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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
(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
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.