To the Motherland and Back: Poland Mission

To the Motherland and Back
Poland Mission October 2004
Rabbi Hal Rudin-Luria

Where is your motherland? The place where your family began- Cleveland, New York, Israel, Iran, Italy, Poland or Russia. Well, my motherland or at least the land of my grandparents and their ancestors was Poland. Two Shabbatot ago, we read Parshat Lech Lecha- the opening words of God’s call to Abraham to leave his native land, the land of his parents. And two Shabbatot ago, I traveled to my motherland- Poland- and stood beside the Torah receiving an aliyah in the 500 year-old Remah synagogue in Krakow and traveled to my grandmother’s home town of Izbica and saw the three tombstones that mark the only Jewish remnant left of a town of 6,000 Jews. I participated in a special mission to Poland and Israel with Cleveland Federation chaired by Harley Gross with 13 Clevelanders traveling to Poland. The tour was led by our scholar-in-residence Cleveland native, B’nai Jeshurun product and Eastern European Jewish expert Mark Talisman and our expert Polish tour guide Magda.

In the next few minutes, I will share some of the experiences of an emotionally difficult and at the same time fascinating and uplifting mission to Poland which may be best summed up by this week’s Torah portion Chayei Sara. Our parshah begins with death and ends with the rebuilding of a family leading to the rebirth of a nation. Of course, the central aspect of any trip to Poland is to visit the Nazi concentration and death camps where death still pervades- like the sixty foot pond of green human ashes in Birkenau that or Majdonek’s mausoleum containing a football field of ashes and bones. In our trip, we met some of the heroes of the Shoah, righteous gentiles and survivors. We experienced the rebirth of Judaism in the Warsaw community highlighted by a visit to the Morasha Day School where we joined a Jewish sing-along of “David Melekh” with the kindergarten class and helped the 1st graders in their “Days of Creation” art project.

Why should we visit Poland? The best answer came from a visit with another mission. We met with a group of Israeli Army officers and commanders traveling Poland and Romania. The officers described to us why the Israeli Army sends 2,500 officers to Poland every single year even during war- the reasons are history, motivation and morality. Israeli Commanders travel to Poland to gain a first-hand Jewish history lesson. More importantly, Israeli Commanders travel to Poland for motivation, so that they may be inspired to lead their troops into battle.
After visiting the death camps, where millions of Jews were murdered and the Warsaw ghetto where the Jews joined forces in an uprising against the Nazis, Israeli officers are reminded of the necessity for the Jewish army to be victorious, to defend the land of Israel and the Jewish people and to maintain a safe haven for Jews throughout the world. Most importantly, we were told that the reason Israeli commanders travel to Poland is to learn the importance of morality and human worth. Viewing the horrors and atrocities of the Nazis who had no morals and did not value a life, Israeli officers learn the guiding principle of the Israeli Army, Tohar Neshek- to act with moral responsibility and purity with one’s weapon. In combat, fighting terrorists and defending the land, Israel’s army pledge is to be pure and always take the moral high ground, valuing every single life- whether friend or enemy.

Our mission’s trip began in Krakow, the royal city and cultural capital of Poland. We toured the remains of the Jewish ghetto, Schindler’s factory, the 500 year old Remah synagogue and adjoining cemetery with the graves of Krakow’s leading rabbis and citizens, and the newly refurbished synagogues that now serve as museums, exhibition space, concert halls and even Jewish nursing homes. The Jews in Krakow are largely elderly survivors. And in Krakow, Jewish life seems to be dwindling but not Jewish culture. The Jewish Cultural Festival of Krakow is one of the world’s largest conferences offering concerts, lectures and exhibits. In the Jewish quarter, Jewish-style restaurants are Krakow’s trendiest eats and klezmer music is the hippest beat. The majority of the musicians and restaurant clientele are not Jewish as there is an odd fascination among today’s Poles’ with Jewish culture.

