Shaya Cohen -


Poland and the Jews

My family, for as long as I can remember, has hated the Poles. My grandfather, who left Poland in the 1930s, refused to ever speak Polish again – at one time when I asked him about it, he said to me, “I am not Polish. I am a Jew who happened to come from Poland.”  As with any family who suffered devastating losses during the Holocaust, there were plenty of stories of Polish betrayal during the war, of Jews returning from the concentration camps after the war, only to be opportunistically murdered by Poles who had expropriated Jewish homes and were willing to murder concentration camp survivors to keep those homes.

So you can understand my ambivalence when I was invited to come and take part in the Jewish Cultural Festival in Krakow. Krakow! What kind of a Jewish Cultural Festival is held in Poland?! What kind of madness can explain going back to Poland for a Jewish festival of any kind?

And yet, it promised to be an interesting experience. We were going to Poland to sing, both on Shabbos and in a concert – and the audience would include hundreds or even thousands of non-Jews. If I was wondering about the sanity of Jews who voluntarily went to Poland, I was positively incredulous as to why any native Pole would form part of the audience! What could they be thinking?

My misgivings multiplied once we arrived in Krakow, and in ways that disturbed me. Poland is very beautiful from the air, and it was picturesque on the ground as well, with rolling green countryside, and friendly people. Krakow is full of sidewalk cafes, and cobblestoned streets; it is not hard to imagine the streets as a shtetl, with cheder-boys running in the streets and balabustas haggling over chicken.  Yet this is not a place with cheder boys and balabustas. Not anymore.

We landed, and had a rehearsal in the basement of the hotel. The room was all of stone, and it was clearly old. While we were rehearsing beautiful music, I could not help but think of the Jews who may have hidden here, or been murdered in this very cellar. The incongruity of it all disturbed me deeply, and I asked an older and wiser chorister for his opinion.

He explained, in vivid detail, that Poland and these buildings and cellars were not the Jewish people; they were mere vessels, and any connection we had to them passed when Jews no longer lived there. Judaism, as he put it, is in the Torah and in Israel, and in living Jews. As far as he was concerned, the descendants of the Poles who committed such atrocities during and after the war, were hosting and supporting the Jewish Cultural Festival (which attracts 85,000 people every year, and is partly televised on national television) as a matter of classic Kaporah – covering up. He made the analogy to the murder of Jews; they were forced to dig their own graves, and bury those who had already been shot. Then the ground was filled in, tilled, or trees were planted, so that there was a literal kaporah of the sin, covering it over as though it had never happened.

This answer contented me for a little while – I could understand that the Poles could see things this way.  Of course, for those of us who lost family members in the Holocaust, nothing has been covered over at all. Quite the contrary. In the hotel lounge, one of our number mentioned that  during his free time he would be taking a train to Auschwitz.  Someone else volunteered that it wasn’t generally a good idea for Jews to travel on trains in Poland. We do not forget.

And then Shabbos came. There we were, davenning in one of the most beautiful shuls I have ever seen (the Tempel Synagogue). There were a few dozen Jews, but the shul filled up with goyim as well. I looked at the faces, old and young, inscrutably observing us davenning, and could not get the question out of my head: “what are they thinking?” I cannot imagine going to a church service just to watch Catholics praying, so what inspired these people, patiently sitting, and soaking it all in: the chazan, the choir, the leining?

I started to piece the answer together Shabbos afternoon, when close friends of ours from  the UK, Professor Jonathan Webber and his wife Connie, offered to give me a private tour of Krakow. I have long known the Webbers as  warm and wonderful people, but clearly eccentric. For more than twenty years they have been involved in reviving the memory of the Jews in Poland.   They work tirelessly on Jewish-Polish relations, including being responsible for encouraging and facilitating the introduction of explanatory texts in Hebrew at Auschwitz, for  the reconsecration of Jewish cemeteries, and countless interfaith and holocaust-related initiatives. They have even owned a small apartment in Krakow since the early 1990s and and have explained to me in the past that there is a future for Jews in Poland.   I have often asked myself how can such good-hearted and intelligent and G-d-fearing Jews be so disconnected from reality? When we lived in the UK and spent time with the Webbers, we agreed to disagree on Poland, and found safer topics of conversation. But here I was in Poland, being offered an exclusive tour by the people who know Krakow from the inside  – how could I turn it down?

And what a tour it was! There are seven shuls within a few blocks of each other, each more beautiful than the last. They are built with stone; stone construction is far more expensive than wood, and its use in a shul means one thing: the Jews who built this shul expected Poland to be a home for Jews for a very long time.  Professor Webber pointed out some amazing features I would have missed on my own – for example, in this shul there was an inscription on the wall referring to Shabtai Zvi as Moshiach! He also pointed out that some of the shuls have small round windows up high. Apparently it comes from a kabbalistic tradition that Hashem should be able to see us davenning, and it is a common feature in Polish shuls, though we do not commonly have it in the US.

The highlight of the tour was the Jewish Museum built in the Old Shul in Krakow, which is the oldest shul in Poland. Dating from the fifteenth century, the shul features a bird cage bimah, and an ezras noshim that was added  hundreds of years later! Architectural historians guess that women did not originally go to shul, and the ezras noshim was added when there was demand.  The entire shul is now a gorgeous museum, dedicated to showing Jewish life and tefillah. While they charge admission, orthodox Jews are welcome for free on Shabbos.

