A tearful rebirth in Krakow
By Michael Freund
Nov. 17, 2005 /15 Mar-Cheshvan, 5766
KRAKOW - This past Sabbath, Benjamin
Klein had every reason to let the tears flow freely.
The scene was this city's famed Rema synagogue, where
the great 16th century scholar Rabbi Moses Isserles
once presided. The small sanctuary was filled to capacity,
as the melodies of Friday evening hymns and supplications
filled the room.
The Rema Synagogue
Hundreds of religious Israeli
high-school girls packed the women's section, overflowing
into the hall while dutifully reciting the service.
The men's section represented a microcosm of world
Jewry, ranging from aging Polish Holocaust
survivors to a Bnei Brak rabbi to members of a high-powered
AIPAC mission from the United States.
It had been 66 years since Klein
had last prayed here when, as a Jewish youth growing
up in Poland, he was forced to flee in the face of
the Nazi onslaught.
At the time, he no doubt thought he might never see
his birthplace again, let alone experience a traditional
Sabbath service in the synagogue of his childhood.
Indeed, on the eve of the Holocaust,
Krakow was home to some 68,000 Jews, who constituted
25% of the city's population. Kazimierz, the old Jewish
quarter, where the Rema synagogue is located, was a
bustling center of Jewish religious, cultural and intellectual
But the Germans and their allies
murdered 90% of Krakow's Jews, striking a nearly fatal
blow to the city's centuries-old Jewish presence.
Now, decades later, Klein had
come back to visit, having survived war, persecution
and calamity. And what he found was simply overwhelming,
even for a man with considerable resources of inner
strength and fortitude.
In the heart of this blood-soaked
land, where Jews had been so ruthlessly hunted down
and killed by their former neighbors and friends, the
melody of Lecha
Dodi ("Let us go and greet the Sabbath bride")
was once again being recited in all its power and glory.
And, just three weeks ago, Krakow
welcomed Rabbi Avraham Flaks, who was sent by Shavei
Israel, the organization that I head, to serve as the
city's first official Chief Rabbi since World War II.
As he took in the scene around
him, Klein's eyes began welling up. "Now, I know," he whispered to
me, his voice breaking with emotion, "now, I know.
We really are an eternal people."
Under the devoted leadership of Polish Chief Rabbi
Michael Schudrich and Jewish community president Tadeusz
Jakubowicz, Krakow Jewry is slowly working to rebuild,
renovating synagogues and cemeteries, reclaiming Jewish
communal property and trying to reach out to the unaffiliated.
Only 157 people are officially registered as members
of the community, but it is widely believed that over
1,000 additional Jews live in Krakow, many of whom
have only recently discovered their Jewish roots. After
the horrors of the Holocaust, which were followed by
decades of communist oppression, many Jews sought to
hide their ethnic and religious identity, even from
their own offspring.
Now, however, many of these "hidden Jews" have
begun to emerge, seeking to reclaim their heritage.
evening, I met several of these heroic returnees, three
young women who have chosen to defy societal pressure
along with deep-seated anti-Semitism in order to embrace
Judaism and return to the faith of their forefathers.
It was nearing the end of the
Sabbath meal when I went over to their table to introduce
myself. Noticing that they were in the middle of saying
the Grace After Meals, I sat down quietly and patiently
waited for them to finish.
With deep concentration, they
carefully recited each sentence, taking well over 10
minutes to complete the relatively short prayer, thanking
the Creator for the food and nourishment that He provides.
While doing so, they slowly rocked back and forth in
their seats, as though their souls were dancing in
tandem with the words.
"There were all kinds of hints in my family that we were Jewish, but everyone
was afraid to talk about it," said one, whom we'll call Anna. "I
have no proof, I have no papers. I always felt a pull to things Jewish, but
I never understood why," she said. Until, that is, when she uncovered
her family's most carefully-guarded secret.
"Immediately after the war, my great-grandfather changed his family name
from a Jewish name to a Polish one. As soon as I discovered that," said
Anna, "I knew I had to come back to my roots."
Asked where she sees herself in 10 years, time, Anna
blushes before letting out a nervous chuckle. "Married,
with children," she says, quickly adding, "Jewish
children, of course. I want my kids to grow up as proud,
Halachic [religiously observant] Jews."
After getting up from the table,
I notice a young bearded man wearing a yarmulke, speaking
in Polish with one of the waiters. Later, when I asked
Rabbi Schudrich about him, he y own. proceeded to tell
me the young man's remarkable story.
As a youth, the boy had a girlfriend.
Both were fervently anti-Semitic skinheads, who later
married each other. Shortly thereafter, the wife discovered
that she had paternal Jewish roots. Her interest in
Judaism deepened, and she began making special meals
to mark the Sabbath each week. Though shocked, the
young man went along because he loved his wife.
But his parents were nonetheless
upset, and insisted that he put an end to his wife's
burgeoning interest in Judaism. When he confronted
them about the intensity of their opposition, his parents
broke down and revealed to him that they both, in fact,
were Jews, and that for decades, they had sought to
hide their identity for fear of the consequences.
Now, several years later, that
young couple, who began their married life as anti-Jewish
skinheads, are now living as Torah-observant Jews.
ON SABBATH, as the Torah was
being taken from the Ark during the morning service
in the synagogue, the voices of the Israeli high-school
students rose up in a crescendo, their crisp and clear
Israeli-accented Hebrew echoing throughout the small
sanctuary, and doubtless beyond to the heavens above.
"To You, O L-rd, is the greatness, the power and the glory..." all
those present sang in unison.
I turned to see Benjamin Klein's
reaction and to gauge whether he found the moment as
moving as I.
When I did, I noticed that the
tears in this holy place were once again flowing freely.
Only this time, they were my own.