Rabbi Dan’s Europe Trip Blog
Day 11 Prague/Sedlčany: Today was a very special day, our last day of touring on our remarkable trip; we traveled to the village of Sedlčany 1 hour outside of Prague and the home of our temple’s ‘Holocaust Torah’.
It would be hard to find an object that presents the Jewish culture and religion more aptly than the Torah scroll. The reading from a parchment manuscript which contains the Hebrew text of the Five Books of Moses – the Divine Teaching given to the people of Israel – is the central moment in the Jewish synagogue liturgy.
Before the Second World War, very few Torah scrolls appeared in museum
collections in Bohemia and Moravia. Considering how expensive it was to make, the Torah scroll was certainly not an item that a congregation would voluntarily or gladly have given away to a museum.
The situation drastically changed in May 1942. The Nazi authority dealing with the Jewish question in Prague ordered the Jewish communities in the Protectorate (i.e., the historical lands of Bohemia and Moravia) to send all their liturgical objects, books and archive records to the newly established Central Jewish Museum in
Prague. The impetus for founding this museum came from Prague Jewish
community employees who sought to protect the properties of those who had been deported to concentration camps.
Almost 1,800 Torah scrolls became part of the collections of the Jewish Museum in Prague during the Second World War. Eighteen of those scrolls came from the small town of Sedlčany, located 60 kilometres south of Prague in central Bohemia. The town was home to about 50 Jews in 1941 with another 70 or so in outlying areas
around it. Nearly all of the 120 Jews of Sedlčany and the area around it were
murdered in the Holocaust, but our Torah scroll, written in 1890 survived.
Today we honoured that sacred scroll, by returning to the building that was its sacred home.
The structure is now a heating company and is privately owned. There is no plaque that notes what it once was and we were not able to go inside. But from the outside we acknowledged this place and gave it the kavod that no one else ever will – as none of its members survived. We took a picture and you will note somewhat comically that the brand name of the heating appliance is Kanuk.
We then drove about 5 minutes down the road to a small village that does have a restored Shul very similar to that of Sedlčany. There we met Peter, he was not raised Jewish but discovered his comes from a Jewish grandparents. He personally bought this Shul when he learned it was to be destroyed and has used his own money and that of some visiting donors to restore it to its historic state. The shul was built in the mid 1700s and less than a dozen of its members survived the Shoah.
The love and care that Peter has put into this restoration is the lesson of our trip that I will most cherish. Raised as a non-Jew he is aware of what our people did in this place and feels personally called to do what he can to honour their memory and tell the story. In so doing he has discovered his own Jewish roots and Ahavat Yisrael, a love for the Jewish people that is profound and genuine. All of of this in a place that is void of Jews, but because of his act of Yizkor, sacred remembrance not void of Jewishness.
We read from facsimile pages of our Holocaust Torah and remembered for blessing those who were
murdered in Sedlčany by reading their names and saying Kaddish.
I noted then that it was because of their adherence and ours to the teachings in this Torah that we have pledged that its words and songs will never depart from our lips. From generation to generation, it will be our life and the length of our days.
May their memories forever be for a blessing.
Tonight we will have a farewell dinner and return to our homes and community forever changed by this experience. I pray that the lasting memory of these countries so cast in the shadow of the Shoah will now contain the rays of light found in the communities and individuals that are rising from the ashes to rekindle the light of Torah in this land.
Day 10 – Prague: we began the day at the Castle where we learned a bit about the history of the Czech Republic (not always it’s name) and its current political system.
The history of the Jews in the Czech Republic is marked by periods of extreme anti-Semitism with brief and intermittent periods of toleration. Though at one time the Jewish community in the combined areas of modern Slovakia and the Czech Republic was among the largest and most vibrant in the world, today its population numbers only approximately 3,900 people and it stands as but a remnant of what was a center of Jewish culture and scholarship home to numerous synagogues, famous Rabbis (The Maharal) and writers/philosophers (Kafka).
It was interesting to note that two of its most admired political leader, the prominent Czech nationalist scholar Tomáš Masaryk, and Author and Play-write Vaclav Havel both raised their social justice voices in defense of the Jewish community.