After spending a joyous Shabbat in Krakow, praying with survivors and walking through the colorful Krakow marketplace, we boarded the bus early Sunday morning for our pilgrimage to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Standing before the gates of Auschwitz inscribed with the words Arbeit Mach Frei- Work brings Freedom- I was overcome with emotion at the insult and irony- on a beautiful fall day we could visit somewhere that could well be hell on earth. I could imagine my relatives wearing their prisoner uniforms, barefoot freezing in the January snow- marching, stumbling through the camp and just trying to hang on to survive. At Auschwitz and Birkenau, we were joined by enormous groups of Israeli teenagers- hundreds of high school seniors visiting the camps as part of an eight day journey. At the camps they held so many Israeli flags high- they cried and held onto friends- just as we did. Wearing white and blue sweatshirts with the star of David and the sacred name Israel, they made their way through the horror- reminding us and the camps themselves that we survived, Israel survived, Judaism survived. Huddled in circles, we prayed for the souls of our family and all those murdered in the Shoah and the Israeli teens huddled and recited prayers of mercy and songs of hope.

Anna Pajor was our guide through the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps. She is a young woman who grew up in Osweiecin, the town of Auschwitz. Anna always wanted to know what seemed to be missing in her town. So she began studying Jewish history and then pursued a Jewish studies degree in the Project Judaica program. Anna leads tours through the concentration and death camps informing visitors of the horrors that occurred in her town and telling the story of the missing Polish Jewry. Anna frequently attends programs at the Auschwitz Jewish Center, the museum and synagogue where two years ago, our congregational mission visited and donated one of our own Torahs. The synagogue serves as a place of respite and reflection for groups after trips to the death camps and as a meeting place for Jews and non-Jews in the town of Osweicin.

When I told Anna that I was a rabbi at B’nai Jeshurun, the synagogue that dedicated the Torah to the Auschwitz Jewish Center, her eyes welled with tears- and she told me that she still joyously remembers the day that Rabbi Weiss and our members danced the Torah around the synagogue. She joined the dancing as we helped to bring another piece of the missing Polish Jewry back to Osweicin. Our mission this year did the same. After an emotional and difficult day of visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau, fighting the images of our parents and grandparents entering the gas chambers or staring numbed at the huge rooms filled with hundreds of pounds of human hair, a room practically the size of our sanctuary filled with shoes- children’s shoes, men’s black leather shoes, colorful women’s shoes and baby slippers, a room filled with suitcases labeled with Jewish family names of those who thought they were being transported to a new life and not a painful death- after walking through crematoria and suffocation cells, the rooms where Dr. Mengele performed his experiments on twin children and the wall for execution only 50 feet from the oddly happy chiming church bells of the new Osweicin monastery- after walking through that whirlwind of horror, we gathered at the Auschwitz Jewish Center Synagogue- the restored Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue- and we stood before the ark and took out our Torah and danced and sang for those Jews who could not and for the fact that Judaism survived the atrocities of the Holocaust and we pledged that we will never forget.

From the camps we traveled to Warsaw. I will never forget our meeting with a Jewish hero and an amazing woman- Wanda Tashbir.
She is not Jewish, she is a righteous gentile that saved the life of a Jew over 60 years ago. Our group gathered in Wanda’s apartment, in the same room where a young Jewish girl named Tushia Rosenberg was hidden for 6 months from the Nazis. Wanda told us her story. In high school, her favorite teacher Mrs. Adelstein was Jewish as were a number of her classmates and Wanda knew no difference between a Jew and a Pole. One day, her teacher and classmates were no longer allowed in school. Wanda was 18 years old and had come across a Jewish family that was being hidden. No one would take the youngest child- Tushia- who was 3 three years old because everyone feared that she would be too difficult to keep hidden- she would be too loud, cry out at night and be found by the Nazis. Wanda would not let Tushia remain on the street, so she took her into her own family’s home. Helping a Jew was a great risk for Wanda. Wanda was risking not only Tushia and her own life but the life of Wanda’s mother, father and two younger sisters.

