Morning in Lodz
Prior to WW2 one-third of the population of Lodz, Poland was Jewish. There has not been a Jewish community there for 70 years. Our group was blessed to witness the tiny spark that will undoubtedly (G”W) – be the key to the rebirth of this once incredibly vibrant community. Rabbi Dovid and Miriam Szychowska (Ul.pomorska 18) are dedicated to rebuildingJewish life in Lodz. They arrived in Lodz three months ago and have lots of ideas on how best to engage the many residents of Lodz that have Jewish lineage. Their first step has been to create a kindergarten. Beautiful Chana, Rachel, and Shimon are their children and are half of the inaugural class. Miriam explained to us that they had purchased all the materials, books, child-sized furniture, etc. with their own money … and with a little support from local and international organizations and from their friends. They found a space for the kindergarten and have made it very cozy and child-friendly, but haven’t yet been able to pay their rent. Miriam apologized for not having chairs for us to sit on.
Dovid grew up in small towns around Poland and did not have any exposure to observant Jews until he went to university in Krakow. He was inspired to go learn in Israel and stayed to obtain smicha from Rabbi Riskin. Miriam and Dovid met at a Hanukkah party in Krakow while they were both exploring their Jewish roots – both were raised as proud Polish Jews but and neither had a formal Jewish education. We collected a small amount of cash, including dollars, zlotys, shekels, and euros and they were incredibly touched. The Hanukkah decorations and art supplies we brought from America were also appreciated.
We have heard a consistent message that being a Polish Jew … or a Jewish Pole is complicated … lineage is unclear, transitions are hard, “where’s my place”, “who am I” are very common explorations. We look forward to following the efforts of Miriam and Dovid and have complete confidence the community will grow from their energy and tender care.
On the Bus to Krakow
Alan told us about a Lodz ghetto survivor Rywka Lipszyc whose diary is as gripping as Anne Frank’s, but not yet as well know as it was first published in 2014 after being in the hands of a Russian family until recently. Like Anne, Rywka Lipszyk wrote about mundane details of fighting with her cousins as well as heart-breaking crisis of faith and thoughts of suicide.
Alison shared with us details about Oscar Schindler whose Krakow factory saved ~1,200 Jews by employing them, protecting them, and helping them get emigration papers and whose intentionally-flawed bullets undoubtedly saved lives too.
Hindy tolds us about the life of Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the “Rama”) who was born in Krakow in the 1500s. He was a world re-knowned scholar and the primary authority of his day. He’s best known for his commentaries on the Schulchan Aruch and his approach to menhagim.
Sylvia – our own Argentinian princess – inspired us with stories of Jewish “keshariot” – women whose role it was to establish connections (kesher) with the outside world to smuggle papers, ammunitions, medicine, news, etc. They were selected for their Aryan looks/knowledge and for their ability to be calm under intense pressure.
Andre told us about the book Life in a Jar – a book about Irena Sendler – a woman who worked in the Warsaw ghetto as a plumber and who was able to quietly sneak out ~2500 Jewish babies and young children.
Afternoon in Krakow
We walked through the Jewish town square (several Jewish style cafes with Klezmer music) to the Rama Synagogue. In the small, but beautiful, Synagogue we had the opportunity to quietly daven mincha in the same space that the Rama prayed over 500 years ago. Being here brought to life all that Hindyshared with us about the Rama. After mincha, we visited the adjacent cemetery to see the Rama Matzehav. We also saw the Matzevot of the Toshos Yom Tov and the Bach, where Rabbi Tessler shared with us the significance of these great Torah scholars.
Evening in Krakow
The highlight of the day was an incredible dinner at the Krakow JCC. The chicken and potatoes were delicious, but the highlight was having dinner with 5 members of the Jewish Student Group that meets at the JCC.The first person we met was a woman about 85 – Zushka- who was part of the senior club that had met Rabbi and Aviva more than 20 years ago at a summer Lauder program. Not only did she remember singing Avinu Malcanu with them she also repeated a Dvar Torah that Aviva had shared with her. When repeating the Shmona Esrei the congregation mostly just listens to the chazzan however Modim – a prayer about saying thank you to Hashem – is the only part this is recited by the congregation AND the chazzan. The reason being that no one can say thank you for you .. you have to say that for yourself… even/especially to Hashem. Amazing that she remembered this message and could repeat it so beautifully as though she had just heard it.
Each student had an incredible story to share with us. In addition, like at every other Jewish place so far, there were high-engaged non-Jewish volunteers very dedicated to the local Jewish community. Mateusz (23), the head of the Jewish Student group, runs the JCC Sunday school for younger kids. He’s majoring in geology and neurobiology, but he loves teaching and hopes to make a career of that. Sergei (19) came from Kiev, Ukraine to study in Krakow. While exploring his Polish ancestry and he found out that his grandfather’s name was Moses and that he was Jewish. He is exploring his Jewish roots and feels lucky to have stumbled upon this information. Swavek (24) is a descendant of the Maor HaShemesh – his great great great grandson .. and the only Jewishly identifying person of his generation – he has no siblings and his cousins are Catholic. He attends Kabbalat Shabbat every week at the Orthodox shul, is writing his thesis on the Krakow synagogues, knows benching by heart, and speaks Yiddish. In addition he has taken over his grandfather’s role to care for the Jewish cemetery of his small town where there are no practicing Jews; he clears the brush and takes pride in repairing the matzevot. He showed us a before and after picture of the matzevah he just completed after working on it for months. All that said… he considers himself an atheist, a truly god-less man… yet he deeply worries about the future of Jewish religiosity in Krakow. Shachar, formerly Kristoff (28) is a convert who wears his tzitzit out and is committed to living a halachic lifestyle. chose the name Shar because he like Sharcharit. He converted reform a few years ago and now is working towards an orthodox conversion with the Krakow rabbi – Rabbi Ari Baumel- a former student of Rabbi Tessler who lives in Israel but comes to Krakow weekly. Aliza grew up in Ukraine knowing she was Jewish but unable to practice or learn about her heritage in any way. She worked hard in school and earned free university privileges in Ukraine. However, before she started she saw a tv commercial about free university in Europe for students with good grades. She applied and was thrilled to be awarded free tuition in Krakow. She had no idea that she would stumble upon a Jewish community and be able to learn about her heritage – something she had been craving for a long time. She was in Krakow for 3 years until she attended the Krakow Jewish festival and met others who invited her to come to the JCC. She came the very next morning at 8am with her papers showing she was Jewish. She has been connected with the Krakow JCC for the last 5 months and feels like she found her family – a feeling she was missing for the last 3 years. She thinks about bringing her 12 year old sister to live with her in Krakow so that she could be safer (they live ~120 from the war front) and also connect to people that are Jewish. Interestingly, her surname on her birth certificate was her mom’s surname. But at 16 she has the choice what to put on her passport .. much to the shock of her family she choose her father’s name – Schwartzman – exposing her Jewish roots in way that was scary to her parents. She loves being able to practice her Judaism freely in Krakow, and loves the extended Saturday night-into Sunday- marathon parshat hashavua sessions when the Rabbi is in town. What an incredible inspiring group of individuals!
On the way back, we stopped at a memorial designed by Steven Spielberg and Roman Polanski at the location of the Krakow deportations. The memorial is a series of lonely, empty chairs representing the possessions left behind by the victims. At the site, we lit candles to remember the anniversary of Kristallnacht.
All together, it was an absolutely memorable day filled with hope for the future.