Wednesday, November 11th – Bob G

The day started off with a delicious breakfast at the Qubus Hotel in Krakow.  We then boarded our tour bus and headed for Warsaw with en route stops at the Holocaust Memorial in Kielce, the Majdanek Concentration/Extermination camp near Lublin, and the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva.

KIELCE

Kielce is a small city north of Krakow that once was home to a sizeable Jewish community (over 20,000 members).  On March 31, 1941, the Nazis established a ghetto in Kielce.  It was surrounded by barbed wire and its inhabitants were not allowed to leave on pain of death.   By the end of 1941, about 27,000 Jews lived in the ghetto. The able-bodied men were used in quarries for forced labor.  In the ghetto itself cobblers, tailors and other artisans were able to operate their business.  Approximately 6,000 people died from April 1941 to April 1942 from typhus; many others were shot, hanged or died of starvation.  Within a few days (August 20-24, 1942) the ghetto was liquidated, and about 21,000 Jews were deported to the Treblinka extermination camp where they were murdered.

My great uncle, Erich Gruber, was deported from Vienna, Austria, to Kielce, Poland, in February 1941, along with over 1,000 other Viennese Jews.  While he was living in the ghetto, he was able to send a postcard to my grandmother Ella, who was living in Brooklyn, New York, asking that she send him food.   My grandmother had been married to Erich’s brother, and she fled Vienna for the U.S. with my mom on November 8, 1938.  While on the tour bus, I passed around a copy of the postcard to our group and pointed out the Nazi swastika and the propaganda slogan stamped on it.  The slogan said, “Germany, victorious on all fronts.”   There is a plaque in front of the house that Erich lived in when he was deported from Vienna to Kielce that says, “Erich Maier, born July 27, 1895, and deported to Kielce on February 19, 1941.  He was never heard of again.”

At the site of the Kielce ghetto, we all gathered around and I lit a candle in memory of my great Uncle Erich and all others who perished at the hands of Nazis and their collaborators.  I was impressed by the beautiful memorial recently built at the site of the ghetto.  The memorial is in the shape of a Jewish menorah and is made from stainless steel.

Kielce is also known for a program that occurred on July 4, 1946 in which 42 holocaust survivors were murdered based on a false rumor.  Many historians believe that this program led to the exodus of many Jews from Poland that might have otherwise stayed in Poland after the war was over.

MAJDANEK

Our next stop was Majdanek.  Having visited Auschwitz-Birkenau the day before, I did not think my feeling of despair and disgust as to what happened in the Holocaust could get any worse.  But it did.  The Majdanek camp is located in an entirely open area with no trees around it to hide the activities inside the camp.  Majdanek was originally a labor camp but was transformed into a death camp.  It is estimated that 80,000 inmates were gassed at Majdanek.  During 1941 and 1942, the Germans shot many thousands of victims.  These included sick Soviet prisoners of war, Soviet Army officers, Jews and prisoners of all nationalities.  On November 3, 1943, the Germans shot 18,000 Jews in one single day.  The victims were shot in large pits, while in the background loud music was played to drown out the noise of the killings.

As we approached the camp, we saw a gigantic monument made of stone.  We them came upon an equally huge Mausoleum, filled with ash from the remains of victims mixed with dirt and fertilizer.  The Mausoleum is located next to camp’s crematorium building, which contains a row of several ovens – all pristine.  We were told that the ovens were in such good condition that they could become operational again in a matter of weeks.  We also visited the camp’s gas chamber and a row of barracks.  In the barracks we saw many artifacts, exhibits, and photographs.  Majdanek is a terribly sad place, indeed.

CHACHMEI LUBLIN YESHIVA

Nest we visited the site of the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva.  It was founded by Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Daf Yomi fame and was once an important center for Torah study in Poland.  During the Holocaust, the Nazis stripped its beautiful interior and destroyed its vast library.

Our tour group davened in the renovated shul that was located on the second floor of the stately building that once housed this magnificent yeshiva.  Rabbi Tessler then led a group session of that day’s Daf Yomi (daf #16 of Tractate Sotah).  Daf Yomi (“page of the day” or “daily folio”) is a daily regimen of learning the Oral Torah and its commentaries (also known as the Gemara), in which each of the 2,711 pages of the Babylonian Talmud are covered in sequence.   It was started on Rosh Hashanah 5684 (Sept. 11, 1923) by Rabbi Shapiro, and it takes seven and a half years to complete the cycle.  Visiting Rabbi Shapiro’s yeshiva was especially meaningful for those in the group (myself included) who have been  engaged in this systematic study.

WARSAW FAREWELL

After checking into the Westin Hotel in Warsaw, we ate a scrumptious meal at the Galil Restaurant.  This was our farewell dinner.  Our guest speakers at the dinner were Judaica designers Helena Czernek and Aleksander Prugar, co-founders of “Mi Polin.”  They are well known for their mezuzah project, in which they travel to different towns across Poland, locate and make casts of pre-war mezuzah traces, and turn the casts themselves into mezuzahs for Jews in Poland and around the world.  Helena and Aleksander told us that their goal is “to give the old mezuzahs new life.”  They passed around sample mezuzahs that were quite beautiful and impressive.  Their website can be found at http://mipolin.pl.

After dinner, we all got together in the lobby of the Westin Hotel where we tasted Polish vodka, toasted our tour guide and leaders, discussed some of our most memorable experiences while on the tour, and had some last minute fun before our incredibly meaningful 2015 Poland Chesed Mission officially came to an end.

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Monday, November 9th – Lisa & Jonny

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.

 

 

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Sunday, November 8, 2015 – Hindy & Rosie

We finally got to see the Golden Autumn after days of grey. Our group was amazed by the panoramic bus tour of Warsaw. We caught glimpses of the Opera House, the famous Hotel Bristol where contemporary leaders and film stars sojourned, Warsaw’s version of the Golden Gate Bridge, a memorial to those who died in Russian concentration camps and the Umschlagplatz. We were blown away when we saw the restoration of all the streets and buildings leveled during WWII. In addition, our guide Andrzej explained the historical significance of many monuments.

Following the bus tour, we went to the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery. We were shocked by the vastness of the 40 hector area of over 200,000 graves. It was chilling to see graves riddled with bullet holes. The grave of the Brisker Rav was at least a 20 minute walk from the entrance. It felt like we were in the middle of a forest. It was easy to forget we were in a major metropolitan city. We were moved by several highlights including the wall created with broken monuments, the Matzevot of Marek Edelman, Yiddish theater performers, the creator of the Esperanza language, Ludwig Zamenhof, a memorial sculpture depicting child advocate Janusz  Korczak, as well as plaques on the walkway memorializing families with no graves.

