Slowly and somewhat hesitantly, Karol began to recite the blessing before the reading of the Torah. Ever so slightly, it was possible to detect a hint of nervousness in his voice as he uttered the Hebrew words, unquestionably aware of the solemnity of the occasion.
With his parents and siblings looking on in evident pride, and the congregation enveloping him in warmth and joy, Karol underwent this sublime rite of passage into manhood, just like Jewish boys the world over.
Only this was no regular bar mitzva.
Karol is 16 years old, lives in a suburb of Katowice, Poland, and as a child did not even know he was Jewish. And his story is one that should inspire in us all a sturdy confidence in the eternity of Israel.
Located in the Silesia region, Katowice was part of Prussia until 1921, when it was known by its German name, Kattowitz. After the discovery of large coal deposits in the area in the middle of the 19th century, the city began to grow and attracted an increasing number of Jews. The first synagogue was opened in September 1862, and by 1867 Jews constituted 12 percent of Katowice’s population.
In November 1884, the city played host to a seminal event in modern Zionist history, as representatives of the Hibbat Zion movement from different countries, headed by Leon Pinsker and M. L. Lilienblum, gathered there for what came to be known as the Kattowitz Conference. The meeting galvanized the nascent Zionist movement and initiated several concrete measures to settle the Land of Israel and aid its brave pioneers.
After Katowice became part of Poland, it wasn’t long before anti-Semitism began to rear its ugly head. In 1937, local Jews were targeted by pogroms, violent attacks and economic boycotts, which led many to abandon the city. On the eve of World War II, just over 6% of the population was Jewish.
Within days of the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Katowice had fallen to the bestial occupiers, who quickly went to work and set fire to the Great Synagogue before expelling the Jews and sending most of them to their deaths in Auschwitz.
After the war, a number of Jews returned to the city and its surroundings, but Communist oppression led many to leave in subsequent decades, while others chose to hide their identity out of fear.
A few years ago, Shavei Israel, the organization I founded, dispatched a young and dynamic rabbi to Katowice, Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis, to serve as spiritual leader of the community and help those with Jewish roots to reconnect with our people.
Together with his wife, Rabbi Ellis has had a significant impact, organizing classes and seminars, leading services, visiting homebound elderly Holocaust survivors and breathing new life into the area. Working in cooperation with Poland’s tireless Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Rabbi Ellis has literally changed people’s lives, including those of young Karol and his family.
Several months ago, Rabbi Ellis was approached by Karol’s father, who had heard about a new series of Hebrew classes being offered.
Explaining that he had Jewish roots in his family, Karol’s father mentioned that his wife’s mother was Jewish, leading Rabbi Ellis to confirm to him that his wife and children were therefore members of the tribe.
The family began attending services and communal events on a regular basis, and eventually approached Rabbi Ellis with an unusual question: At the age of 16, was Karol required to have a bar mitzva if he had not done so previously? Explaining that there was no halachic obligation to do so, Rabbi Ellis suggested that it would nonetheless be fitting for young Karol to ascend to the Torah as a bar mitzva as a form of milestone event on which he could look back as he grew older.
And so, this past Shabbat, in the small room that is now used as Katowice’s synagogue, I stood beside Karol, transfixed as he intoned the blessing that praises the King of the Universe for giving us the Torah.
By every rational measure, I thought to myself, this moment would have been unthinkable 70 years ago, when the very existence of Jewish life in Katowice was in danger of being snuffed out forever. And yet here we were, in a room bathed in Shabbat sanctity, defying history and logic to declare that the Jewish people still live! As we took Karol by the hand and danced around in an ever-accelerating circle, a passage in the Zohar came to mind, where the mystical work states that at joyous family occasions, the souls of deceased loved ones come to participate in the celebration as well.
Somehow, I was sure, it was not just Karol’s antecedents who were there with us in spirit, but all of Katowice’s precious Jews who had been murdered by the Germans and their evil collaborators.
Even if the Nazi fiends succeeded in slaying most of Katowice Jewry, they ultimately failed to extinguish the pintele yid, the Jewish spark that lives on from one generation to the next regardless of our enemies.
And at that moment, I knew it to be true: We are without doubt the eternal people.
Mazal tov, Karol, and may your example inspire many other young Jews, in Poland and elsewhere.