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Rabbinic Mission to Poland and Germany Part II: After Auschwitz

11/18/2015 10:25:42 AM

Nov18

Rabbi George Gittleman

There is before Auschwitz and after Auschwitz. Before Auschwitz, the Shoah looms over one’s psyche as an undifferentiated horror, a big, dark cumulous cloud always on the horizon, sometimes near, other times far, but never gone. Once you actually go there, feel the gravel crunch under your feet, see with your own eyes, smell the air, then the amorphous fear – the monster in the closet – is replaced by facts on the ground. You have a context, a country, a place, buildings, ruin, mass graves; one horror is replaced by another that is, at least for me, more manageable. At the same time, any place of refuge you had precisely because you hadn’t seen it with your own eyes is annihilated.


We went from Auschwitz back to Krakow, a charming, medieval city with a large town square, a castle and a long, Jewish history. Like Warsaw, there was a ghetto in Krakow during World War II; I’ll spare you the gruesome details except to say that our guide, Adam, was exceptional and another non-Jewish Pole committed to making sure the Jewish story, before, during and after the war, is remembered and told. We spent Shabbat in Krakow. We had dinner at the J.C.C. and split up for Services; some went to an Orthodox shul and others to the Reform congregation. We were not 10 minutes in the building when the J.C.C.’s Director gave me an earful about how dysfunctional the religious establishment was. The J.C.C. has an Orthodox rabbi even though they are all “Reform”, Chabad does its own thing, and the Reform rabbi, who apparently is not welcome there, “is a failure and should be fired!” Oy! (I went to the “Reform” Service and was less than inspired, but the director’s comments still seemed extreme and inappropriate). It’s the old joke: Two Jews are trapped on a desert island–how many synagogues do they build….?! Nevertheless, the dining hall – picture a square, clean room with rectangular tables, white walls and table cloths, and every one of the 120 seats occupied – was full, and the crowd was an interesting mix of mostly older Polish Jews (though there must have been at least 20 younger adults), and tourists like us. Two things stand out from the meal: While we were eating, an older Polish woman stood up and gave an exceptional D’var Torah in Polish, translated for us into English, about finding God in hachnisat orchim, welcoming strangers. It was especially poignant since much of the work of the Polish Jewish community involves reaching out and embracing folks who are, or feel like, strangers to Judaism and Jewish life. The second thing that really struck me (and is a part of a refrain that we experienced over and over again) was that all the servers and most of the kitchen staff were non-Jewish Poles who regularly volunteer at the J.C.C.!

Why? It’s complicated… One volunteer described her interest in Judaism like “having a phantom limb pain”.  The arm was amputated but she has sensations as if it is still there, attached to her body. This makes sense when you realize that the remnants of the pre-war Jewish community are all around – 1,400 synagogues survived the war along with approximately 1,700 cemeteries.  There is a trend to refurbish some of these abandoned shuls. In fact, we visited one in Dabrowa Tarnowska that has been renovated and turned into a museum. For Poles, this is an example of their renewed interest in Jewish culture. I found it disorienting and sad; the Jews are gone, murdered over 60 years ago. Forget about a museum; bring my family back!

We visited a number of Jewish cemeteries – they are all over Poland – and they seemed to me to be a more honest memorial to Polish Jewish life. Many of the cemeteries were completely destroyed by the Nazis. Others were vandalized and abused in various ways. Often the headstones are put up without knowing their original location (sometimes surviving family return and remarry the headstone with their dead loved one).

In some cemeteries, like one we saw in Warsaw, mass graves mingle with ordinary headstones. The matzevot (headstones) that can’t be repaired in many places are made into memorial walls.


No wonder many Poles are drawn to Jewish life; they’ve grown up with the ghosts of our ancestors all around them, and they naturally want to connect with what they feel is part of their history lost in the war and 25 years of Communist rule. There is also the question of the fate of those 350,000 Jewish Poles who survived the war. They married, had kids, etc. In other words, some of the non-Jewish interest in Judaism stems from the inkling—a real possibility for many—of having Jewish ancestry.

One of the community rabbis told the following story which, he insists, is true and common in theme if not content:
A Polish girl grows up enjoying a special ritual with her grandmother:

Every Saturday she goes to her apartment and shares some yummy, braided bread her grandma bakes just for her. This goes on for a number of years. One particular Saturday – by now the girl is 18 – she goes to visit her grandmother like she always does and her grandma tells her the most astounding thing: She is Jewish (!) and the special bread they share is called “Challah”. The next day, the grandmother dies and now this young Polish woman is left to wrestle alone with the fact that, if her grandmother is Jewish, then what is she? The sweet end to the story is that the rabbi arranges for a class at the J.C.C. to teach her and others how to bake Challah.
The same day that we went to Dabrowa Tarnowska, we also visited one of the many killing sites where Jews were rounded up, driven into the woods, and then shot or beaten to death. The most haunting of all the places we visited was a site where 800 children were murdered, their heads bashed in “to save on bullets”. Standing in the woods by this memorial I looked up and saw an old black-and-white photograph tethered to a tree, fluttering in the breeze. Looking closer I realized they must have been about 3 when the picture was taken, boy/girl twins, happy, smiling, and, I could only guess, murdered and buried in the mass grave at my feet. Of course, my children, Levi and Sophia, are boy/girl twins, sophomores in college now… My family got out of Poland long before the war; but what if they hadn’t? We walked back from the memorial and got back on the bus. Everyone was shaken. When we got back to the hotel a few of us went straight to the bar and drank away the edge of our sorrow, which cut right to the bone.


Ostensibly, the goal of our trip was to explore contemporary Jewish life in Poland (and Germany, which I will describe in more detail in a later blog post). We met with some of their rabbis and other leaders and also had a fair amount of schmooze time. A few observations: 90% of the leadership and all of the money (as far as I could tell) comes from the U.S. Like in Sonoma County, the overwhelming majority of the Jews and those who affiliate with the Jewish community are secular, yet most of the religious leadership is Orthodox. Some estimate that there are up to 40,000 Jewish Poles while only a small fraction of them (less than 10%) affiliates in any way.

We witnessed a lot of enthusiasm about renewed Jewish life in Poland, but at least for me, their enthusiasm did not counter the horror of recent history, the persistence of Anti- Semitism among some Poles (the general trend of the conversations we had was that it was safe, even “cool” to be Jewish in the big cities but not so much in the countryside) or the challenges that Jewish life in Poland faces today. As shocked as I was to hear the Israeli Consul General in Warsaw say – in front of prominent members of the Jewish community!– that she felt there was no Jewish future in Poland and that they should all immigrate to Israel, at the end of the day, I couldn’t help but think she was rude but, perhaps, right.
Look for part 3 next week…

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