Onward to coffee at the 2 year old JCC. The JCC has a kosher kitchen, wonderful activities including Ulpan classes for Jews and Non-Jews. Our guide Marta explained the challenges of engaging groups of volunteers to assist in programs from the US and Israel for very short one or two hour periods in a day.  Marta’s face lit up when we suggested establishing some type of sustainable partnership between our communities. Alan presented a chanukia from our group to the center hoping to dedicate and rededicate relationships.

We said goodbye to Warsaw appreciating the history of the 2nd largest Jewish city in the world before WWII. Then we got back on the bus for a 2 hour journey to Lodz. We had a delicious box lunch and listened to some of the participants give a short report on historical figures important to our journey.

Lodz means boat and has a long standing history of being an industrial town. Once arriving in  this city we went to another Jewish cemetery established in 1898. We had a 27 year old guide Milena whose passion and enthusiasm was contagious. Her knowledge of Lodz’s Jewish history was comprehensive in the way she presented the symbiosis of Jewish and Polish relations. She is a professional genealogist and tour guide. This incredible non-Jewish woman leads groups around the cemetery pointing out important graves linking Jewish history to Lodz’s past. She showed us the grave of the wealthy factory owner Poznanski. His grave was a huge temple and the focal point of the site. To top it all off, Milena volunteers once a month to clean up this cemetery through her Bridges Lodz Community Project. This groups goal is to connect the local community with other Jews from around the world. She has been doing this project for 4 years. Milena believes her work is to honor her Polish heritage. She hopefully will help Alison Green find her ancestors of the Frager Family from Lodz.

Milena then took us to the former Lodz Getto which was the last to be liquidated. We saw the railroad station where supplies were brought to the Ghetto and where Jews were transported to the concentration camps. The camps were represented by huge tombstones that displayed hands signifying those who perished.

After another emotional day, Andrzej, our guide par excellence, allowed us 15 minutes to shop!! What a treat and a much needed excursion!! We shopped at the converted Poznanski factory building complex. It was next to the American type mall.

We ended the evening with a fun and delicious dinner at the JCC of Lodz. We are now settling into our hotel and excited for another informative and emotional day.

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Allison’s Blog of Shabbos November 7, 2015- Warsaw, Poland

The overcast day began for us at 9 AM with Shabbat Davening. The only shul left standing in Warsaw is called the Nozyk Synagogue. The only reason why it remains and wasn’t destroyed by the Nazi’s is because the Nazis preferred to keep it in service as a horse stable for themselves.

The synagogue is beautiful granite floored and marble columned large room, where the women sit on top high above the men. After Shacharit led by a shul member, our men took over and led the remainder of the service.  David, Jonny, Larry, and Bob each expertly layned at least an aliyah, and Mark sang a beautiful haftorah. Our men represented Beth Sholom with pride. Rabbi Tessler then gave a very moving drash about the Parsha-Chaya Sara. He did a great job going slow enough so that a shul member translating the drasha into Polish didn’t get behind…we think!  (Some of us thought that maybe he was not really translating and was just announcing the latest sport scores).
After a beautiful melodic Musaf led by Rabbi T, we joined with the other “congregants” for a small Kiddush on the main shul floor. During Kiddush, Rabbi T started talking to someone, and then found out he had once lived in Potomac on Fontaine, behind the shul. What a small world we live in.  We of course talked with him, and then invited him to join us for the other activities we had going on for the rest of the day. Glynis had also met his young guy from South Africa whose father had lived across the street from Glynis. Talk about a small Jewish world.

We then had lunch with Rabbi Shudrich and other community people in the shul. The meal was different types of salads, then potato kugel, then overcooked luchkshen kugel, then cholent in that order. We had a dry apple cake for dessert. Very Polish-Ashkenaz.

We were then introduced to Ignazi. He is the great grandson of a righteous policeman who was brave enough to hide Nira Berry’s mom and grandmother during the war. Nira’s mom was only 4 when she and her mom were forced to hide in in the potato shed and then chicken coop owned by Ignazi’s great grandfather for 4 years. A few years ago, Nira completed her mom’s wish to find the family of the person who had hid here. They connected and just last year, this family was awarded a medal in honor by Yad Vashem.
He told us the story, passed around pictures and the actual medal and answered all of our questions.

We then went on a short walking tour, and saw the Memorial to Janis Korczak. He was a physician and author that also has many orphanages in Warsaw. When it was the time where the Nazi’s took his children to Treblinka, he refused to accept being saved and went to the death camp with his kids. He would not let them go alone. At the memorial we saw many different candles lit. We were told that the polish Catholics light candles just like Jews.

Then after a brief rest, we did a quick Havdalah and then hopped on the bus for our private guided tour of the POLIN (museum of the History of Polish Jews.) We had only 2 hours to go through the main exhibit and our guide was great in telling us the highlights of each exhibit. This museum talks about the 1000 year history of the Jews in Poland, not just the horrific events that took place in WWII.
On the grounds of the museum, there is a memorial for the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, as we were within the former Ghetto wall!

After another lovely meal at the Galil restaurant, we ended our evening around 10. Got to get up early tomorrow. We have to be packed and ready to hit the road by 8:20am.

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Thursday evening – Arline D U

Tonight we had the privilege of dining at the Galil kosher restaurant and meeting with Dr. Sebastian Rejak,  the special Envoy to the Jewish Diaspora, Polish Ministry of Affairs.  His topic was Poland , Polish Jewry and the diaspora. He spoke of his goal of strengthening and developing relationships with the West and their leaders. Even with a new government he feels there is support for this initiative. Talked about Jews as a minority, as a religious entity, and an ethnic minority. He is optimistic and also a realist. Issue of kosher slaughter came up and the courts interpreted the Polish constitution to allow it.

Freedom of religion, conscience, and expression according to Polish constitution. No law on anti-Semitism, but law say anti-religious action is against the law.

Holocaust education is mandatory with a short section on what Judaism is.

