Friday, April 15, 2011

Poland, Post-Mortem

It was one of the most uneasy feelings I have ever had when, sometime in the mid 1980s, I made my grandmother sob. I don’t know what we were talking about but I mentioned my interest to go to Poland one day and see the town where she came from. My grandmother, who was born in Poland, moved to Israel as a young woman and left behind her parents, several siblings, tens of nieces and nephews, and everything she knew, not knowing when, or if, she’d ever see them again. “The land there is filled with our blood,” she sobbed, imploring me not to go there, ever. I suspect that as much as I opened a wound that never healed, knowing that almost her entire family was slaughtered by the Nazis and their Polish neighbors, I suspect she also feared for my well being. I don’t know what I responded exactly, but it probably was something to do with my not going there, in order to appease and calm her. Of course, I had no concrete plans to go there then, but I was still curious. In 1990, I was given the opportunity to go to Poland as staff for a UJA young leadership mission. Our time in Poland was filled with highs and lows: the rededication of a synagogue in Krakow, the first direct flight between Krakow and Israel, and other experiences as a group of young, lively, and living American Jews, juxtaposed by the horrors about which we all knew, but to which we had traveled to bear witness. There were many remarkable things that stood out in the brief trip: the colorful and festive Warsaw Yiddish Theater without a single Jewish actor, the “beauty” of the remaining part of Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery, digging in another cemetery where a survivor traveling with us thought he had buried the town’s Torah scrolls so they would not be desecrated by the Nazis or the Poles, bullet holes still in the wall of the synagogue in the same town where Jews had been lined up and shot inside the sanctuary, and Auschwitz with the incomprehensible crematoria still intact, as well as “exhibits” of hair, suitcases, glasses, shoes, and children’s shoes that were taken from the millions of victims who arrived, but never left. Like many trips of tens or hundreds of thousands, since then, our trip continued to Israel, from Jewish destruction to Jewish rebirth. One of the highlights of that trip was the ability to greet a plane load of Soviet Jewish immigrants. Tears and dancing on the tarmac celebrated their arrival in their homeland, a milestone not lost on the elderly immigrants who had to be helped off the plane, some survivors of the Holocaust, others WWII veterans proudly wearing their medals. All were refugees seeking a better life, and Israel was that life affirming place to welcome them all as Jews, even in the twilight of their own lives. If only Israel had existed many decades earlier, our trip to bear witness in Poland might never have been necessary. Before my daughter and her classmates left for Poland two weeks ago, they spent considerable time studying details of the Holocaust, and Jewish life in Poland up until that point. I knew it was critical for her to have this experience, not just to go to Poland, but to go with her class. It’s a class trip of a kind I never imagined growing up in suburban NJ. Yet, in a flashback to my interaction with my grandmother nearly three decades earlier, I felt unease in her going. Part of it was for her physical safety knowing that anti-Semitism is alive and well in Poland and that such groups require armed guards to protect them. More so, I realized that to the extent that my almost 18 year old is still innocent, this would shatter that forever. Balancing protecting one’s kids and sheltering them appropriately, with helping them to grow up with the resources to mature and become independent people, is one of the greatest challenges in parenting, one in which I am sure I made more than my share of mistakes. Sending your child to Poland to witness the destruction of Jews and Jewish life there is one of those difficult parenting moments. Indeed, some parents don’t allow their children to participate. How much more difficult it must have been for my great grandparents to have the opportunity to send four of their children out of Poland in the 1930s and early 40s, selflessly knowing that they were protecting their children, including my grandmother, but never knowing if they would ever see one another again. It’s customary to welcome back Israeli high school groups with formal ceremonies, celebrating their return, and marking the more than symbolic journey from destruction to revival of Jewish life. The truth is, we were initially loathe to have to be there at 6:30, and felt a bit of a reprieve the night before to learn that the girls’ charter flight was delayed and we could meet them at the more human hour of 9:30, eventually moved to even later. The truth is, I didn’t understand the need to make a big deal of their return home. I was looking forward to seeing my daughter and her friends home safely, as if from any trip, but I was worried that in too typical an Israeli manner, the ceremony would be long, drawn out, with dozens of speakers, each one thanking the previous, and subsequent speakers, ad infinitum. The truth is, I was very wrong. On the way to the ceremony welcoming my daughter and her classmates back, I was riding across Jerusalem on the #74 bus. At one point, the bus stopped and I looked up from my work to see that I was literally parallel to the spot where, just two weeks earlier, a terrorist’s bomb exploded, killing one and wounding dozens, including passengers on another #74 bus. How uneasy to be on the way to welcome your child back from Poland where she witnessed the destruction of our people – including dozens of our own relatives – when just outside the window of the bus on which I was riding I was witness to the site where a modern ideological descendant of the Nazis sought to murder and maim Jews, because they were Jews. The irony of course is that this did not occur in Poland where we were helpless victims and objects, but in the capitol of our own country, no more than a mile from our parliament and another few miles from Jerusalem’s Old City, the Temple Mount, and the Western Wall – surviving remnants of Jewish life for thousands of years. I don’t get emotional often, and when I do I try to mask it. However, I was completely overcome by how emotionally charged this ceremony was. Making it more so is that it was not scripted, but it was the natural outgrowth of what our daughters had just experienced. Teachers and special guests spoke, including “Saba Dov” (Grandpa Dov) who spent the week with the girls recounting his own experiences during, and as a survivor of, the Holocaust. Several girls read thoughts they had prepared, interspersed with singing, prayer, and occasional sobbing. One girl was so overcome with emotion that she turned from the group and walked away, only to be followed by another who held her friend and comforted her. I choked back tears more than a little, both because of the reality of what was going on and the awareness of what the girls had all gone through, and in enormous pride that my daughter was part of this experience, and that we are privileged to be raising her in Israel. She even commented how in seeing the different behavior of an American group also visiting Poland, she was grateful that we lived in Israel. Despite many parenting mistakes, that alone was validation of our decision to move here. If we needed a reminder of the reality that anti-Semitism is alive and well, it was hard not to be aware of the fact that one of my daughter’s classmates was not present, and did not make the trip. For her, and consequently her close friends in school, the reality and horrors of anti-Semitism were made far too vivid just a month earlier when her sister, brother in law, infant niece and two nephews were butchered in their own home by an Arab terrorist. This girl did not need to witness Auschwitz. She lived it a month earlier, and will be scarred the rest of her life, perhaps not dissimilar from how my grandmother was scarred, and how that conversation I had with her years before made her sob. As the ceremony drew to a close, the emotional, reflective and sometimes somber nature of the formal proceedings turned to euphoria. Unscripted and unrehearsed, 40 teenage Israeli girls burst into song and dance, in clear sight of Jerusalem’s Old City, the center of Jewish life for millennia, and today. They sang praise to God for protecting them. They sang about the love of the Land which they have the privilege, and responsibility, to inhabit. They sang and danced in a way that would surely have made their forebears in Poland, whose mass murder they were still reeling from trying to comprehend, sob a little too; in pride with the awareness that our future stood before us and that we all are stronger for it. It brings tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat to remember this, and probably always will. I think that despite my grandmother’s anguish some three decades earlier when I mentioned going to Poland, she’d have joined me in shedding a tear or two, yes in grief that will be with us forever as a lingering wound of the destruction of Jewish life and murder of six million Jews including dozens of our own relatives. But also in enormous pride that we have the privilege to live in Israel, raising our family here, and building a Jewish future, ever mindful of our past.

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.