A Sukkot surprise in Auschwitz - opinion

A group on the March of the Living looked up while walking through an alley and were surprised to see a small, dark blue rectangular metal sign for a Beit Midrash.

 The Hoshana Raba service, with worshipers holding 'aravot,' takes place in the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak (photo credit: YAAKOV NAUMI/FLASH90)
The Hoshana Raba service, with worshipers holding 'aravot,' takes place in the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak
(photo credit: YAAKOV NAUMI/FLASH90)

Many years ago, on the March of the Living, our group was being guided toward the then-recently rededicated synagogue in Osweicem, Poland. As we turned right through an alley, we happened to look up. On the corner of the building was a small, dark blue, rectangular metal sign, worn by age, announcing in Hebrew that it had been the site of a Bobover beit midrash (a hassidic study hall and synagogue).

Surprised? We were, too. It was how we found out that there were as many as 12,000 Jews in this Polish railroad town, which they had given a Sukkot-related nickname, Ushpitzin [Guests, like the Aramaic word for sukkot visitors, Ushpizin] before it became better known as Auschwitz. It is still a struggle, years later, to associate Auschwitz with living Judaism or live Jews.

But there was another surprise easier to miss. Just across the alley from the abandoned study hall, a willow bush was growing – a perfect specimen of the aravot (willows), tucked together with the lulav on Sukkot and used on Hoshana Raba to pray for water.

Imagine aravot in Auschwitz and still growing from before the war!

To see that sign was to hear ghost echoes of the study and song that took place so long ago in that two-story building. To discover the aravot bush was to become better aware of the lives Jews lived before the war and to see an anonymous, living memorial to that life and a lesson in survival.

 A sukkah lovingly built in the yard of Aron and Regina Markiewicz as featured in London’s ‘Jewish Chronicle,’ 1947 (credit: COURTESY PESSY KRAUSZ) A sukkah lovingly built in the yard of Aron and Regina Markiewicz as featured in London’s ‘Jewish Chronicle,’ 1947 (credit: COURTESY PESSY KRAUSZ)

Our sages teach that each arba minim component is to remind us of a different body part through which to serve God. The mouth-shaped arava reminds us of the powers of speech and of prayer, and the value of telling our people’s stories.

What could this particular mouth-shaped arava plant say to us? Would a bush from Auschwitz tell only sad stories of the millions killed just a few miles away, how smoke-filled the nearby crematoria made the air it breathed or what the Polish neighbors really said to each other as Jews were massacred nearby? Not necessarily.

This plant proved itself a sturdy plant, surviving for decades in that desolate spot nourished only by God’s gift of rain from above. It has watched many seasons come and go, and many people, too. It is a willow that could do more than just weep if it could have the strength and ability to tell us stories.

So, I imagined the willow’s stories. In my mind, they would incorporate aspects of the mitzvot of Sukkot, in which it plays pivotal roles: the mitzvot of reaching out and of bringing together, of repentance and of optimism.

That bush would also understand that it could not tell only sad tales because we are instructed to be ach sameach (especially joyous) during Sukkot. It would weave tales from its neighboring hassidic beit midrash, tales woven from complex emotions, colored by time and place. Its tales would challenge us to plumb the hassidic saying that it is a great commandment, a righteous act, to be in a state of joy, especially in the most adverse of conditions and even in this most terrible of places.

I would hope the bush would tell us about the person who planted it so many years ago. In my mind, it was the shamash (the sexton) of that beit midrash. Is there anyone still alive who knows this sexton’s name or whether he really existed?

Through word pictures, the bush would help us see him take leftover willow branches and nurse them so they would grow roots. We would accompany him as he stooped down to plant the branches in the dirt across the alley, as he would check on the bush regularly and when necessary, water it. Did his knees hurt when he bent over to plant the branches? Did he smile or even thank God when he saw that some had taken firm root?

We would learn from the story that the shamash planted the bush to assure that there would always be aravot for Sukkot and Hoshana Raba for those who prayed in the beit midrash; how it was both his professional obligation and livelihood to do so; and how he needed the money he would make by selling them on the holiday of Hoshana Raba to support his family.

This simple, personalized narrative would subtly remind us that everyday, mundane challenges have their own special meanings, especially when they are transformed into higher and joyous spiritual acts. The willow’s stories will remind us that just like it, we, too, can become a vehicle of holiness by continuing to live and grow; that as a bush does not have to burn to be holy, a person doesn’t need to be martyred to be holy; and that becoming kadosh (holy) depends as much or more on how we live, than on how we die.

And if the bush really tells the story honestly and completely, we would hear synagogue members from across the alley grumble among themselves about having to pay the shamash a few cents for the wrapped branches. The story, like life, must be real to be effective.

Imagining the willow’s possible stories transported me back to my father’s sukkah in Miami Beach, where I would watch him, also a gabbai/shamash, (administrator/sexton) of a synagogue, as he would sit every year binding together wet aravot into hoshanot (bunches of willow branches) for the members of his shul to use in a ceremony praying both for forgiveness and water.

He took special pride in wrapping each one just right with a piece of a palm frond and not the quick way with a rubber band. The imagined story also took me back into the shul where I could hear the grumbling voices of the shul members, again, having to pay a few cents for the willow branches.

Thinking of Auschwitz

So, this year on Hoshana Raba in Jerusalem, when I took the hoshanot in my hand, I thought of Auschwitz and I found myself smiling. But it was not perverse. Time seemed to have come full circle, modifying and elevating memory and meaning – a particular Jerusalem-induced phenomenon.

Forgotten moments were relived and forgotten life lessons were re-learned. Miami Beach and a different view of Auschwitz merged through the magic of Jerusalem to generate a different, deeper and especially meaningful kind of simcha (a special joy) that the Polish shamash and my American father would have appreciated. I hope they would have smiled, too.

The writer is and always will be a new oleh. He is an educator, lecturer and a Jewish communal professional. For over 50 years, he served in leadership positions in Jewish day schools, federations and boards of education.