There is renewed interest in Judaism by young folks, both Jews who have just found out about their family connection to Judaism and by Polish people themselves

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Day 1 in Warsaw – Marc I

Greetings from Warsaw,
We all met at 2 pm at the Jewish Institute in downtown Warsaw. It was one of the few Jewish buildings that survived World War II. There we had an interesting, open and very frank discussion with our resident Jewish contact Helize.  She’s been in Warsaw for about 20 years, after growing up in New York and working with Hillel before coming to Poland. She commented that many Jews from other parts of the world come to Poland to see the concentration camps and basically leave after that, without finding out what is really happening in the Warsaw Jewish community currently. She said that the Jews now in Warsaw often feel slighted because people are not as interested in them and the future of the Jewish community here, as opposed to only looking at the past. Though young Jews growing up in Warsaw now are very aware and interested in the past, they are more concerned about building a life for the future. Helize also pointed out that the young non-Jews growing up in Warsaw now have no connection to the Holocaust so it is impossible to associate them with it in anyway.
After the Jewish Institute we went to the Nozyk Synagogue, the only functioning Shul in Warsaw, other than a relatively new Chabad center. There were over 200 Shuls in Warsaw before the war. The Shul is beautiful on the inside, after having been renovated four times. We davened mincha and maariv there, and had a chance to speak with a young Rabbi who came from Israel to work in this community for a few years with his wife and three kids. He was very interesting and informative. His family grew up in Pittsburgh and made aliyah to Israel a number of years ago. After a quick stop back at our hotel we went to dinner at a kosher restaurant called Galil. In addition to a nice chicken dinner, we listened to a long talk by a gentleman named Sebastian, who is the special envoy to the Jewish Diaspora for Poland. Though not Jewish, he feels a strong attachment to the Jewish people and how they have contributed to Polish society over the years. He also went into great detail about some of the laws which have been enacted to protect both Jews and other minorities. His English was incredible, as was his ability to get across how the Jewish life in Warsaw is evolving from a governmental and legal point of view.
At the end of dinner we were visited by Rabbi Michael Schudrich, The chief Rabbi of Warsaw and Poland. He’s originally from Silver Spring, and is a friend of the Tessler’s. He told several interesting stories about dealing with practical halachik  issues that come up frequently in Jewish life here in Poland.
Our main guide, Andre, who is not Jewish but has a great affinity for the Jewish people, is also very good. He grew up in Warsaw and is able to explain much about the city itself as well as Jewish life now and in the past.
There’s much more that could be told, but the most important thing I think we learned today is how complex every Jewish issue is here in Poland. Many people don’t even know that they are Jewish or came from Jewish parents and grandparents. Many are now re-discovering their Jewish lineage. 20 years ago a Jewish day school started here with just a handful of students. It now has 240 students from kindergarten through the eighth grade. It’s not a very religious school, but the kids do learn some Hebrew and about Jewish holidays and customs. It is considered a very good school academically, so much so that a number of non-Jews want to send their kids there, and try to come up with any connection to Judaism that they can just so their kids can attend there. We learned that up until the Holocaust, Jews were a major influence and news topic in daily life in Poland. However, from 1939 until 1989 when Poland became democratic, there was almost no mention of Jews in the press. Since things are more open now, there are many Poles who have a curiosity and interest in Jews, after not hearing anything about them for a period of 50 years. I think we also got the impression from our guides and instructors that the Jews here do not want to be judged as to why they would stay here or come here, but rather want to be helped and seen as a growing Jewish community similar to one in any other part of the world.
From a physical standpoint to, I think we’ve been impressed at the number of tall and modern buildings here in Warsaw. Some of the main streets are very wide. The streetcars function incredibly well. On a slightly negative note, it’s been fairly cold, and the sun has not been seen for two days, creating somewhat of a bleak atmosphere weather-wise.
Especially considering that we got started at 2 PM, we had an incredibly interesting, enjoyable and information packed day.
All the best and Shabbat Shalom to everyone back in Potomac.

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Shabbat in Budapest by Sylvia

After a lovely and musical luncheon at the Talmud Torah Federation Center, adjacent to the magnificent Dohany St. Synagogue, our Tour guide extraordinaire Agi took us on a stroll of the Budapest streets.
We visited a large Plaza where a grandiose cathedral stands: the St Stephen Cathedral. We learned that the catholic church is very political in Hungary, and is presently lobbying for the leading government with all its fascists undertones.
We then passed by the Central European University, founded by George Soros, which has a Faculty of Jewish studies. We had the chance at noon time to meet Professor Michael Miller, an American scholar who lives in Budapest for many years now, and teaches courses on Nationalism and its impact on Jewish communities in Central Europe. He gave us a very interesting talk on that during the luncheon.
We then arrived into Liberty square and we saw the elegant building of the American Embassy ironically facing a monument in appreciation of the Soviet liberation of Hungary from the Nazi regime.  The monument consists of an obelisk crowned with a five-pointed Communist star. Hungarians are not terribly fond of this monument and would prefer to see it removed. Not only is it a reminder of the Soviet occupation, but to add insult to injury, the monument stands at the exact location of a protest once held against the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which resulted in the loss of almost three quarters of Hungary’s territory.
After that, we passed by a protestant church with a bust of Miklos Horthy, the controversial Regent of Hungary during the war who eventually signed the decree that allowed the deportation of the countryside Jews. Some say he saw his country as trapped between two strong powers, the soviets and the Nazis, both of them dangerous, and he considered Hitler to be the more manageable of the two. This church is a meeting place for members of the extreme right party Jobbik, and we already knew a lot about them from our encounter with their former leader, Csanad Szegedi (lots of emotions stirred in that meeting!!!).
Next, we visited a very recently placed and controversial Memorial for the victims of the Nazi occupation. The Jewish community is deeply upset about this statue depicting Hungary as the innocent Archangel Gabriel attacked by an eagle (Nazi Germany). This is an attempt to blame all the sins of the Shoah on the Germans leaving the Hungarians in the role of innocent bystanders. Members of the Jewish community placed a line of posters with pictures of fascist Hungarians attacking and shooting Jews during the war. It was very moving to see there some possessions from the victims (luggage, shoes, spectacles, letters, etc).
With a heavy heart we visited the Glass House where the Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz distributed visas and protection letters. That huge glass factory was also a hiding place for hundreds of Jews during the Nazi occupation. We saw a small size replica of the building showing all the hidden rooms where they had the Jewish families hiding, just like the Anna Frank story. At one time, about 3,000 Jews found refuge at the Glass House and in a neighboring building from Hungarian fascists, antisemitic murderers and the German Nazis. The Glass House was also used as a headquarters by the Jewish youth underground which saved many lives. In 1942 Carl Lutz was appointed as Swiss vice-consul in Budapest. He soon began cooperating with the Jewish Agency issuing Swiss safe-conduct documents enabling Jewish children to emigrate. Once the Nazis took over Budapest in 1944 and began deporting Jews to the death camps, Lutz negotiated a special deal with the Hungarian government and the Nazis: he had permission to issue protective letters to 8,000 Hungarian Jews for emigration to Israel. Lutz then deliberately misinterpreted his permission for 8,000 as applying to families rather than individuals, and proceeded to issue tens of thousands of additional protective letters, all of them bearing a number between one and 8,000. He also set up some 76 safe houses around Budapest, declaring them annexes of the Swiss legation, the most famous of which was the Glass House. Although more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews died in the Holocaust, 125,000 survived, half of them thanks to the efforts of Carl Lutz, named a righteous gentile by the Israeli government in 1964.
We had our Seudah Shlishit there before walking to the Shoe Memorial on the West Bank of the Danube River where we had Havdallah.
The heart breaking Shoe Memorial honors the Jews killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen during the war. Jews were ordered to take off their shoes and were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river. The sculptor created sixty pairs of period-appropriate shoes out of iron, including little children’s shoes. Visitors often lay flowers or candles, but not a long time ago Hungarian fascists desecrated the memorial placing pigs’ feet inside the shoes.
After so many experiences, with our loaded hearts we boarded an exclusive boat (just for us) and enjoyed a magnificent night time cruise along the Danube River. It was our last night of a memorable trip together and many tears, hugs and laughs were witnessed by the Budapest stars.

