Our fifth day in Poland was a day we all had been anticipating. Our first Shabbos together was right around the corner. We started off the day with breakfast, then prayers with wise words from Rabbi Benji. In his Dvar Torah, he spoke of how our lips are like the sandbanks of a river, how our lips have the ability to hold our metaphorical water – our words and emotion- and contains them, just like the sandbanks. While today would not be as confronting as other days already experienced in Poland, this metaphorical lesson helped express to us the importance of opening up and connecting, especially to the amazing, spiritual places we would soon visit.
After a short bus ride, we arrived at the Old Krakow Shule. We learned of the amazing history of the Jews that once lived in the City of Kazimierz. During the 18th century, thanks to King Krack, the city was almost exclusively Jewish, and held many thriving, rich and fulfilling, Jewish lives. It was explained to us, that the community had an overwhelming amount of Jewish infrastructure and jobs, as well as its own local Jewish governing body – ‘The Four Nations.’
We then visited the Old Shule of Krakow. We all stared in awe at the large black metal door that opened up to a grand view of the Shule, showing of the beautifully crafted chandeliers hanging from the arched roof, and the intrinsically detailed and masterfully designed Aron Kodesh. This Shule was unfortunately destroyed in Kristallnacht, and it is currently used as museum to showcase the rich, Jewish life from before the war. Encased in glass are artefacts from daily Jewish life- things life Tefilin, washing cups, clothing and more. We soon learnt that this Shule was not typical for its time. It lead the way in creating new traditions and customs within Kajmij and Krakow, and can be seen as a form of reformation at the time to the modern Orthodox Judaism we know today. It was very community orientated and contributed to. People were not concerned with the decoration of their own homes, and instead donated to the Shule, to create a beautiful environment for the community. The Old Shule was the central hub for the Jews in KazimierzKajmij, especially after being so heavily contributed to, and it truly was special for us to see it, and compare it to the Shules that we all daven in back home.
We then went on a short tour of the city, walking around part of the Jewish section. Clues still remained of Jewish livelihood, such as the sign on the building for the Chevera Kedisha, Jewish symbols painted on walls, and another smaller Shule that we were able to visit. Most of us in Sydney experience a relatively dense population of Jews within the secular areas that we live, however this was something else completely. All we could do is just imagine what life was like here for the 40,000 plus Jews who would typically be bartering at a market, kids being called from the street for dinner, and the Shules packed to the brim on a daily basis.
Next we visited the Old Cemetery of Krakow, next to the Isaley family home. The Isaley’s were a family of scholars, with the son being an extremely famous rabbi, known as the Rama. During the Holocaust, Nazis would destroy Jewish tombstones to use for paving roads or streets. We were all shocked, yet still not surprised, at this act of blatant disrespect and disregard for not only the property and physicality of the tomb stone, but the dignity that was destroyed along with it. We were told the fascinating story of how when the Rama’s tombstone was about to be broken, the guards hammer broke, not once but three times. It is stories like this that show the amazing miracles that are able to happen in such adversity. This cemetery in particular, is one of the very few Jewish cemeteries in Poland that are fully intact.
We finished our visit to the cemetery with a powerful message by Miriam inside the Shule within the family home. She shared a story of Reb Carlebach. After his first time visiting the Holocaust related sites in Poland, he created a niggun, whose melody was minor, slow and quite depressing. When he sat in one of the Shules in Krakow, singing this niggun, a man in the back row of the Shule stood up suddenly, shouting for the Rabbi to stop! The man then starting to sing a new melody, one more joyful, fast and upbeat. The Rabbi realised why, and the whole congregation began to sing and dance around the Shule.
What was this man doing by changing the melody? Why would a melody in relation to the Holocaust be upbeat, and danced to? This man did not want the melody of Krakow and Poland to be only about the Holocaust. The reason we on IST came to Poland, was not just to remember the atrocities of the Holocaust, but the roots and origins of our rich, Jewish history. We need to be proud to be Jewish, not because of the Holocaust, but despite the Holocaust. We need to remember not just what happened to us, but what we did, how we fought it, the tradition and culture that came before it. An intrinsic value to being Jewish, is to remember, and never forget. That means we remember the good along with the bad, the tragedy along with the history and resistance.
The last site visited was the Temple Shule. This Shule was also a very community orientated synagogue, with the wealth of the community going into creating immense aesthetics and beauty, to honour the act of prayer. These Shules are very different to the Shules of today, with highly decorated walls, balconies, painted roofs, patterned carpet, and extremely detailed and beautiful Aronei Hakodesh. However, this Shule again paved the way for reformation from other traditional Shules. This Shule was the first to have a Rabbi with a secular degree give sermons in the vernacular of Polish. There was on organ, accompanied by a choir. From today’s standards, it still appears relatively Modern Orthodox, however at the time, it seemed as if it were a liberal reformation leaving Orthodoxy. This made some of us question the traditions and customs that we exercise and practice today, in our own communities in Sydney. How are they the same? How are they different? If something is different, is one better or worse? Are there consequences to that or not?
We ended in the Shule with a powerful Mincha lead by Doron Lewin. Everyone was even more anxious for the beginning of our first and only Shabbos together in Poland. Rabbi Benji inspired us all to try keep Shabbos with an amazing message. He related Shabbos to being the light that is able to illuminate a whole room when it is pitch black. By keeping Shabbos to our fullest potential, we are able to turn off our physical senses, therefore turning on our spiritual ones.
After having roughly an hour to get ready for Shabbos (no it wasn’t enough for some girls), we had a fulfilling Shule service with the community, in the Kupa Synagogue. The service was extremely fun as we sang and danced around the Bimah, bringing a sense of Jewish life to a place that was once thriving. Shabbos dinner was a buzz, with the excitement at its peak. We were all chanting, and singing, and talking non-stop.
The night ended with another few hours of free time in the hotel, allowing our curfew until midnight. This was a great chance for many of us to get to know new people, and have a lot of fun, while also set us up to be extremely tired and sleep deprived for tomorrow.