Friday, April 15, 2011

Another Shabbat in Poland

The last time my relatives spent Shabbat in Poland was 69 years ago. This Shabbat was recounted in the book “Hidden” by Fay Walker and Leo Rosen, a brother and sister who were neighbors of my relatives who spent their last Shabbat in their hometown as recorded below. The police herded their prisoners past the jeering crowd and on to the synagogue. Our people struggled to stare straight ahead, but, as they trudged the dusty streets, they found themselves peering into the faces they had known all their lived, into the fair features and pale eyes of their closest neighbors, empty and as cold as death. Kanczuga’s newest synagogue was a good quarter mile from the Jewish cemetery on the edge of town. It was not quite completed, but already it was the pride of our community, a spacious sanctuary large enough to seat several hundred. That Shabbos, every inch of the shul was filled for the first time. Yet it was eerily quiet, the low murmurs punctuated only by the occasional barking of a policeman… With so many bodies huddled together, the room was close with the odor of human flesh. People slept standing, straight as sentries; others twisted into unnatural positions on the floor. At some point, rain tapped a somber staccato on the roof and windows. (Two men spoke quietly among the masses) “Do you think they’ll deport us instead of killing us? Maybe send us away and spare our lives, God willing?” “Who is to say. I have heard that families who didn’t come to the square to be picked up were shot in their homes. We can only wait and put our faith in God. God will provide for us. God has never forsaken us.” That Friday night, the crowded room was hushed as (one of the women who had two Shabbat candles) lit the trembling flames. For a moment, her face was illuminated as from within. When she sang the bracha (welcoming Shabbat), her shimmering soprano could scarcely be heard, so quickly did it make its way to God. Shabbos morning arrived warm and bright, but the synagogue was musky with fear. Several men began to daven…swaying back and forth to the familiar chants. The men were still praying when the police ordered them to leave their families and trek the short distance up the hill to the cemetery… They traveled a short distance in wagons. A boy named Yankele Kelstcher jumped out of his wagon and disappeared into the woods before the policemen could fire. (Note: this man later recounted to me that it was at my great grandmother’s insistence that he flee that he did so, saving his life.) Then the men were ordered out of the wagons. Perhaps the thought of Yankele gave the men strength as they climbed in a thin, halting line along the muddy path that wove though a corn field… At the crest of the hill was the tree-lined cemetery, its tombstones swathed in even rows of shrubbery. As if on command, the men paused to catch their breaths and wipe their brows. They gazed over the crest of the hill to the patchwork of the fields below. For a moment they forgot their terror and shook their heads at the lush landscape. It could not be helped; they loved this country. A straight backed officer handed out shovels and told them to dig. “Keep digging,” he said. “We’ll tell you when you’re finished.” Most of the men were spindly and weak with soft palms more used to the Hebrew siddur (prayer book) than to the spade. “Dig, keep digging! Thought you could get away with something, eh? Thought you could hide from us, you filthy Jews?” When at last they were allowed to stop, the men stood in silence beside the freshly dug earth. Their faces slick with tears and sweat, they stared at the raised rifles in astonishment. At eyes opaque as marbles, that didn’t look back. Then they saw the other eyes, those of their neighbors, the customers in their shops, the people to whom they had just last week sold a loaf of bread, who gave them a good price on chicken and eggs. The goyim stood or sat on their haunches in unruly rows alongside the policemen. Whole families with baskets of cheese and bread and homemade wine, little ones scurrying along the fringes of the crowd, hunting down field mice. The chattering spectators were in an edgy, festive mood, the women’s heads bobbing in their colorful scarves. “Zyd!” they cried. “Jew. Out with the Jews!” The policemen raised their rifles. One hundred hearts were broken before a single shot was fired. When it was over, the audience applauded and cheered. The next day, the sunlight was so fierce that the women shielded their eyes when they were led outside. They climbed through the tall grass directly to the pit, as if they had done so many times before, their children sobbing at their skirts. A fetid smell they did not recognize reached their nostrils, and they covered their faces in horror. When the policemen loaded their rifles, (one girl) clutching her mother’s waist (cried out), “I don’t want to die! The sun is shining so brightly, and I am so young. I want to grow up in this beautiful world...” (her mother) could do nothing to help. She could not hold her any closer, she could not love her any more. One policeman who witnessed the scene was so moved that, later, he would recall (the girl’s) words… Then, a bullet shattered (the girl’s) face and she collapsed at (her mother’s) feet, spraying blood on her new white shoes. Next, (the girl’s sister) dropped onto (the girl), her breath a shallow purr. Even before the third shot was fired, the mother fell on them both, trying to protect what no longer was hers. Beside the gunmen, the onlookers, some of whom had tied handkerchiefs over their noses to stave off the scent, clapped and shouted their approval. A burst of laughter skimmed the crowd. Neighbors clapped each other on the back, not quite meeting each other’s gaze. Except for a sole surviving cousin of my father who spent most of the Second World War and the Holocaust in hiding with his father, this was the last time any of my relatives welcomed Shabbat, the Biblically commanded day of rest, in Poland. The men of my family never saw that final Shabbat end. The women and children saw it end to see their lives taken the following day. Short of the personal horrors that befell my own relatives, and the untimely end of a small but vibrant Jewish community that existed in Kanczuga for hundreds of years, I was thinking about Shabbat in Poland this week because, until now, for seven decades, no Feldstein/Birnbach had ever spent Shabbat in Poland. Yet, this Shabbat, my nearly 18 year old daughter is ending a week with her school on a trip to Poland to explore our heritage that thrived there for hundreds of years, and the horrors off the eradication of Jews and Jewish life from the same place. My daughter and her classmates will be spending Shabbat in Lodz, a place made famous for its Jewish Ghetto symbolizing the end of Jewish life that had existed there as well. Unlike my relatives seven decades ago, my daughter and her friends are traveling as proud Jews, citizens of the State of Israel and will not experience the fear, uncertainty and want that our relatives experienced on their last Shabbat. They will pray together as a community, proud of their identity, and making proud those who preceded them there. They will rest and enjoy one another’s company, fighting the conflicting emotions of the restfulness and spirituality of Shabbat, and the horrors to which they have been made responsible to bear witness. We hope that our daughter misses us, as we miss her, but we look forward to her return in a few short days at a ceremony at the Kotel (Western Wall), the center of Jewish existence. Despite the destruction of the Temple which existed on the plaza above, of which the Kotel is a small remaining piece, we have the privilege of fulfilling the dream of millions who perished to live and build our lives here. As Shabbat enters in Israel, our thoughts will turn to Poland, hopeful that my daughter and her classmates will have a peaceful and restful Shabbat, one that nobody in my family at least has seen in Poland for almost 70 years. And as my wife lights the Shabbat candles in our home, using a candelabra that was given to my grandmother by her parents when she left Poland for the last time in 1933, not knowing if she’d ever see her family again, may we all be reminded how lucky we are that our daughters will leave Poland shortly, to come home to Israel, where we are mindful of the past and the people and horrors that have come before us, but dediated to build our future in our own land. Shabbat shalom.

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