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Shabbat Day shared by Suzette

Our Shabbat in Budapest was one we’ll not soon forget. We arrived at the Keren Or Chabad Center and (some of us) were delighted to discover it was for Israelis and the entire service was conducted in Hebrew. The Rav spoke so beautifully, weaving in the story of the Parsha Chayei Sarah, with the recent death of his own mother. The meal was very loud but very lively, plenty of singing and schmoozing, often at the same time. At the end of benching a few eyebrows were raised when the Beth Sholom contingent sang the Tessler’s theme song “Na’ar Hayiti” as many in our group were women….

Shabbat morning held different options depending on the trip participants, some went back to Keren Or, some to the Kazinsky shul, and some went for long walks. We all met up in front of the Dohany Synagogue and were warmly greeted by Rabbi and Mrs. Frolich who had been in Potomac for the Shoah Shabbaton a few years before. The food was in a word “heimish” – delicious chulent, thick slabs of kishka, brisket, and plenty more options.

There were a number of people who wanted to speak or sing for us, and Rabbi Frolich asked Rabbi Tessler to also share a few words of Torah, which he did beautifully. We had a special guest appearance by Andre Goodfriend, the U.S. Embassy Charge D’Affairs, who’d met with us the day before. He also spoke and got up to dance with us as well!

We were fortunate enough to hear from Professor Michael Miller, from the Central European University, Associate Professor in the Nationalism Studies Program. He gave us an enlightening overview of the Jewish community in Budapest and the question & answer period that followed was marvelous.

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Friday as shared by Bob

Today’s presentations by Charge d’affaires Goodfriend of the United States Embassy and later by Israel Ambassador to Hungary Ilan Mor were truly outstanding.   They both provided a detailed historical perspective and highlighted past, present and future events.  They also addressed our many questions and provided insightful and helpful answers and explanations.  Hungary is a complicated country with various tensions.  Conversing with these two diplomats was an extraordinarily interesting and meaningful experience.

In between the two diplomatic sessions, we embarked on a walking tour of Buda where we visited the remains of a medieval synagogue and saw other historic sites.  It was a bright, sunny day with unusually warm weather.  On the way back to Pest where our hotel is located, we walked over the famous Chain Bridge, where we not only marveled at the Danube and its surrounding grand buildings but also enjoyed feeling the rays of the sun and the city’s underlying hustle and bustle.
A great walk and day.

Shabbat is rapidly approaching and some in the group are now shopping, working out, or just relaxing.  Soon we will be celebrating shabbat with the local Jewish community.

So I am signing off now and wishing all of you a good Shabbos!

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Friday in Budapest by Allison

We started the day with another early start and breakfast.  We were honored to have as a guest speaker, the American Ambassador Charge d’Affairs, Andre Goodfriend.  He spoke to us about the US approach to Hungary and how he is working with all the different Jewish leaders to try to work together to combat anti-semitism.   After a very interesting 90 minute discussion, we took pictures with him and said good bye.  We then went with Agi, our amazing tour guide for a walking tour of the Castle district of Budapest.  We saw the Medieval Synagogue and enjoyed the beautiful views of the Danube.  We walked down the hill, over the chain bridge and back to hotel.  We then were honored to welcome, Israeli Ambassador, Ilan Mor.  He spoke to us about how Israel is involved with the Jewish community in Budapest.  How he is bring Israeli trade to the country.  We asked him the question of the day, regarding Szegedi and his thoughts.  What struck me the most is what he said..that he isn’t a former Neo Nazi, he is/was a Nazi..not neo.  He said, that Szegedi said so many horrific things about Jews and Israel and wondered how someone who has been so evil and anti-semitic wake up and be Jewish.  After that we finally had some free time.  Most of us took that time to shop and walk around the indoor market.

Candle lighting was early at 3:50.  We walked to one of the Chabad shuls where we davened Kabbalat Shabbat and joined the Rabbi and other invited guests for dinner.

We all enjoyed a delicious dinner of salads, gefilte fish, soup and chicken.

After dinner some of us decided to try to walk off all the food we had eaten and walked over the chain bridge again and enjoyed the lobby of the beautiful Four Season’s Hotel.

 

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Allison continues with Thursday afternoon in Budapest

After we left the meeting with Szegedi we boarded the bus again and headed to our last stop of the day.  We went to see the Frankel Synagogue.  The interesting thing about this shul, is that in the 20’s an apartment building was built to surround the shul to protect it.  It can not been seen from the street.  As we entered the locked gate, we then saw the shul.  This shul is a vibrant, neolog shul.  Our tour organizer and her family, Andrea, Tibor and Tommy belong to this shul.  We walked up 3 flights of stairs and were welcomed into the “social hall” of the shul by Tibor handing us Chef hats, and plastic aprons.  Our job for the night was to actually make our dinner.  We divided up into groups and began to prepare the meal.  My job with Glynis was to chop about 25 small onions.  Other jobs were to chop garlic, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and create this yummy crepe dessert.  Alan had the job of making and cooking the yummy spaetzle.  Aviva was lucky enough to pluck the hairs from the chicken.

