Editor's Notes: Light in the darkness

Shavei Israel, the primary outreach organization to Polish Jews holds a moving Shabbaton near Auschwitz.

April 11, 2013 22:04
RABBI BOAZ PASH says the Havdala blessings in the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue in Oswiecim.

havdala370. (photo credit: Steve Linde)

OSWIECIM, Poland – Michael Freund sat after Shabbat prayers in the 100-year-old Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue in the small Polish town of Oswiecim, and told the 36 people in attendance his favorite hassidic story.

“Someone once approached the great Kotzker Rebbe – Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk – and said to him, ‘Rebbe, you are known to be a great miracle- worker. So why don’t you revive the dead?’ The Rebbe thought for a moment and then responded: ‘You know what? If I wanted to, I could revive the dead. But I prefer to revive the living.’” That, said Freund, is the goal of the organization he founded and chairs, Shavei Israel: “To revive the living, to reach out to descendants of Jews and help them to return to their roots and reclaim their heritage.”

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Freund, together with Shavei Israel’s two charismatic emissaries in Poland – the Jerusalem-born Rabbi Boaz Pash and Kansas City-born Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis – had gathered mostly young people from all over Poland exploring their Jewish roots for a Shabbaton in the synagogue located on the other side of the Sola River from the Auschwitz death camp.

The group included a 20- year-old student whose grandmother had informed her family on Christmas eve before she died that they were all in fact Jewish. Freund helped him lay tefillin for the first time. Another young man who related how his family had been hidden during the Holocaust by a Polish family.

A woman recalled discovering that her family was Jewish by opening a chest filled with religious items that her mother had forbidden anyone to touch, and a brunette with two beautiful, blonde daughters.

Another woman with two children, a boy aged 8 and a girl aged 10, found out through genealogical research that her paternal grandfather had been an SS officer who fled to Poland after the war while her maternal grandfather had been Jewish.

There were a friendly family with Jewish roots undergoing an Orthodox conversion to Judaism and a young, secular Jewish doctor who came by train from a nearby town. And there was a 65-year-old retiree who drove us on Sunday to Auschwitz, where he broke down in tears and told us that at the age of 51, he had learned from his father that he was Jewish and that six of his father’s brothers had been murdered in the infamous death camp.

Each person had an amazing story to tell, as we sat together for kosher meals organized by Shavei Israel, despite the difficulties facing the local Jewish community regarding ritual slaughter. They all exhibited an insatiable appetite to learn about Judaism and Israel.

“Our aim is to underline the indestructibility of the Jewish spirit. By bringing these young people together to honor and explore their Jewish heritage, we are sending a message to the world that we are truly an eternal nation,” Freund says. “I can’t think of a better way to demonstrate that the Jewish people still live than by celebrating Shabbat with young Polish Jews in the shadow of the valley of death known as Auschwitz.”

Asked why he chose to hold the Shabbaton so close to the site of the most infamous former death camp, Freund replies: “In this place, where Hitler and his henchmen so ruthlessly sought to erase all traces of Judaism, and nearly succeeded in doing so, we came together to show that Jewish life still endures.

“Almost seven decades after the Holocaust, the best revenge is to revitalize Jewish life and to bring these young Poles with Jewish roots back to our people.”

A young man from Netanya studying medicine in Poland (with 10 other Israelis) told me that he could not explain why, but there seemed to be “a real Jewish revival” in the country.

Various estimates put the number of Jews in Poland at between 4,000 and 5,000, but he believes there are many more who keep their Jewish identity a secret.

Freund agrees. “In recent years, a growing number of young Poles have begun to discover their Jewish roots,” he says. “Against all odds, the ‘hidden Jews’ of Poland are emerging, seeking to reconnect with the Jewish people. I believe that we have a historical, moral and religious responsibility to reach out to them, embrace them and welcome them back home.

That is what their forefathers would have wanted, and we owe it to them to try.”

What motivates Freund, who made aliya from New York and lives in Ra’anana with his family? “My late grandmother’s first cousin, Isaac Kottler, and his wife, Anna, were rounded up by the French collaborationist police in Paris in the summer of 1942 and held in the Drancy detention camp before being deported on September 2, 1942, on Transport 27 to Auschwitz, where they were murdered by the Germans,” he says. “So I feel a very strong personal connection to the issue of reaching out to survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants.”

On Sunday, as our group began a tour of Auschwitz, where some 1.1 million Jews were murdered, Freund went up to Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen.

Benny Gantz – the son of a Holocaust survivor – who was concluding his visit ahead of the March of the Living which he led the next day.

Freund shook Gantz’s hand, saying, “Thank God we have merited to live in a generation where the people of Israel have their own chief of staff.”

The pre-Holocaust Jewish community of Oswiecim (which first settled there in the 16th century) called the town Oshpitzim, which means “guests” in Aramaic. The synagogue, built in 1913, was the only Jewish house of prayer not demolished by the Nazis. It was renovated together with a museum and education center, and the Auschwitz Jewish Center reopened to the public in September 2000 “to honor the former residents of the town and to teach future generations about the destruction caused by the Holocaust.”

Before the Shoah began in 1939, more than half of the town’s 14,000 residents were Jewish – merchants, doctors, lawyers and rabbis – and in 1934, Dr. Emil Reich was elected deputy mayor.

Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org) is the primary organization working in a concerted fashion to reach out to Poles with Jewish roots. It runs seminars and Shabbatonim throughout the year in Poland, publishes books about Jewish history and Judaism in Polish, distributes a weekly Parsha sheet in Polish via the Internet, organizes an annual threeweek summer program in Israel in Polish for young Poles, and assists those who wish to make aliya.

For me, the most moving moment of the Shabbaton in Oswiecim was singing Am Yisrael Hai (The People of Israel Lives) together with Moshe Kusminsky, a musician and educator, and his wife, Tzivia, Argentinean olim who flew out from Israel especially for the weekend.

We all joined in as Rabin Boaz (that’s what the community calls the beloved rabbi who has learned to speak fluent Polish), made the Havdala blessings while a young boy (whose mother told me was a math whizz kid) held up the twisted candle.

After a week of snow, rain and freezing temperatures, the historic synagogue in the darkest of places was filled with warmth, light and laughter as we held hands and danced in a circle.

The writer was a guest of Shavei Israel.

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