Masaryk did so during the Hilsner Affair and instance of blood libel similar to the Dryfus Affair in is significance for the Jewish community.https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hilsner_Affair
A statue to this courageous man stands on the castle hill.
From the Castle we walked down to the Charles Bridge with it impressive views and troubling iconography, including a statue of Jesus on the cross encircled with the Hebrew words קדש, קדש, קדש an attempt by the church to explain the trinity through classical Hebrew texts. Though there is much here that is anti-Semitic this statue is more a historical revisionism.
From the bridge we walked to the Jewish Quarter had lunch and then toured the synagogues and museums of the Jewish section.
As we walked we passed the old government budget and finance building that has as one of its two prominent statues outside a statue of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel the Maharal – one of the great rabbinic luminaries of Jewish thought.https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judah_Loew_ben_Bezalel
The Maharal made many important and lasting contributions to Judaism but in my view his greatest was his view on education and that education for children was a priority and a mitzvah. ALL of western pedagogy can trace its roots to his writings and teachings on this subject.
The tour of the Jewish Quarter was sadly familiar by now. Historic Jewish synagogues now largely museums, void of the Jews that once filled them with prayer. There is a resurgent Jewish community here with active congregations and a JCC. But it appears there are far more Jewish tourists than there are residents.
We conclude the day in the Spanish synagogue which is now a memorial to the Czech victims of the Shoah. After the war two men return to this shul which was in disrepair and began writing the names of all the towns and all the Czech Jews that were destroyed by the Nazis.
Upstairs in the the far corner is the name of the Village of Selucheny – the original home of our Temple Sholom Holocaust Torah. We will be going to that village and the cite of the now destroyed Shul tomorrow for a special ceremony and to read from facsimiles of our Czech Torah that we brought with us. We will also read the names of the 50 Jews from that congregation that were nursery by the Nazis – the entire community was wiped out.
Day 9 – Budapest to Prague: today was a long travel day. We left at 845a and will arrive in Prague around 730p. Not much to report but one observation about the EU. The huge amount of rules and regulations that drivers and business owners must adhere to are quite stifling.
Drivers must stop every few hours for 30 minutes, cafes have rules about what they can serve and when, rules about gas stations. Individually they may make sense and provide some consumer protections, but collectively they are quite a burden.
Lastly – we had a wonderful local guide in Budapest who travelled with us to Prague. Her name is Julia, she is Jewish and discovered her Jewish identity late in life. She has now lives in Israel. Has a degree in Jewish education and is a tremendous representative of the Jewish community of Budapest.
Day 8 – Budapest: Today was a very full day. We started at The Glass House, home to a WWII glass factory but also a refuge for Jewish residents of Budapest who were scrambling to avoid Nazi death squads and deportation. The building was used by the Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz to help Jews in Budapest during the Holocaust by providing them diplomatic protection papers. While in the building we reviewed the history of anti-Semitism in Hungary – a brutal history with many anti Jewish laws passed decades before the Nazi occupation.
When finally the Nazis began to round up the Jews of Budapest after clearing the countryside of Jews they concluded that Aushweitz could only handle 1 train load per day. The Hungarians wanted to send 6, a compromise was reached at 3, about 10,000 Jews per day. The war was ending and Hungary wanted to kill more Jews than the Nazis could handle. Sickening.
We then went to the Blue Danube River to view the Shoe Memorial. All along the river 60,000 Jew were lined up and shot, their bodies falling into the river – such that some report the Blue Danube ran red with blood. You will note the memorial plaque pictured below makes no mention that it was Jews that were murdered here.
Next we toured the magnificent Doheney Synagogue. The building is the second largest synagogue in the world, behind Temple Emanuel of NYC. It’s spectacular! One must note that only an extremely comfortable, confident and secure Jewish community would build such an edifice. Thus the greater trauma when the population turned against the 1m Jews of this city (25% of the pre-war population).
Following lunch the whole group did a great deal of shopping at the small lace challah cover and table cloth stand operated but our dear family friend and Shoah surviver Lucy Braun. My parents have known Lucy for 20 years since they led trips here. Her work and story is included in Yad vShem.