As we were waiting for the dinner to cook, We all got the wifi code and were able to check in with the world.  At one point, Bashi, Pat, Bob recreated their taxi ride from Romania to the Ukraine.  That taxi ride was one of the most memorable and laughable moments for all of us.  They had us all laughing to the point of crying.

Each taxi had their own funny moments and we all enjoyed listening to everyone’s stories.

We finally made it back to the hotel around 11:30 and passed out.

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Craig’s Perspective of Wednesday and Thursday

After leaving the Madi Synagogue and cemetery, we had about a 200 km drive back to Budapest and due to the lateness of the day, we had to forego the planned visit to the Tokaji winery and the Miskolc synagogue, where my uncle’s maternal grandparents were born.  It was after 10 pm when we pulled into Budapest to have dinner together at the Hanna Restaurant.  I sat with Bob Gross and Pat Garfunkel at my table.  The meal started with chicken vegetable soup and also some white wine (a consolation for missing our Tokaji winery visit).  The entrée was chicken fingers with French fries and parsley rice and for dessert we had a chocolate pudding with strawberry filling.  We then headed to our five star hotel – the Intercontinental – in Pest along the Danube River and very close to the Szechenyi (Chain) Bridge.  Having a Platinum IHG membership, I was able to check into Room 234 immediately in the priority line, which I really relished to get a nice warm shower in a larger than previous hotel showers and some much needed sleep.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

I awake at 7:10 am and panicked because I had set my Swiss alarm clock for 7 am but it hadn’t gone off.  This morning was going to be a very busy chesed mission day – visiting the Hungarian Orthodox Jewish Wesselyeni School and a Jewish nursing home in Budapest. Though Tibor had set out kosher food for breakfast (chocolate pastries and cheeses) in our special, set-aside dining room, we also had access to the buffet.  I also had some scrambled eggs from the buffet, along with croissants, and some sour cherries.  A shuttle conveyed us over to the school, and we were greeted by several students (one was Benjamin Froelick, the son of the Dohany Synagogue’s Rabbi Froelick) who ran some powerpoint slides welcoming us and telling us a little about the history of the school.  Many of our group, after the presentation, handed out gifts to some of the students.  I bought two American scenic calendars which I gave to two students.  After this, the men of the group went upstairs to daven shacharit service with the male students.  There were students from elementary to high school age students.  I met two elementary students, I think named Baruch and Gyorgi, to whom I astonished by speaking in a few words of Hungarian I had studied before coming on this trip.  They continued their giggling during the shacharit service.  Being Thursday, this service would include bringing the Torah out and reading the beginning of parashat Chaiye Sarah.  As I had not brought my tefillin into the building, the students wanted me to borrow a set and use it there.  I consented to their request, as I was reluctant to possibly damage another’s property.  Additionally, I was given the honor of Hagbah (lifting of the Torah scroll), as I was assisted by Rabbi Tessler in the proper performance of this task – since the scroll was early in the book of Genesis, the scroll is unbalanced with most of the weight on one side of the two poles.  After the shacharit service, I visited the school library with Tommy and one of his friends.  I was impressed of how well stocked with reading material the students had access to.  I also walked over to see some children painting a stained glass window with flowers, like roses, and other beautiful pictures.  Then I walked over to the nursery area, where some of the women of our group were singing nursery rhymes to very young children. It was soon time for us to leave the school and the school went on a break period; while I was standing outside, awaiting our group, one of the school’s students of high school age lit a cigarette as I was talking with him. Though I was taken aback, I think European high school student smoking is more common than their US counterparts.

Our Chesed Mission group now began our Jewish Budapest Walking tour, so from the school we headed to our site.  On the way, there was a kosher bakery, and a couple of our group’s ladies bought some pastries to share with us later.  I bought a can of Coke for 300 Forint, mostly so I could get change for a 20,000 Forint banknote.

Our first tour site was the Kazinczy Street Synagogue. Agi, our tour guide, took us inside.  I spent some time taking pictures.

The first (Carl Lutz) Holocaust Memorial we stopped at was an interesting sculpture depicting a person on the ground and an angelic figure bound up in gold ribbons connected by another ribbon positioned up on the wall of the building next door.  The sign stated, from the Talmud, “Whoever saves a life is considered as if he has saved an entire world.”

From here, our group walked past a sign, indicating the house where Theodore Herzl was born, into the Dohany Street Synagogue, which I understand to be the second largest synagogue in the world (seats 3,000 and has an area of 1200 m² and height of 26 m – apart from the towers which are 43 m).  We entered quickly past security once the guards realized we were a group of Jewish tourists.  It truly was enormous inside with splendid candlebra overhead and the women’s section above to the left and right.  I took several pictures.  Outside the front of the synagogue, I purchased a tallit clasp for 6,800 Forint as my religious souvenir from Budapest.  Along the side of the shul, where Theodore Herzl’s house originally stood, were several graves and plaques – I believe of prominent Hungarian Jews most who died in the Holocaust. Toward the back of the left side of the synagogue was another 1944 Holocaust memorial, stating SOHA TOBBE! (NEVER AGAIN!) Atop the plaque, from my perspective, appears a sculpture that depicts huddled Jews marching towards the edge of the right side where they would fall off if they go any further. Plaques of names of those Hungarian Jews who perished in the Holocaust are affixed to the synagogue walls. We walked to the back of the synagogue, to Raoul Wallenberg Emlekpark, where there stands a beautifully scintillating, aluminum willow tree, with names of Hungarian Jews who died in the Shoah.  These names are inscribed on the willow leaves of the metal rod branches.  One photo I took shows, for instance, the names Steiner Sandor Budapest and Tarjan Enore Miskolc on a branch.  Before leaving, we held a memorial observance, where Aviva Tessler read a letter related to her assigned Hungarian Jew of interest Tony Curtis and lit a memorial candle upon a stone she brought in his behalf.

From here, our shuttle conveyed us to our next chesed mission today in Pest of visiting with the infirmed senior citizens of Szeretetkorhaz.  Inside, we were welcomed by senior hospital staff and provided some juice and pastries to enjoy ourselves before we took our own gifts as well orange juice boxes and bananas provided by the facility to distribute to the residents on several floors.  This experience was very difficult for me, but I am ever thankful to have studied some Hungarian phrases before coming on this mission, like “Jo napot kivanok. En amerikai vagyok. Beszelek czak kiczit magyurul.” (I wish you a good day. I am an American. I speak only a little Hungarian). I bought two pashmina shawls which I presented to two sweet ladies.  One was alone, so I unwrapped the shawl, and though she modestly declined the gift, allowed me to put it around her.  I took her picture.  Another lady, being visited by her son and daughter in law, accepted the gift.  It just seemed to make the day more like a holiday I am sure since she was there with her ”children.” One lady reading out in the hallway spoke German so I could speak much better with her.  Many others were bed-ridden, either sleeping or simply quiet as I dropped off their refreshments.  It is so hard to see these people at the last stages of their lives and not be able to adequately speak to them.  I just hope that my visit was encouraging for them.

