Day 5 - Netzach - Matt Nurick
As the end of a very confronting and intensely emotional week approached, an air of anticipation for our first IST Shabbat was palpable. This Shabbat would undoubtedly be unique and probably one of the most poignant, bittersweet Shabbat experiences that we would ever have. It would be an opportunity for us all to truly pause, to attempt to process and deeply reflect on the enormity of all that we had seen and learnt this past week about Polish Jewry and the magnitude of the atrocities of the Holocaust. But importantly too, the fact that our IST group would be welcoming in Shabbat in Poland would powerfully affirm that our persecutors had failed in their mission to annihilate our people.
Earlier in the day we explored Kazimirz, the Jewish quarter of Krakow. It is inconceivable to imagine that before WWII, Krakow’s Jewish population was estimated to be 64,000. Weaving our way along its quaint, cobblestone streets, we gained an appreciation of what Jewish life would have been like in pre-war Europe.
We visited numerous old shuls, each one more precious and beautiful than the next, highlighting the vibrancy of the Jewish community that had once lived there. This included a tour of Remuh Synagogue, which housed the first Yeshiva of Krakow under the leadership of Rabbi Moses Isserias, one of the greatest Jewish scholars of Poland. In the adjoining Old Jewish Cemetery of Krakow, we heard fascinating stories about the lives of many esteemed Rabbis and individuals who were buried there.
Along the way we also briefly stopped at the Old Synagogue or known in Yiddish as the Alta Shul. We felt fortunate knowing that we had the chance to glimpse what is considered to be the oldest synagogue building still standing in Poland, and which is also recognised as one of Europe’s most treasured Jewish landmarks. However, during World War II, German soldiers completely destroyed the shul. It is now a museum with exhibits focusing on the Krakow Jewish community.
At the Galicia Jewish Museum, we heard the inspiring stories of the righteous gentiles who placed their own and their family’s lives at risk to help, hide and rescue Jews. We were privileged to meet a Polish woman called Miroslawa who was a teenager during the Holocaust. Many of us were overcome with emotion as she shared her story. She explained how her family made the choice to care for Miri, a young Jewish girl who had escaped from the ghetto. When the family met Miri she was unwell from the shocking conditions of being homeless. Miroslawa’s family provided shelter, safety and a home for Miri. They also ensured she had fake documents to protect her identity, ensuring her survival after the war. She later emigrated to Israel where she still lives today. The women stayed in contact and a few years ago Miri ensured that Miroslawa was honoured at Yad Vashem with a Righteous Among the Nation Award.
We were all in awe of Miroslawa, for her family’s heroism, absolute generosity and display of humanity. Hearing this miraculous story first hand renewed our confidence that despite one’s religion or beliefs, acts of humanity and morality can prevail.
While touring, one couldn’t miss the Hebrew stylized writing on many signs in the Jewish district and stores geared for tourists selling brightly coloured kippots and souvenirs. There are definitely attempts at revival of Jewish life and community in Krakow.
We returned to our respective hotels with some time to relax and began preparations for Shabbat. Before we knew it, it was candle lighting at what seemed to be a ridiculous time; 15:29.
Every Shabbat candle lit by our IST cohort was reflective of the eternal light of our collective Jewish faith and identity that we can never allow to be extinguished. Zachor “to remember the Shabbat” is revealed in the Fourth Commandment. In Devarim, the Torah then replaces ‘zachor’ with ‘shamor’, “to safeguard the Shabbat”. Significantly, these two core Shabbat principles, ‘zachor’ and ‘shamor’, would be even more pertinent than ever on this Shabbat. Not only would it be incumbent on us to “remember” but to also ensure that we continue to “safeguard” our future as Jews. What a privilege that we, as future generations of Jews could stand here in Krakow, not only proudly fulfilling the mitzvot of Shabbat, just like millions of Jews before us, but also honouring and remembering all those who were not given the chance to live, solely because they were Jews.
Being given the honour to lead our Kabbalat Shabbat service in the magnificently restored Temple Synagogue is probably one of the most meaningful and unforgettable experiences of my life, especially since I davened with my late Zaida’s siddur and tallit. It was always his dream to be a chazan and I know he was watching with pride from the heavens. This historic and architecturally remarkable shul, now over 150 years old, was once one of the most vibrant centres of Progressive Judaism in Poland. We had visited the shul earlier on in the day and when entering inside, we were presented with a lavishly decorated interior. This is in stark contrast to the weight of its past history with unspeakable attempts to silence our beliefs and traditions. The Nazis had repurposed the shul during the war as one of their storage sheds. One is struck by the ornateness of its elaborate ceiling, and the richness of its gilded woodwork. But its most prominent feature is the Aron HaKodesh impressively designed in marble that tonight would experience and witness the reverberations of our rousing Tefillah.
Joining together in solidarity, arm in arm, fervently singing in our loudest voices the familiar songs and traditional tunes to welcome in Shabbat, it was as if we were urging our voices to transcend time, to be heard by all those lives that had been so senselessly shattered. With every song, came spontaneous dancing reinforcing the strength of our emunah and our obligation to always value and celebrate life.
I have no doubt that throughout the service each of us also thought about the thriving Polish Jewish communities who had also once stood singing and davening at many Shabbat services like this, exactly where we were now standing. As we sang Mizmor L’David, my voice faltered and I trembled with overwhelming emotion. I was reminded at that moment that our Tefillah embodies our survival as a nation. The words of the final line of this psalm resonated so strongly, its significance so uplifting and comforting, “Hashem will give strength unto His people; Hashem will bless his people with peace”. Similarly, one could feel the depth of passion in each of our voices while singing Lecha Dodi. How immensely privileged we felt that despite so much tragedy and destruction, our voices and our presence were reviving Jewish life and hope back into Poland through our “Welcoming of the Shabbat Bride”.
Throughout this moving service, our emotions oscillated between painful sadness and joyful exuberance, inextricably binding us to each other and merging us with every victim of the Shoah. Furthermore, It was impossible not to think of the unwavering faith of all those who had been led to their persecution and death with the words of the Shema on their trembling lips as our cohort jointly said the words of the Shema with so much intensity.
My friend Ariel Eisner then had the honour of leading the Maariv service. Reciting the Amidah silently with full hearts and kavanah (intention), our spiritual connection to Hashem and our commitment to Judaism was reinforced. We were so energised as we recited Aleinu in unison where the final words “Alken nekaveh lecha (therefore, we place our hope in You, Hashem)” provided us with hopefulness for a better future, a better world for all.
This impactful and memorable Shabbat service provided enormous achdut (unity), and nourishment of our souls. It felt as if our cohort had been strengthened by this positively transformative experience and we were just like when the Jewish people arrived on Mount Sinai, “k’ish echad b’lev echad (like one person with one heart)”.
We then ended our time in this amazing shul with a quick recap of the past few days in our family groups; reflecting on our feelings and moments that had been truly meaningful to us.
After a delicious dinner, we had a small group game of speed dating followed by an enjoyable tisch.
This Shabbat will remain etched in my mind forever. Together we created our own history, our light triumphed over darkness defeating the forces of evil. On Friday night, our Jewish pride resounded throughout Krakow and we reaffirmed our commitment to our Jewish values and a world of righteousness.