We then met with leaders of the JDC (Joint Distribution Committee) an arm of the Jewish Federations of North America. The presentation was about the current status of the Jewish community and it was not as encouraging as we felt in Kraków. Hungary estimates 100k Jews in the country, nearly all in Budapest where there are 23 active synagogues. BUT only 8,000-10,000 Jews are affiliated with some aspect of the community. There is a great deal of infighting amongst the Jewish organizations and Reform/Conservation/Progressive congregations are not officially recognized by the state or the local Jewish agency. It’s a sadly familiar tale.
The day concluded with a tour of the castle and then a nighttime dinner cruise on the Danube.
Tomorrow we drive to Prague.
Day 7 – Kraków to Budapest:
Today was a travel day from Kraków, through Slovakia into Budapest. We ate meals in three countries, but honestly all the food appears the same to me.
Lots of sleeping on the bus. Our local guide gave occasional commentaries as we drove by beautiful landscapes, majestic castles and winding mountain roads.
We will arrive in Budapest on a few hours. Dinner and sleep then a very full day tomorrow, our only full day in Budapest with much to see, experience and explore.
One hopes as we leave Poland that the narrative arc of our trip turns more hopeful but sadly as we well know life was no better for the Jewish of Hungry or the now Czech Republic during the war. However – we will continue to engage with the reconstructed Jewish communities in these cities and be inspired by their perseverance.
Shabbat in Kraków:
We held our own service this morning in the hotel. It was nice to daven as a community, our familiar tunes (butchered by me without Cantor Naomi Taussig) and readings. Five from our group read Torah from a photocopy of our new Torah scroll I brought with us. It was especially significant to bring our new Torah to this city.
My drash spoke briefly about Korach and the concept of arguments ‘lshem shamayim / for the sake of heaven (rather than our own egos). I referenced Dallas, but also how we were in a city of dozens of old Shuls, more than were probably needed but as is often the case our people have separated ourselves from each other. These divisions are ok if they are simply on the surface as I know they were in Kraków – a Jewish community that while not without discord still celebrated and respected each other while not always agreeing. How different that was to the world war that raged around them.
Following services we toured the Wawel Castle. It’s a castle – impressive if you like castles, I appreciated the view and how hard it must have been to keep clean.
After lunch on our own we toured the Kraków Ghetto and the pharmacy in the ghetto – the only one which was operated by Tadeusz Pankiewicz, a roman catholic and one of the righteous among the nations. His pharmacy was life for thousands. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tadeusz_Pankiewicz
We engaged in a deep discussion of perpetrators, victims and bystanders – asking who was what. The Elie Wiesel z’l quote was offered, “It is true that not all the victims were Jews, but all the Jews were victims.”
We left with a larger list in each of the three categories than we had entered with.
We then toured Oskar Schindler’s Factory. A spot made more famous by the movie (which must be credited for preserving the memory of the Shoah and translating it to the masses and a new generation). The factory tour was a disappointment for some (myself included). It tells the story of Nazi occupied Kraków and only briefly focuses on Schindler and his list. The presentation was too much information in too small a space with sensory overload. The message was, ‘we Poles, we suffered too under the Nazis.’ While undeniable it is also incomparable to the murder of the Jews of Kraków. We left tired, tired of it all and ready to leave Poland.
Today as I post this we are traveling by bus to Budapest – a 6 hour ride to rest, reflect and talk with each other.
Erev Shabbat in Kraków:
We spent Shabbat with Reform congregation Beit Kraków. The service was led by two members of the congregation. Baruch who is originally from Poland and works now as a translator. He was born after the war. And Catalonia – a lovely twenty-something young woman who converted to Judaism 3 years ago and now leads the services with a beautiful voice and wonderful Hebrew. I was honored to give the drash, lead kiddush and help with the service (not that they needed it in any way)
We then walked to the Kraków JCC for an incredible Shabbat dinner with 160 Jews – 60 of which are residents of Kraków. The JCC is more than a spark of hope, it is a bright light welcoming 1000s of Jews every year and boasting a Jewish membership of more than 600+ which far exceeds the official numbers.
Their director Jonathan Ornstein spoke to us before the dinner. It was a beautiful and inspiring evening.
