My Story: The only 'Levi'

A son honors his father's slaughtered family as he prays in the Rema on Yom Kippur.

October 10, 2008 19:55
My Story: The only 'Levi'

Kazimierz 88. (photo credit: )


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It is inevitable that within minutes of leaving Krakow International Airport, your taxi driver will be either cheering or cursing the recent property boom in the old part of this medieval city which celebrated its 750th anniversary last June, the buildings unharmed by war. This boom is also happening in the old Jewish Quarter - Kazimierz. But Kazimierz is a Potemkin village, a ghost town, a Disneyland of tourists driven round the cobbled main square in yellow golf carts, the recorded spiel in German, English, Polish or Hebrew. Painted on the windshields of these mini-trams are the other offerings of their tour companies - "Auschwitz-Birkenau, Salt Mines" - some choice. Except for the Rema, built in 1558 and attached to the old Jewish cemetery, none of the many synagogues are regularly used as places of prayer and study. They are dusty museums, a Polish babushka guarding the door and taking five zlotys off everyone who wishes to enter. In August 1939 there were almost 70,000 Jews in Krakow. Now the Jewish community numbers around 150. The Nazis murdered about 65,000 Jews from Krakow and its immediate environs. I came to Krakow for Yom Kippur because I am a Levi. In all of Krakow there is not one Levi. I am the only one. They would call me up for the second aliya. I have another reason for being at the Rema. My father's family comes from Nizni Apsa, a village in Ruthenia, now within Ukraine. My pregnant aunt Henia and her eight young children - Pepi (11), Henrik (10), Edita (nine), Magdelena (seven), Tibor (six), Ernest (four), Eva (three) and Helena (one) - were seized in the part of Slovakia occupied by Hungary in early June 1944, transported to Auschwitz and murdered on June 10, 1944. I only learned the children's names and ages this summer. My uncle, Moritz Lebovits and his wife Feiga and two children - Breina (11) and Levi (nine) - also perished in Poland. They were deported from Poprad, Slovakia, to Lublin/Sobibor in 1942. The Rema is 70 kilometers from Auschwitz. I was determined to have their 13 names spoken aloud during Yizkor. IT IS RATHER bizarre heading to the Jewish Quarter, which is vibrant, jammed with restaurants, shops and the tourists here to see Jewish life, but no Jews. On the wall of a "Jewish style" restaurant are the imitation signs of shops from long ago. Jewish names are mixed with Polish ones: Aaron Weinberg - leather goods; Stanislaw Nowalk - grocery shop, and so on. Below them are quotes from a rabbi and a priest. Both are equally absurd. The priest notes that the establishment "...appears to have been caught in a time warp. The delights of Polish and Jewish traditional cuisine it offers will set you off on a sentimental journey into the past." No Jew would want to take this journey. Poland was not a cozy place for Jews. The last pogrom was in Kielce in 1946. A Pole claimed he was kidnapped for the purpose of ritual murder. The populace, including members of the army and the police, turned on what Jews remained. Forty-two Jews were murdered. The Polish court handed out 12 death sentences. In the old cemetery, over which the synagogue stands guard, is the grave of Moses Isserles (c.1525-1572), the Rema, perhaps the foremost Ashkenazic scholar of Jewish law. He compiled Mapa, the "Tablecloth" for the Shulhan Aruch, the "Set Table." Some 350 meters but a metaphysical light-year away from the Rema Synagogue is the entry to the Progressive "Tempel," a Reform synagogue built between 1860 and 1862. A beautiful place, with a gallery above, Moorish tiles on the floor and stained-glass windows, but rarely used. On the eastern wall, near the ark, hangs a framed black-and-white photograph with the caption "Dr. Rabbi Ozjasz Thon," taken in the 1920s or '30s. I liked the look of him - modern, an intellectual, laughter wrinkles at the corners of the eyes. I had no clue who this man was; I wondered what became of him. I found out at an exhibition called "A World Before Catastrophe - Jewish Krakow between the World Wars" at the International Cultural Institute - Rynek Glowny. The first thing you see is a three-meter-high poster with a quote from Rabbi Thon, when as a deputy of the Sejm (parliament) he gave a speech on July 31, 1919, urging the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles: "In the name of those three million Jews, in the name of those people whom certain strata at the top and the bottom would like to oust by force... to the detriment of the Polish state... I declare that we offer you all our affection." Born in 1870, he died in 1936. He was a preacher at the Progressive Tempel. So far so good. A patriot who did not turn his back on his own people. Dead and buried before the Holocaust. But that's not the end. He was buried in the