After this activity, we took the shuttle bus to old Buda (across the Danube) to the Obuda Synagogue where we met with Csanád Szegedi. He was a member of the Hungarian radical nationalist Jobbik political party between 2003 and 2012, which has been accused of anti-Semitism. In 2012, Szegedi gained international attention after acknowledging that he had Jewish roots.  While lunching on wraps, deviled eggs, fruit, and pastries prepared for us, Szegedi, through an interpreter, told us of his history including his eventual departure from the Jobbik Party and his conversion to Judaism – including his and his son’s circumcision and studying with a rabbi.  I think he makes a great inspirational speaker to potential converts to Judaism.  After his discussion we were able to go downstairs to visit and tour the sanctuary area of the synagogue.

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Bashi – Munkacz and onto Mad, Hungary

After yesterday’s happy sad stressful very long day, and the post-wedding vodka celebration in Sylvia and David’s presidential suite last night, I found it very difficult to fall asleep. Suzette and I (roomies for the trip) were exhausted – she fell right asleep, but I was up until 3am – so much adrenalin, so many thoughts, I just couldn’t fall asleep.

In the morning, we awoke at 8am to church bells and iPad alarm clock. We were at the lovely Hotel Star in Munkacz, where the wifi drops in and out, and the hot water is on the left and the cold on the right. Another start of hurry-up and wait… we walked to the Jewish community center nearby for breakfast of coffee with no milk in styrofoam cup, yummy tomatoes and peppers, scrambled eggs. Rabbi Tessler surprised Suzette with an air mail letter from her father, in which he told her how happy he is that she is in Munkacz, and recounting some of his favorite childhood memories. We started our walk through the former Jewish area of Munkacz – our first stop would be a beautiful shul, where all of the girls posed for a photo op in the women’s section upstairs.

Next we walked to the home where Moshe Yitzchok Jacober, the father of Debbie and Shayfeleh (aka Lenny), grew up. They had great directions – cross the bridge over the Latorca River, the first house on the left corner at Orosveg Street (now Uzhorodsks).

It was so easy to find this house compared to their mother’s home in Sighet – there it was a beautiful big blue stately home with round balconies. We were all so happy and excited – a much different feeling than in Sighet. Debbie read a letter from her cousin Steve, describing the house when he had seen it. Our guide Naomi spoke to the guard, who let us in to the house. It was vacant – being renovated for use by the military as a hotel for soldiers on leave! As we walked up the stairs, we entered a large room with beautiful floor tiles. Debbie’s first words – “Take your shoes off!”

You could picture how beautiful the house had been when the Jacober family lived there. There was a very large yard where lumber had been stored for the family lumber business – now used for parking. Lenny and Debbie stepped out on one of the balconies, and I ran downstairs to take a photo. They looked so regal – Debbie even waved a queenly wave.

We then started to look for the home of Suzette’s father – Yosef Mordechai Lachmanowitz. It was located at 17 Thokoly Street Boomi, the nice man from the Jewish community center, had told Suzette that the street name is now Tchaikovsky Street. We thought we found the location – directly across the street from a busy produce market. We couldn’t get inside the gate, so there we were, hanging around on the street, Suzette boosting herself up to peek over the fence. All of the natives buying their carrots and onions stared at us – we must have been a strange sight. I wanted to explain to them why we were there – I searched for someone, anyone, who spoke English – unsuccessfully. I was disappointed that we couldn’t get inside the gate, but Suzette seemed happy to have possibly found the house. We took photos and walked to the Gymnasium – the school that both Yosef Mordechai and Moshe Yitzchok attended before the war. It was a Jewish school where students learned both secular subjects and limudei kodesh – very enlightened for the time. It’s a beautiful building, we walked in, were offered a tour, but we were way behind schedule (what a surprise), so walked quickly back to the hotel to board the bus.

I was already a little concerned about our schedule – our next stop would be Mad, my mother’s home town. I really wanted everyone to see the charming village in the wine country, visit the perfectly restored baroque synagogue, and help me find the matzevah of my great grandmother in the cemetery. So at 12:30, we got on the bus, and did our regular Hatikvah check-in. Then we sat. And sat. And sat The bus couldn’t move – we were pinned in by parked cars. They couldn’t find the owners of the cars. At one point, Tibor asked the guys on the bus to help move one of the cars out of the way – but it couldn’t be moved. So here I was sitting on the bus, watching the minutes tick away, and feeling very frustrated. Finally, after an hour, the bus was able to move. We had lost another hour, and our schedule had to be changed. We would have to skip Miskolc, but were still hoping to visit the kosher winery near Mad and Tokaj.

Now that we were back on the road, we listened to reports on Rabbis David Halivni Weiss, Akiva Eger (mine), and the Chatam Sofer, aka the Chassum Soifer. A discussion ensued about his philosophy of closing off Judaism to new ideas – it seems that history repeats itself even today.

At 2:15 we got to the border – leaving Ukraine, entering Hungary. Of course, we had to stop and wait. Somehow a bunch of us started reminiscing about Marci and Gene, explaining to people who didn’t know them the story of that memorable weekend. We started moving again at 3:15, just a few hundred meters, to the next checkpoint. Yes, another hour had gone by…. About ten minutes later, we started moving again, stopped, were told to get out of the bus with our passports. We entered a building where we stood in line to get our passports stamped. A nice young man was in a booth – his name tag said “Kiss Eric Roland”. So we all thought we had to kiss him – but I guess we were mistaken. Back to the bus with our tuna sandwiches, tomatoes, and hard boiled eggs, we washed for hamotzi with bottled water at the side of the road. We started moving again at 4:00! Next discussion – a Hungary beauty pageant, Debbie would be Miss Sighet, Suzette Miss Munkacz ,and I will be Miss Mad!

As we started to get closer to Mad, we passed a sign for Kisvarda. This is the town where my beloved Uncle Yide, Rav Yehuda Friedman, was born. He now lives in Yerushalayim, he is about 95-96 years old, I called him to say “guess where I am” – thinking he would be excited that I am so near his birthplace. He was not impressed, didn’t really understand why I would want to go to Hungary, a place of such misery for him and so many others. But he sounded fine, b”h.

