sixty years later, that man’s daughter, living in Krakow, still held the Torah and was willing to sell.
“I came back to Krakow and we arranged to have a meeting with this woman and her son,” Stein recalls. “We talked about the possibility of me buying it, and while they said they were not interested in the money – they just wanted a place that would be a good home for it – it turned out that they were not actually not interested in the money.”
Stein’s suggested price of $10,000 was shot down, but when he returned about a year later for another vacation and offered $2,000 more, presented alluringly in small bills in a duffle bag, the woman lit up. And Shir Ami had a Torah.
But Rabbi Axe was nervous, unsure the Torah was kosher, and Stein grew worried he had been ripped off. Luckily, upon inspection the Torah was deemed as valuable as Stein had hoped. Soon – and not without a bit of drama – the Holocaust artifact was transported from Poland to its new home in Greenwich. The congregation has read from it ever since.