The fallen Sukkot of Jewish Poland

Dateline: Warsaw 1968

Nozyk Synagogue sukkah 2019, Poland (photo credit: MICHAEL SCHUDRICH)
Nozyk Synagogue sukkah 2019, Poland
(photo credit: MICHAEL SCHUDRICH)
The sukkah symbolizes the fragility of life: temporary, exposed to the elements, at the mercy of the all-too-often hostile environment – especially in Jewish Warsaw 50 years ago.
Originally, I had decided to spend the first days of Sukkot in Poland in 1968 only as an afterthought. Inspired by Elie Wiesel’s Jews of Silence, I was on my way to celebrate Simhat Torah in Moscow with young Soviet Jews, and thought that Warsaw would be a good “stopover” on the way to my real mission. Little did I realize what such a trip would evoke only 23 years after the end of World War II.
Armed with a map of Warsaw I had picked up on the plane, I went searching for Jews. On that Sunday afternoon, everything felt desolate and deathly quiet. I passed a house still in rubble from the war, noted the slapped-together construction of many of the buildings, finally found my way to the synagogue – and it was locked. I was spotted by a grizzly looking fellow who took me to an adjacent apartment block where I met the wife of the late hazan (cantor) of Warsaw with her two sons. Soon their uncle entered, the current shochet (kosher slaughterer) and shaliach tzibur (prayer leader) of Kehillah Kedoshah Varshavah, the Holy Congregation of Warsaw. Jewish life was almost non-existent, they told me. Most were leaving or were forced out by the government. There was no future for Jews in Poland.
As evening approached, a dozen of us gathered for the start of the holiday. The Torah’s description of Sukkot as zman simchatenu (“the time of our joy”) was not reflected in the mood of Warsaw that day. The men were very open: The situation was hopeless, almost no Jews remained. One man had been employed as a teacher in the Jewish community but could imagine no work in the future. The once glorious life of Polish Jewry was no more.
I returned to the synagogue the following morning for services. The large prayer hall was dark. There had been an electrical blackout. The temporary, flickering candles called to mind a haunting death-bed scene. I received the honor of maftir, the reading of which came from Zechariah 14:9, describing the future apocalyptic battle for Jerusalem when “The Lord will be king over the all the world, and on that day He will be One and His name One.” Earthly Warsaw seemed to merge into a heavenly vision or nightmare.
AFTER SERVICES and lunch at the community soup kitchen, I wandered through the remnants of Jewish life in Warsaw: the Jewish Museum, the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto, Mila Street where Mordechai Anielewicz and his band of fighters fought and fell in the 1943 revolt. At the Ghetto Heroes Monument, I read the inscription: Am Yisrael – l’lochamav ul’kodoshov (To the Jewish people – its fighters and martyrs). I took out my siddur (prayer book) and it fell open to Psalm 20: Ya’ancha Hashem b’yom tzara (The Lord will answer you on the day of trouble). Smokestacks loomed on the horizon.
Even though it was time for the evening services, I felt overwhelmed with sadness; useless, tired and ready to return to the hotel for a needed rest, but at the last moment I decided to stop by the synagogue; I was the 10th man for the minyan. Warsaw, which before the war had been the home to nearly 400,000 Jews (out of a total Polish Jewish population of over three million), could barely scrape together a quorum for holiday services.
We adjourned into the sukkah for kiddush. When I mentioned to them that I was studying to be a rabbi in the US, one of them asked if I had brought a Shulhan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) with me. I laughed at his joke, but only then I understood: He wanted me to conduct a Jewish wedding in Warsaw! It was for a Jewish couple that was leaving Poland that very week, and the mother, who was staying behind, wanted to be present at their huppah (wedding canopy). At first I refused the great honor, for even though I had witnessed my rabbinical father perform many Jewish weddings, I was still a student and had not been ordained.
“Why me?” I asked? “Ata ra’uy,” was their response, meaning “You are worthy.” And when someone says you are worthy of something, it is hard to refuse. One of the women called me a malach, (an angel) and my reply was “Efshar a mentsh, aval nisht a malach!” (Maybe a mentsh, but definitely not an angel!)
Maybe that was the reason I was supposed to come to Warsaw in the first place.
A few days later, we gathered at the synagogue for the long-anticipated wedding ceremony. The mother arrived with her son. He was an internationally known pianist who came dressed in his best concert tuxedo. His bride came in a party dress and was accompanied by a few friends. Save for the mother, none had ever been to a Jewish wedding before. We filled out the ketubah (wedding contract), I put on a tallit (prayer shawl) and stood with them under the huppah. The cavernous and nearly empty synagogue echoed the isolation yet intimacy we all felt. I explained to them, a bit in Russian, a bit in Hebrew, with a Polish translation, that the huppah symbolizes God’s watchfulness and protection, and that their future life should be as sweet as the wine we were blessing.
As we were about to conclude the ceremony, I noted that at every simcha, every joyous occasion, we recall sadness and our hopes for a better future for us and our people. I couldn’t help but think how fitting this was, especially in Jewish Warsaw a generation after the Holocaust. We broke the glass, and there were many tears and wishes of Mazal Tov.
The mother would not give me their names, for fear I might be stopped, but allowed me to take their “wedding picture.”
THE CONCLUSION of my Polish trip was a visit to Auschwitz, long before the days of organized tours and marches. It was a lonely and desolate journey. I kept asking myself: Why have I, as a Jew, been permitted to leave Auschwitz alive? Was I actually there? The by now familiar camp images of Arbeit Macht Frei (work sets you free), the gas chamber and crematorium and the railroad tracks to Auschwitz-Birkenau, all of a sudden came alive.
In one corner of the camp, a French film crew was shooting a scene, with actors dressed as SS guards and armed prisoners in camp uniforms, with a burning German car. “Was all of this a movie set?” I asked myself. “Is all of this a dream?”
As I stood at the crematorium, I recited the same chapter of Psalms as I had in Warsaw, only this time with a different emphasis: “Heyma kar’u venafalu va’anachnu kamnu venitodad – They bent and fell, but we arose and were encouraged,” and I thought of Israel, which was where I was headed after visiting Poland and Russia. In our time, that was the only possible and credible Jewish response to such tragedy and helplessness.
Jewish Poland 20-plus years after the Holocaust: as fragile as a sukkah exposed to the elements. Little could one imagine that 20 or so years later the Iron Curtain would collapse, Poland would become independent and Jewish life would start to rebuild on the ashes of what I had witnessed.
The promise of renewal of the special Sukkot prayer: “Harachaman hu yakim lanu et sukkat David hanofalet – May the Merciful One once again raise David’s fallen sukkah” – would soon begin to be fulfilled.
Rabbi Jonathan Porath lives in Jerusalem and has visited the Jews of Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union more than 175 times since 1965.