new Jewish cemetery. The camp to which most of Krakow's Jews were deported was Plaszow, a 20-minute tram ride from Kazimierz. Gravestones from that cemetery, including Thon's, were uprooted, leaving upturned earth with bones poking out, and taken to Plaszow to pave the road around the camp offices. I MET RABBI Edgar Gluck the last time I was in Krakow. He is a short man with a white beard and has a Brooklyn accent you can cut with a knife. He has been coming to Krakow for 26 years. Each time he brings cases of frozen kosher meat from New York City. The closest kosher butcher is in Vienna. I knew he would lead the services for Yom Kippur, staying at the Eden Hotel, around the corner from the synagogue. The hotel has a kosher kitchen/restaurant, the only one in Krakow. Eden has a mikve, a pub called the Old Goat in the cave-like area below it and a salt grotto. I caught the rabbi in the foyer about 8 p.m. on the day before Yom Kippur. I came upon him sitting alone, looking uncharacteristically tired, drained, vulnerable, shadows under his eyes. He rallied almost immediately. He'd been at Chelmno extermination camp looking at a dig he said was in violation of both Jewish and Polish law - disturbing a mass grave. He spoke with the mayor, the American ambassador, his friend the cardinal of Poland, and The New York Times. He bounced off his chair, yelled for Danny, a young Pole who works at the hotel and doubles as his driver, grabbed me and hustled us outside. We drove across the Vistula to some dark industrial area. We went into what was a commercial bakery. The rabbi was known there. He cracked a few jokes with the Polish bakers, threw a handful of flour into a huge vat of dough, then he turned on the commercial oven. On the ride back across the river to the Eden, I told the rabbi the names of my relatives, he told me to write them out and give them to Mr. Stein. Mr. Stein. Every shul has a man like Mr. Stein. He is 94 and in pretty good shape. He leads the minyan. He davens with a strong Ashkenazi accent. His quavering voice just about fills the small Rema. When I was a young boy at synagogue in Los Angeles on Yom Kippur, if the rabbi was running late, an old man like Mr. Stein would stand and chant the concluding service. My father used to tell me not to worry, the old man would get on his bicycle and speed through it. My father had been an orphan at a Jewish boarding school in Prague in the 1930s and made his pocket money being 10th man at morning minyan. My father began his flight from Europe in Bratislava in October 1939. His sister, my aunt Helena, who had made aliya to Palestine in 1934, sent him one British pound, which converted into 900 krone, enough to pay for the exit visas he needed from the Germans. Adolf Eichmann stamped his passport. He said to my father in Hebrew: "Jew, what will you do when we get to Palestine?" Eichmann had spent part of 1937 in the German colony in Palestine. My father sailed down the Danube to the Black Sea where he transshipped to an Aliya Bet vessel bound for Haifa. On February 13, 1942, my father sent a letter in German from the Red Cross office in Tel Aviv to his brother Moritz in Poprad: "Got a letter from Anton [my other paternal uncle who escaped on the Pancho to Italy and eventually Palestine] (We) will take care of him. (I'm) working as a mechanic, living at Helen's. Henie already healthy? Will write more often, everybody healthy? Regards, Martin." The letter was answered by a German official in Bratislava on May 19, 1943: "Addressee was relocated from Slovakia on May 31, 1942, wherefore message undelivered. In spite of request in the Official Journal of the Head Office of the Jews, also none of the relatives gave notice, therefore [sent] back." The returned letter was posted by the Slovak Red Cross on May 3, 1944, and passed by the censor in Palestine on May 12, 1944. My father, Martin, is 91 and lives with my mother, Beryl, in Los Angeles. The problem was Mr. Stein cannot read English. He can read Polish and Hebrew and, for that matter, he can read Russian as he had been an officer in the Red Army during World War II. Someone at the Eden offered to write out the list of my relatives' names in Hebrew. Another offered to do the same in Polish. No. Better I did it myself. I wrote the names in my half-remembered Hebrew script alone. I went outside the Eden and crossed the cobbles to a few empty tables and chairs that make up the now deserted beer garden. I slipped on a kippa that I happened to have in the rear pocket of my jeans. The 13 names were in documents from the Czechoslovak government and Yad Vashem. I spelled these names phonetically in Hebrew, adding the vowel notations. It was Erev Yom Kippur. The sun would not set for another two hours. I put the list in my tallit bag, and nipped over to the Rema, leaving the bag on one of the rear seats. I could hand the names to Mr. Stein in shul just before Yizkor.

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