For six months, three year old Tushia slept in Wanda’s living room on their couch- the same couch that we sat on in her Warsaw apartment. Wanda found falsified baptismal papers for Tushia from a priest who helped Jewish children. Even though the Nazis checked often as they bunked in an adjacent apartment building, Tushia remained safe. Wanda taught her the Lord’s prayer in case she was ever questioned. After six months, Tushia walked over 200 miles to the mountains of Southern Poland to join other Jewish orphans hidden in a monastery. Thanks to Wanda’s heroism, Tushia survived the Holocaust and was reunited with her mother. They moved to America and today, Tushia is a grandmother. Our righteous gentile Wanda never married or had children and still lives in her family’s apartment in Warsaw. Wanda, now in her mid-80’s, has dedicated her life to recounting her story and the heroism of the many Poles that risked their lives to save the Jewish people.

In Warsaw, we followed the inspiring stories of today’s Jewish rebirth and renewal from Rabbi Michael Shudrich of Warsaw’s Noszyk Synagogue, Yale Reisner of the Jewish Historical Institute and Helice Lieberman of the Lauder- Morasha Jewish Day School of Warsaw that provides Jewish and general education to 250 students. They each shared with us incredible stories of Jews who grew up with no knowledge that they were Jewish. People who either suspected they were Jewish or found a Jewish object in a drawer or found a Tel Aviv address taped underneath the desk or people who were told by their parents or grandparents after years of hiding the fact that they are indeed Jewish.
Before the Holocaust, there were 3.5 million Jews living in Poland, the largest Jewish population in the world, housing the intellectual and religious leaders of our people. In Poland, over 4.5 million Jews were murdered including over 3 million Polish Jews and other Jews who were transported to Nazi extermination camps. After the Holocaust, there were horrible pogroms in Poland that killed thousands more Jews and then the Communists ruled Poland with their anti-religious policies. The Jews that survived and remained in Poland hid their Judaism in fear of pogroms or Communist reprisal. Many of these Jews did not tell their spouses or children that they were Jewish. They had their children baptized for fear of anyone suspecting they were Jewish. After the fall of Communism in the late 1980’s, Jews slowly began to emerge and join the surviving Jewish community.

Today, there are Polish people that are finding their own Jewish heritage and roots every single day. Some are joining the Jewish community, studying Jewish history, attending Shabbat services or sending their children to the Jewish day school. We met with Peter, the president of the Warsaw Jewish Community, and he shared with us his own story which exemplifies the miracles, challenges and nuances of Polish Jewry. Peter did not learn that he was Jewish until he was 15. His mother finally revealed to him that she survived the Holocaust because she was hidden by a righteous Gentile, who lived with them and whom Peter was told was his grandmother. Peter had a long and twisted journey toward Judaism and today, his children study Torah and he is the president of the Jewish community. We heard so many more stories just like Peter’s including stories from college students that were baptized and raised with no Jewish background and now are the future of the Jewish community.

After our inspiring time in Warsaw, most of our mission participants continued on for five days in Israel, tracing the rebirth of the Jewish people in the splendor of the land of Israel with the highlight of Shabbat in Yerushalayim. I was not able to continue on to Israel but please take the opportunity to speak with my fellow participants their trip Israel. I had to return home for a bit of our own rebirth and splendor. I returned to Cleveland last Friday to lead our synagogue’s Shabbaton B’Yachad weekend retreat for young families. With Susan Wyner and the Retreat Institute, 12 young families from the synagogue shared a wonderful Shabbat of study, prayer, singing, dancing and lots of playtime at Camp Asbury in Hiram, Ohio.

Those who traveled to Poland can surely say that we are glad to be home and have a year’s worth of stories and reflections to share with our family, friends and community and I pray that our words can help bring honor to those who perished in the Shoah and bring spirit to the wonderful rebuilding of Polish Jewry. We can fulfill our mission- the same as the Israeli army- to teach our Jewish history, to be motivated to fight for Judaism’s survival and growth and finally to pledge to live a moral life that values every single human life.

Shabbat Shalom