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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

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100 cantors travel to the former heart of European Jewry

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I  had been to Poland before, so I arrived prepared for the beautiful, lush countryside and green parkland. It wasn’t the grey, bleak country I had come to expect from all the Holocaust movies I had seen. However, this visit to Poland was different. There seemed to be a renewal of Jewish life and a keen interest in memorializing the past.

Throughout the streets of Warsaw, there were plaques commemorating what once was. On a few older apartment buildings, large photos of former Jewish residents taken to their death by the Nazis hung outside the windows. I felt a tingling in my spine as I walked into the Great Nosyk Synagogue in Warsaw for Ma’ariv – a shul where legendary chazzanim and choirs had inspired countless Jewish people who came to pray.

I was surprised to see men in black kapotes and youth with tzitzit coming to daven. Who were they? Surely they had not maintained their Jewish roots throughout 45 years of Communism. Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, an American, explained: “The Poles are finding their roots. They are finally emerging once again as an autonomous nation after many years of occupation. Those who find a Jewish link in their ancestry are yearning for knowledge and beginning to practise as Jews. They no longer fear the Nazis or the Communists.”  

During our visit to the National Jewish Theatre of Warsaw, we met with director Golda Tencer. A child of Auschwitz survivors, she was born in Lodz and still lives in Poland. To hear Yiddish spoken on the stage in Warsaw was something I could only have dreamed of. As the founder of the American-Polish-Israeli Shalom Foundation, Golda has given the Jewish Theatre a new lease on life.

Among the foundation’s various initiatives are Yiddish-language courses taught in Lodz and Warsaw, the annual Yiddish festival in Warsaw, seminars in Poland’s universities and continued support of the Yiddish theatre, which still operates a full season of Yiddish plays, including classic works by Abraham Goldfaden, Mendele Mocher Sforim, Sholom Aleichem and Izchak Leib Peretz. (For further details on the foundation’s various initiatives, visit its website at www.shalom.org.pl.)

I have been a kippah-wearing Jew for more than 15 years. I wasn’t certain what the correct protocol in Poland would be.  During my first moments in Krakow, I saw a fistfight break out on the street. I put my kippah in my pocket and crossed the street. I later decided to put it back on and a cyclist passed me and shouted “Shalom.” A tear trickled down my face. Was it fair to blame an entire nation – a new generation – for the sins of the past? I wore my kippah proudly for the remainder of my stay.

The group of 100 cantors with whom I travelled hosted a gala concert at the Warsaw Opera House with the Warsaw Symphony Orchestra. “Who would attend such an event, a cantorial concert in Warsaw?” I asked myself.

There was not an empty seat in the more than 2000-seat concert hall!

Government officials, including Poland’s first lady, were in attendance. Was I dreaming? The concert began with a group of Polish children dressed in cute red uniforms enthusiastically singing the Polish national anthem. I was not emotionally prepared for what happened next: the children sang Hatikvah followed by Ani Ma’amin, a song that Jewish men, women and children sang 65 years ago as they marched to their deaths. Those little voices singing our music in our language – I could not suppress the tears.

Did the Polish people really want us back?  

Intrigued by Poland’s 1,000-year Jewish history, I began reading the statistics provided to us by the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture. The motto of its Jewish Heritage Initiative in Poland is: “Poland’s Jewish heritage belongs to all of us. We invite you to join us as we reclaim it.”  

In prewar Poland, there were 3.5 million Jews. By comparison, there were four million Jews in the United States and 175,000 in British Mandate Palestine.  

The most powerful message of my trip was acknowledging that the modern State of Israel was largely built and populated by Holocaust survivors. That was brought to life when we visited Auschwitz/Birkenau.  

As we stood between the barracks davening shacharit, we saw a group of Israeli soldiers in uniform pass. The davening stopped and was replaced by thunderous applause for the brave men and women who defend our Jewish homeland. Later when we arrived at Birkenau, we lined up along the infamous railway tracks and saluted the soldiers carrying a Sefer Torah as they passed between us. Imagine the scene: Israeli soldiers in uniform, marching with the Torah on the soil where the Nazis brutalized our people –what a moment of Jewish pride. We are here!

Today, Krakow hosts the largest Jewish music and culture festival in the world. It’s held in the old Jewish neighbourhood of Kazimierz. The area is filled with remnants of its Jewish past, including numerous synagogues, cemeteries, Jewish museums and “Jewish” restaurants (although they’re only Jewish in name).

Jewish culture appears to be trendy. The closing klezmer concert must have attracted 5,000 to 7,000 people packed like sardines into an open square, with Poles of all ages dancing and drinking in the streets.

Was this their version of Woodstock?

I discovered that the founder of this festival, now in its 19th year, isn’t even Jewish. I sat down at one of the bars for a drink to escape the revelry. It was dimly lit and only later did I notice that the tables were old Singer sewing machines, while black hats from another era were hanging on the hat rack and old family photos were still on the walls. This former tailor shop was now a bar with all the memorabilia still intact. It didn’t feel right.   

After spending one week in Poland, I returned home confused. I have more questions than answers. Jewish people were an integral part of Polish society for 1,000 years. Today, government officials are committed to memorializing Poland’s rich Jewish history. American and Israeli institutions and foundations are spearheading the initiative, but there’s little doubt that “Jewish is in.” There is a revival among Jews looking for their roots and a renaissance among Polish people wanting to bring back something lost during the darkest chapter in human history.

Eric Moses is the cantor of Beth Sholom Synagogue in Toronto.

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