David started teaching us about Rav Nachman of Bratislav. In the middle of his talk, the bus pulled over to the side of the road, and surprise – our passportless driver was back with us! We greeted him with applause… I’m not sure why. We davened mincha outside of the bus – I used the handy Siddur app on my iPhone, as usual. Sylvia told us about Max Nordau – I didn’t know much about him before, he was quite an interesting man. He rejected Judaism, but worked closely with Herzl in his Zionist efforts. Then Bob taught us about Theodore Herzl. While he was talking, Suzette yelled out “THERE’S A BATHROOM ON THE BUS!!!” What??? How could we not have known that? Today was full of surprises. Bob continued talking about Herzl, and we learned that all of his children died young, Very sad.

We were finally entering Zemplen townships, closing in on Mad. Alan told us about the towns we were passing, including Bodrogkisfraud, home of the the Miracle Rebbe, and Tokaj, a famous wine village. Unfortunately it was too dark or us to see the beautiful countryside.

We pulled up to the beautiful Mad Synagogue, built in 1794 – lit up for our arrival. It has been immaculately restored with funds from the Joint and from private sources. While I had been there a few years ago, I was interested in how my friends would react when they saw the beautiful interior. Everyone was so amazed at its beauty. Alan spoke about the shul’s history, his involvement, and told us about his family who had lived in Mad. I showed everyone photos of my mother and her sisters before the war, my grandparents during the time of World War I and in the ghetto before Auschwitz, and some more recent photos of my mother and her family. The women walked outside and up stairs to visits the women’s section, where we davened maariv. It was so beautiful to sing Aleinu – standing where my grandmother sat over seventy years ago We went back to the shul, and lit candles at the memorial plaques for the souls from Mad who perished in the Shoah, including my grandparents Mordechai Gimpel and Regina Grossman, and my aunt Udika. I then read a letter to my grandparents – it was very difficult for me. My mother told me how wonderful they were, I wish I could have known them. I ended the letter by showing them a list of their descendants – 298, at last count. It is our blessing and our revenge.

Alan and I lit memorial candles, Rabbi Tessler sang the Kel Molei Rachamim, and we sang Hatikvah together. So unbelievably moving. So wonderful to share the experience with my old and new friends.

Next decision – do we go to the cemetery to look for the matzevah of my mother’s mother’s mother, Fayga bat Yosef Dov haCohen? Some of us decided to give it a try – Alan led the way, hundreds of dogs barked very loudly as we walked in the dark, and we took a wrong turn. With the help of Glynis’s GPS, we got back on track. People were impressed by the gematriya combination lock on the gate. It was so dark and calm in the cemetery. Some of us tried to find my great grandmother’s grave, but we finally agreed that it was too difficult and dangerous because of the dark and the slope and the high grass. So we said goodbye to the cemetery and walked down a very dark and lovely path to where the bus awaited us.

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Munkacz, Ukraine – Bob

Woke up this morning in Munkacz, Ukraine.  My room at the Star Hotel is beautiful.  The hotel itself is beautiful and the street it is on is beautiful.

It is now 7:15 am.  The plan is to meet in the lobby and then walk to a nearby shul.  After davening (reciting prayers) at the shul (Yiddish for synagogue), we will have breakfast at the Jewish Community Center.  We will then go on a walking tour before leaving on our tour bus for Mad, Hungary.

I looked out the window in my room and, to my surprise, saw the initial stages of a bright and colorful sunrise.  I could tell that it was going to be another great day.  And it was.  Here is what I did, along with some personal reflections:

As planned, I met Rabbi Tessler in the lobby.  I then walked outside to wait for the rest of the men.  It is a crisp, clear, and gorgeous fall day.  In front of me is a plaza where a large, imposing statue of Lenin once stood.  I am also near the ghetto where, seventy years ago, thousands of Jews were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz.

The sun is shining on the large yellow leaves on the many mature trees lining the streets.  There are several dogs roaming around – well-behaved ones and very cute – without a leash.  Apparently, dogs have free rein on the streets.

The Night Before

When we arrived in Munkacz (also spelled Munkacs and Mukacheve) the night before, I felt that I was on another planet, not just in a former communist (Soviet bloc) country at war with Russia on its western border.  Everything was so unfamiliar and different – from the street signs in both Hungarian and Ukrainian to the architecture to the currency.  I felt a little uneasy and bewildered.  But those feelings were quickly dispelled by our local tour guide, Naomi Tabak, who told me that Munkacz is a very peaceful town where Jews could walk around with a yarmulke and even wear tzitzit without any problem.  Naomi was born in Munkacz and has three young boys and one daughter.  Later that night, I met her daughter, who was sitting in a very modern baby carriage.  The next day I saw one of her sons playing in a schoolyard.  These were very cute kids!

The Morning Minyan

After walking several blocks from the hotel to the shul, we joined the minyan already in place and about to begin the morning service.  The Shaliach Tzibur (prayer leader) read the entire prayer service out loud and at a very fast pace.  We were done in about 30 minutes (nice!).  I could not help but think how honored and privileged we were to daven with this fine group in a place with such a rich but tragic history.  Although the locals at the shul spoke no or little English, I was able to express my appreciation to them by shaking their hands, and saying Yasher Koach (a form of congratulations) and other kind Hebrew and Yiddish expressions.

Breakfast at the JCC

Next, we ate breakfast at the JCC across from the shul.  The president of the Jewish community, Avraham Leibovich, honored us with his presence and, along with what appeared to be local volunteers, personally served all of us (about 20 men and women) coffee, tea, hot eggs, and other breakfast goodies.  During the delicious meal, Rabbi Tessler surprised us by reading a letter from Suzette’s father, Mark Lane, who was born on a farm near Munkacz.  Mark spent most of his youth (until age 14) living in Munkacz.  The reading of the letter made the experience even more surreal because it felt like Mark was actually in the room.  In a very loving way, Suzette’s father expressed his gratitude to his daughter for making the trip to Munkacz and attempting to retrace his childhood footsteps.

(As I write this blog, I am thinking that this is a great tour group that has bonded and laughed together on many occasions.  Without going into a lot of detail, every aspect of this trip has been meaningful, transformative, and full of learning experiences.)

The Walking Tour

After breakfast, we headed through town to visit a newly rededicated shul.  It was still under construction.  I heard someone say a billionaire donor is paying for the restoration.  The shul’s design was interesting and impressive.  Suzette’s dad attended the original shul.