Day 4 – Aushweitz-Berkenau:
I last visited this place of horrors in 1990 when I was 19 years old on the March of the Living with BBYO. I never wanted to go back, and only did today to lead my congregation in a similarly profound and indelible experience.
It has changed in those 26 years. There is now a visitor centre, more than 350 Polish guides – many trained at Yad v’Shem in Jerusalem.
So many lessons and questions from today. I’ll offer you just two before Shabbat:
Lesson: More than 2 million people visit this site every year – that’s more than 5,000 every day. The vast majority are not Jewish. Why do they come? What do they learn and take with them? I don’t know but I am heartened to know they come here, I cannot imagine they are not changed and challenged by the experience.
Is this some good that comes out of such indescribable horror? It is, it does not in anyway diminish the evil that was done here but it provides some hope it will never happen again.
Question: As the barracks and facilities fall into disrepair with the advancement of time should they be reconstructed to be preserved or should they be allowed to crumble to dust, ultimately allowing the land to lay fallow, becoming a memorial but no longer a museum?
I don’t know the answer. It seems wrong to perpetuate this horror by rebuilding the crumbling structures and yet the power of these buildings and the stories they prompt us to tell is unique and beyond compare.
We held a memorial along side a box car in the middle of Birkenau (service attached), we sang Hatikvah as well as chanted Kaddish and memorial prayers. Some were moved to tears, others to reflection and silence, all of us were confirmed in our conviction of never again. To not stand idly by as our Torah commands.
Then we retreated to the Jewish centre in the town for lunch and discussion, only then learning of the racial violence and murder of police officers in Dallas.
Why must people hate? Life is so precious – and we spill each other’s blood in our own warped sense of justice. When will we learn to respect human life? When will we learn to resolve our differences without violence? Or even better to live peacefully even with our differences?
Shabbat Shalom – may it be a sabbath of peace.
Day 3 – Kraków: today we arrived in the inarguably beautiful city of Kraków, home to 70,000 Jews before the war. We spent the day in the Jewish quarter and the experience was even more upsetting and startling than the Polin museum. The city which now has maybe 300 Jews has turned the Jewish quarter into ‘Jewish Disneyland’ Small trolley cars (pictured below) shlep tourists – mostly non-Jews from old Shul to old Shul, to Schindler’s factory, the Ghetto and all parts in between. Jewish shops and streets have been faux reconstructed. Historic synagogues are now cafe’s bearing the name of the Shul but a menu from present day, serving ice cream and beer.
In every shop you find antique Judaica items that have come from the attics and store houses of former Jewish homes. Hasidic figures and pictures of rabbis with bags of money (pictured below) are sold in the flea markets. It’s nauseating.
And then we ended our day at the Galicia Museum – a new gallery established by a visiting Jew from the west. It features the most touching and inspiring and moving photo essay of historic Jewish sites and their intentional preservation by both Jews and non-Jews.
There is a glimmer of hope in this museum, our docent who is not sure if she herself is Jewish has an advanced degree in Jewish studies and a clear love for Jewish culture and history.
It is hard to imagine that we will ever be 70,000 again in this town, but maybe one day 700, maybe in a a few generations 7,000. Perhaps we can retake Jewish Disneyland and restore it to its former glory as the cradle of Ashkenazic Jewish life and scholarship?
Tomorrow – Aushweitz-Burkanau
Eastern Europe Days 1 & 2: today we spent 3 hours in the Polin Jewish Museum. This is a brand new museum, funded by both public and private funds. It is massive and tells the story of 1,000 years of Jewish life (and death) in Poland. I’m still processing but one reaction, shared by others in the group is that in some ways this museum is more upsetting than Yad vShem as it shows the roots of persecution and anti-semitism that span a millennia. Jewish life was so rich here, so incredibly vibrant and always in the status of ‘other’ though Jews made up 10% of the population of Poland and 33% of the population of Warsaw. We lost so much of Jewish life in this country. The museum is the story of the longitudinal persecution and exploitation of our people in a country that only benefited from their presence. It is experienced like a museum to a annihilated people BUT we are still here only we are not HERE. Only 5,000 Jews remain from 3.5m.