Reflections on Poland & Prague
By Cantor David Rosen
It is one thing to travel to Poland as a Jew when things are stable in the world. It is another to travel to Poland amidst the greatest attack on our people since the Shoah. I must admit that I was quite apprehensive about leaving my family and my Holy Blossom Community behind during this difficult time. It has become clear that we need each other more than ever as we see such an inflammatory response from various groups touting anti-Semitic slurs and propaganda against the Jewish people. And yet, despite my apprehensions, there was something telling me that my mission was important. And it was.
While I have travelled to Poland prior to this trip, I knew this time, it would be different. I was accompanied by 12 other cantorial colleagues along with members from various congregations across North America. I had been working behind the scenes as a co-chair on this mission for several months, planning various concerts and memorial services for our cantors and congregants to participate at some of our history’s most important monuments, landmarks and synagogues.
Our first stop was Krakow, a city where the semblance of Jewish life has once again blossomed with a steady and emerging Jewish population. While still insignificant compared to the 98% of Poles who identify as Catholic, a Jewish presence is visible and for the most part, they seem to live at peace with their neighbours. One of the most important institutions in Krakow is the JCC, in the heart of the Kashmiri district. The JCC received its support in the early part of this century with a visit from King Charles, then of course, Prince Charles at the time. He was so taken by the emergence of Jewish life in Poland, that he vowed to help the JCC raise money and occupy a building where they could provide programming, shelter, aid and much more for the Jewish Population in Krakow. Their Director, Jonathan Ornstein is a pillar of the Krakow Jewish community, not only welcoming visiting groups but reaching out to support Jewish refugees, Holocaust survivors and those who need a place to feel Jewish. The JCC organizes several events and fundraisers on an annual basis, notably, they run a bike ride from Auschwitz to Krakow, a symbolic ride mirroring the Jews’ exodus from what was one of the most horrific places on earth.
For those of you who have been to Auschwitz-Birkenau, you know that my words on a page will not do the experience of being there in person justice. It is one thing to envision or to see pictures of what the camp looked like, however, once you are there, and you are immersed in the haunting environment that killed so many, you realize the scale of precision and vastness of the Nazi’s ultimate vision. It is unfathomable. You walk in the path of many of our ancestors and feel the pain and anguish of their suffering. You ask yourself how this could have happened and somehow take comfort that this place still exists to show the world “Never again.”
As we entered Birkenau and walked more than half a mile to the end of the camp, I was handed an Israeli flag. There was something so powerful about that moment. Thinking of our homeland and the current situation and carrying that flag, representing the land that almost 80 years later we are still fighting for… More than ever, I could feel the connection between our past, our present and our future as a people and as a nation. Everything we have fought for, our survival, our existence was all wrapped within the fabric of the Blue and White. And sadly, it made me think that the idea of “never again” in many ways is right now.
After our gruelling tour of the camps, we ended our time there with a memorial service overlooking the entirety of Birkenau…with train tracks going off into the distance and remnants of barracks in over 80 football fields square, you are left with disbelief, seeing this barren wasteland that killed so many of our ancestors. I had the honour of chanting the El Malei Rachamim, our prayer for the departed in memory of the 6 million who perished in the Shoa, 1.1 million were exterminated on these very grounds. As I came to chant the words “Al Y’dei Ha’natzim v’ozreheim y’mach sh’ mam” (for those whose lives were taken by the hands of the Nazis, and their helpers, may their names be obliterated” I screamed the words, only to hear them echo off the walls of the few remaining physical structures. It was one of the most powerful memories for me, one that I will surely never forget.
Our big concert took place at the Cultural Jewish Centre in Krakow. In addition to the cantors that performed, we welcomed members of choirs from various synagogues, including the local JCC choir, who even had a Holocaust Survivor singing in the Soprano section. After our concert and Havdallah service, we left the next morning for our next and final city on the trip, Warsaw. The enormous city, with its European charm, culinary scene and unique architecture is both modern and stately. It is one of the cleanest cities I have visited outside of Canadian soil. The Warsaw Ghetto housed more than 450,000 Jews during World War II, and the city was virtually decimated in 1944 by the Nazis and with the exception of the Jewish cemetery and one synagogue (which was used as storage and a stable). Over time, the Jews of Warsaw were sent to be exterminated as they were shoved into cattle carts and shipped off to the various concentration or extermination plants in proximity to the city. Every day at a precise time the sound of the steam engines could be heard as they picked up their next group of Jews from the Umschlagplatz, a meeting place/station close to the perimeter of the ghetto. Some would even choose to work in the concentration camps over the deteriorating conditions of the shtetl as they were led to believe that in the camps, they would receive steady work, food and shelter.
The Polin Museum in Warsaw is the best resource to understand the history of the Jewish People of Poland. Throughout history, Jews were often on a roller coaster ride in terms of their status, waffling between living on Polish soil in prosperity among other religions and cultures or being persecuted and forced to live in dire conditions. Poland offered huge opportunities to Jews throughout the ages and at one time the Polish-Lithuanian borders housed more than 90% of all World Jewry. I highly recommend that you leave an entire day to peruse this incredible storybook landmark of our people. Outside of the museum, there is a beautiful monument that pays tribute to the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, many of whom took their lives when they saw there was no hope for the future of the Jewish people in Poland.
Our final concert occurred at the only remaining synagogue from the Jewish Ghetto of Warsaw, the Nozyk Synagogue. We welcomed others from the community and were addressed by the Israeli Ambassador to Poland, Ya’akov Livne. Mr. Livne was almost in tears as he spoke about the current situation in Israel and the plight of our people. He expressed how important it is for us to stand together. It is a time to raise our voices, to sing louder and to “be” visible; for if our history has taught us one thing, it is not to be silent.
As I said goodbye to my colleagues and other participants a few days ago, I was both excited to come home and grateful for the sacred work I had the opportunity to be a part of in Poland. Of the many things I learned on my trip, one thing really does hold true and that is that history does indeed repeat itself. It may not look exactly the same. It may not even be on the same land, but unfortunately humankind still too often favours cruelty over compassion.
It is my hope that we continue to learn from our past in our efforts to create a future that is better for present and future generations. We are at a crucial time in our history, where we must stand up for our beliefs, our identities, and be proud of who we are and where we come from.
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom,
Cantor David Rosen