On the way to the shul, Naomi pointed out locations where other shuls and many Jewish homes and businesses once stood.  She said the town was known as a “small Yerushalyim.”  Naomi stressed that, before the war, 48% of the town was Jewish.  There were 18 shuls.  It had been an extraordinarily vibrant and robust Jewish community.

We also passed a memorial on Valenberha Street that marked the beginning of the ghetto where Jews had been rounded up before being deported to Auschwitz.  A plaque on a wall explains that, beginning on April 4, 1944, this was where thousands of Jews were taken to be murdered.  (I think the plaque is a bit more poetic and actually states something like this is where the Jews were taken to join Hashem in eternity.)  On the same wall, there was also a plaque honoring Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Jews in Hungary during the Holocaust.

We then head to Uzhorodska Street where Debbie and Lenny’s father once lived.  They had never been there before and were quite moved when they saw his grand, corner house still standing.  The house has two second floor balconies overlooking the street.

In what may have been the master bedroom, Debbie read out loud a moving letter she wrote to her father, Moshe Yitzchok Jacober (may his memory be for a blessing), as if he were still with us (the letter was Alan’s idea).  The letter stressed how fortunate she felt to be on this tour where she was able to retrace the footsteps of her father — an “incredible and unbelievable experience”.  Lenny, her learned brother from Israel, with whom I had the pleasure to study Daf Yomi, also provided some kind words.  Lenny emphasized that his father instilled in him and his sister the importance of having good character traits, particularly to be kind, graceful, and charitable . . . and to greet everyone with a smile.  (This may be why Lenny — like my own dad, of loving memory — became a dentist!)

Next we walked across a bridge spanning the Latorika River.  The river cut through the town.  It was as calm as a gentle breeze on a cool autumn’s day.  From the bridge, I saw several mountain peaks in the distance and a large castle on one of the peaks.  Naomi explained to me that the castle was built in the 11th century and is now a museum that has a room devoted to Jewish history.  She also said that in the room are photos and a list of all those deported from Munkacz to Auschwitz.

We then headed to a once flourishing Hebrew Gymnasium (Jewish high school) that had been attended by Suzette’s father, Debbie and Lenny’s father, and Bashi’s friend Ruth.  The school included secular studies.  On the way, we passed a memorial to villagers who were killed when helping to liberate the town from the Nazis in 1945.  As we walked, I noticed how bustling and lively the town is with its well-dressed people (young and old alike) and lots and lots of shops – some very fancy!  Naomi pointed out that “Munkacz has always been a European town, with each building having its own history.”

We arrived at the former Jewish high school.  A plaque on the wall states:  “In this building from 1924–1944 was a Hebrew Gymnasium — an important cultural and social center.”  Bashi showed us a photo of her friend Ruth’s class.  There were many students in the photo.  We were invited into the big and stately building – now a secular business college.  Inside we met a young female English teacher and a female student.  We saw a conference room the rivals any in the United States.  It contained a big and beautiful oval table and a large flat-screen TV.  On the walls in the main hallway, there were beautifully framed photos of business students wearing medals for academic achievement.  Although I was impressed by the college’s size and sophistication, I was also dismayed about the tragic and unimaginable loss of what used to be a prestigious and world-class Jewish institution.

Back at the hotel we boarded the bus for our trip back to Budapest with an en route stop at Mad, Hungary.  The bus was stuck, however, because of a parked car blocking the way.  While the police figured out what to do, many of us took advantage of the extra time by walking over to a nearby café with an outdoor patio.  The whole town was full of people and shoppers.  The weather was warm for November (60s) and the sun was still shining.  It was mid-afternoon.  We sat outside at a large table enjoying various hot drinks while just relaxing and people watching.  After someone moved the car, we got back on the bus and drove though the countryside to Mad, while admiring the beautiful fall colors, Carpathian mountain vistas, and tranquil farm land.  As the bus drove along, we also listened to outstanding presentations by members of our group on various scholarly subjects pertinent to our travels.

Our visit to Mad was incredibly meaningful and moving but that story will be left for others….

 

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Debbie continues in Sighet

We stayed in a charming hotel just down the street from the home of Elie Weisel.  We had a tour guide who described the home, and what was original furnishings…One really felt what prewar life was like growing up in that house on that street.  Szighet is a lovely village, with a nice town square, and parks. Surrounded by views of the Carpathian Mountains.  We went to see the one remaining shul (others had been completely destroyed).  Standing in that shul is very inspiring, the beautiful architecture, large spacious room and windows. One thing that struck me was a drawing depicting a tombstone, commemorating 2 particular Jews that perished in the camps. Since they were without a proper matzevah, these drawings were produced.

From there we went to the Jewish community center, with another lovely guide describing what used to be Szighet. At the same time some of us went into a separate office and looked through old dusty original ledgers that had names of survivors in 1945 that returned. Names of family members were found (my brother and I found our Mother and Aunt, it was a powerful moment to see those names hand written). More detective work led us to where our Mother’s house once stood. The group was so inspiring to want to take the time to help find it, and share in the excitement of seeing it.

Lastly, one of the highlights was visiting the cemetery, and again finding family tombstones. The awe of finding these, and returning to this town to pay respect to past descendants, was incredible.  Once again for Lenny and me, the particular monuments of true tzadikim.  It was our great Grandfather, and great great Grandfather. He was the Elich Shai and wrote many famous books. So holy, that there were notes left (like at the kotel) by the gravestone. Those graves were also in a separate structure of their own, again great Tzadikim. It was very moving for us to really see our roots; how those roots have shaped our lives, and how much we have lost because of the holocaust.

Next, Rabbi Tessler found some relatives tombstones as well. We were all so taken by the find. Our Rabbi was very moved. We said tehillim in this very special Jewish cemetery.

We left Szighet to travel to Munkacs. We had some hardships that turned into comedy on our journey. There were issues at the border crossing into the Ukraine, our driver didn’t have the proper documentation.  We had to wait hours for a new driver to arrive.  Luckily, Alan called for 7 taxis to take us on the few hour ride. We were quite the group on the side of the road, going through our suitcases, pulling out what we need for the night since there would not have been room in the taxis for all of our stuff.  No one complained and the jokes prevailed.

Finally we arrived late to a charming hotel, with a nice warm dinner nearby, all in Munkacs style.  It turned out David and Sylvia had an enormous suite with a Hungarian style dining room! We joked that it was the honeymoon suite so we pretended to have a wedding there. After a long and emotional day the vodka l’chaims were very much enjoyed!

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