Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Fundamentally Freund: From JPost

Blog-friend Michael Freund's JPost column on Jewish-Polish heritage:

Preserving Poland's Jewish heritage

Nearly 80 years ago this week, more than 10,000 Jews from across Poland gathered in Lublin for what would prove to be one of their last major festive events prior to the Holocaust.

With representatives of the Polish government and armed forces in attendance, as well as prominent rabbis and hassidic rebbes, the yeshiva Chachmei Lublin was formally inaugurated on June 24-25, 1930.

The massive five-story structure, which had its own mikve, bakery and dormitories, was situated on three acres of land and was headed by the renowned Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the visionary who created the daf yomi program of daily Talmud study.

The Lublin yeshiva was one of the jewels of Polish Jewry's network of great talmudic academies. It attracted students from as far away as Argentina and Palestine, and its demanding curriculum was aimed at producing graduates of the highest intellectual, spiritual and moral caliber.

Just nine years later, however, the German invasion forced the yeshiva to close its doors, and the Nazis turned it into the local headquarters for their military police. After World War II it was taken over by the Polish state and used by a medical academy, before being returned to the Jewish community in 2003.

VISITING THE BUILDING, which was recently refurbished and now houses the offices and synagogue of Lublin's small yet vibrant Jewish community, I walked through its halls in a state of awe tinged with sadness. It was easy to imagine how the large and spacious corridors were once filled with students with volumes of the Talmud tucked under their arms, or to visualize the fervent swaying of young worshipers in the throes of daily prayers.

But the noise and bustle is long gone, replaced instead by an eerie and unsettling silence.

Most of the yeshiva's students were murdered in the Holocaust, a point made even more chilling by the small exhibition of photographs on the building's second floor. One taken at the yeshiva's opening shows crowds of men gathered around the entrance, taking part in the extraordinary ceremonies. Looking at the image, it is unnerving to realize that most of those in it were probably consumed by the flames less than a decade later.

Nonetheless, despite the heartrending past which the building evokes, it continues to play a vital role in educating young Jews. On my visit, I saw a group of some 75 Jewish high-school girls from France touring the building. Many stopped to recite psalms in front of the holy ark, while others listened intently as a rabbi explained Polish Jewry's glorious history.

Had I paid better attention in my own high-school French classes, I might have been able to follow his remarks more closely, but it was clear from the group's serious demeanor that the experience was leaving its mark on them.

THIS BRIEF ENCOUNTER encapsulated for me just why it is so crucial that more be done to preserve key historical Jewish sites throughout Poland, both to keep alive the legacy of the past and to educate and inspire future generations of Jews and non-Jews.

According to Monika Krawczyk, CEO of the Warsaw-based Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (www.fodz.pl), the country is home to more than 1,100 Jewish cemeteries, 200 former synagogues and numerous other sites.

Some of these have been remarkably refurbished, such as the yeshiva building in Lublin and the famous baroque-style synagogue in Lancut, but numerous others are in dire need of repair.

In other instances, many former synagogue buildings and important Jewish sites taken over by the authorities have been scoured of their Jewish past, with neither a plaque nor even a mention of the function they once served. This, of course, makes it far too easy for younger Poles to forget their country's history and the vital role that Jews once played there.

This can not be allowed to happen. We owe it to those who perished to do what we can to keep alive their memory and the memory of the communities in which they lived.

JUST THIS past week, on a visit to the southeastern city of Przemysl, I participated in a moving ceremony with precisely that aim. A memorial plaque in Polish, English and Hebrew was unveiled on the outside of a building that served as a synagogue for some of Przemysl's 20,000 Jews prior to the war, highlighting their contribution to the growth and development of the city.

At the ceremony, which was attended by Israel's new ambassador to Poland, Zvi Rav-Ner, as well as a representative of the US Consulate in Krakow, a member of the Polish parliament who hails from Przemysl told the crowd that he had not known about the extent of the Jewish presence in the area, or even that the building had been a shul.

And even though Jews constituted nearly 30% of the city's population before World War II, this modest little plaque constituted the first tangible and public reminder of their centuries-old presence. Hopefully, more such remembrances will follow.

Since an estimated 60-70% of Ashkenazi Jews trace their history back to Poland, this is an issue that touches on large swathes of Diaspora and Israeli Jewry.

There is a lot that can be done to correct the current situation, from pressing Polish authorities to return Jewish communal property to helping groups such as Krawczyk's foundation repair and restore various sites.

Either way, it is essential that we take action to right at least some of the wrongs done to our people. Obviously, we can't change the past. But we can - and must - do it justice.

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