Jonathan Webber introduced us to the museum director, who was very warm, and excited to see us! He wanted us to preview an exhibit that was about to open and get our opinion on its accuracy: why not? The exhibit was on Jewish learning, and it blew my mind. Display after display showed Jewish texts: a breakdown of a page of Mikro’os Gedolos, identifying each source in its historical and Jewish context; displays for gedolei hador from Rashi and the Rambam  downward. Each display was in Polish and English, with other languages thrown in for good measure. I was astounded. The attention to detail, and the amount of information was nothing short of staggering. Who on earth could possibly be this interested in Jewish learning? The answer is simple: the Polish people are. They, including regular parties of teenaged schoolchildren, visit this (and other) Jewish museums in large numbers, and soak it all in.

It became clear to me that Poles are interested in Jews, not because they hate us, and not because they use it as a way to pretend there was no national wrongdoing that must be disguised (though that may be a factor). Jews are fascinating to Poles because we are a part of Polish history. Jews constituted 25% of Krakow’s population in 1939; 33% of Warsaw’s. We lived in Poland for 800 years prior to that, making up a substantial part of their society and culture. The moment was captured for me by a Polish volunteer who explained to me that “we don’t want Jews to define their history in Poland by just six years.”

One building just off the neighborhood market square housed countless shteibels and Jewish offices and businesses. That single building, before the war, housed no fewer than four chedarim, with a sum total of *900* children, all of whom spent their lunch break in the central square.  Of those 900, 13 survived.

And during that tour I realized that I was seeing things the wrong way around. Jews should not primarily go and see Poland because of the Holocaust. We should be connected to Poland because of the 800 years before the Holocaust. 800 years of vitality, of Torah, avodas Hashem, and song and learning. The shuls and cellars of Krakow are not empty vessels that are devoid of Judaism because Jews were murdered by 1946; just being near them conveys a sense of sobriety, even of kedusha. Our hotel had, at one wall, the old cemetery of Krakow where the Rema and the Bach and many others are buried. Life and death, right next door. The shtetl is compact, and once my eyes were opened I realized that every street and alley had countless stories, laughter and tears alike. This is Jewish life.

After Shabbos we took part in a Melava Malka in the Tempel Synagogue. All these shuls are being restored to their former glory, at no small cost, by the Polish government (who are among the sponsors of the Jewish Cultural Festival which is under the honorary patronage of the president of the Republic of Poland). The Tempel is breathtaking, replete with gold leaf and gorgeous handwork. For the Melava Malka, they set up a very long table down the middle of the shul for the chazzanim and choir, laden with drinks and fresh fruit. The rest of the building was packed with sitting and standing Poles, there to soak up the atmosphere. It was unreal – we sang a few upbeat pieces, each Chazan sang a piece or two, and the audience was incredibly involved. At times it felt like a festive rock concert, with the Jews at the long table singing and enjoying themselves, and everyone else living vicariously through us. The choicest moment was when Chaim David Berson (whose grandparents live in Silver Spring) took to the stage, and with the voice of an angel, started to sing “Am Yisrael Chai”. Tears came to my eyes. Here we were in Krakow, 70 years after Jews started to be slaughtered in this very place, and we were all singing “Am Yisrael Chai”. Not just the Jews; the Poles caught on quickly, and joined in, especially when Chazzan Ben-Zion Miller sang Kol Ha’Olam Kulo Gesher Tzar M’od in Hebrew and Polish.

The next day was the big concert, officially kicking off the week-long Festival. The concert was live-broadcast on the Net, so my family in the UK and Baltimore watched it and sent comments back to me via email that I shared with the group during breaks. Many of the comments had to do with the 40 minutes of speeches that kicked off the concert itself. The shul was packed – maybe 1000 people in all – and there was no air conditioning. Still, the Cardinal was there, and the Mayor, and regional VIPs and the like. Everyone who was important came to this event, and the occasion was an opportunity to talk about Jewish revival in Poland, and the love between Poland and Israel (Poland is perhaps Israel’s biggest European ally), and promises to not have any more speeches — after the next one. My wife sent me an email: the children are impatient with the speeches: get on with it!

Eventually they did, and the singing began. The audience was transfixed; the heat forgotten. This was the music, the chazzanim and choir, that inspired the kavanah of Jews in Poland for hundreds of years. We lifted each other up that night, with praises sung to Hashem from both Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions. I no longer felt any reservations about being paid to entertain our hosts, about being on display. There was a palpable desire from the audience to not just see Jewish culture as one might observe an animal at the zoo, but to feel it, to be moved by its emotions and connections to Hashem. It was a beautiful evening, one of the finest musical events I have ever been a part of. And it was just getting better.

After the concert, the hotel put on a large and fancy buffet. After we had eaten, a few members of the choir retired outside, to a café-garden area on the street corner. And we started to sing. Led by Chaim David Berson on a guitar, we had an old-fashioned kumsitz. People drifted into the gathering, and we sang and sang – soft, sweet music, haunting melodies and harmonies. At its peak, maybe 40 or 50 people were sitting in the garden lending their voices and emotions. The sounds echoed and filled the street, and passers-by stopped to listen, to soak it in, to smile in appreciation. In all, we sang from 11 PM until almost 2:30 in the morning. Nobody asked us to keep it quiet. On the contrary, it was clear that we were there for a purpose.  Am Yisrael Chai.

Comments are welcome!

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