The recreation on Spadina Road in Toronto’s Forest Hill of the façade of the synagogue in Jaslo, Poland, that was destroyed during the Holocaust is touching.
Though I don’t remember the synagogue, perhaps because my parents didn’t go there or didn’t take me, I’ve memories of other places in the town: our apartment, the main street with an ice cream stand where I’d be taken for treats, my father’s office in the local glassworks, and friends.
My only happy childhood memories are from Jaslo. My parents moved there before I was born and we lived in the town until Sept. 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland. The Jewish owner of the glassworks had a farm not far from the city then called Lwow or Lemberg, now Lviv in Ukraine, and offered to take my mother and me there. My father joined us later.
That’s how we survived. In the pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, that part of what had been Poland came under Soviet occupation, and we were thus saved from the crematoria where the rest of the Jews of Jaslo ended up. The Soviets deported us to Siberia. After about a year there, and some four years in Uzbekistan, we returned to Poland in 1946, hungry and confused, yet alive.
But not to Jaslo. The town had been devastated during the war. Some of the workers who were ready to restart the glassworks asked my father to manage it. Prudently, he declined. Within two years, we left for Sweden.
I returned to Jaslo more than three decades later with my wife and family. Our aim was to show our children our roots. My wife Fredzia was born in Lodz, Poland’s second-largest city, and survived the war in its ghetto and in a German concentration camp. She was rescued with her mother by the Swedish Red Cross a few days before the end of the war.
When we visited Jaslo, Poland was still under Communism and the town reflected its worst features. There was something ghost-like about it. The then-occupant allowed us to see the apartment where I had lived with my parents. Nothing seemed to have changed. Like everything else we saw in Jaslo, it was in need of a facelift.
They were even still blowing glass in the way I remembered it from my childhood. Modernization had passed them by.
There were no Jews in the town, and there aren’t any today. In the 1950s, a memorial book about the Jews of Jaslo was published in Yiddish, also available in English, as a verbal monument to the dead.
The choice by the Toronto congregation to commemorate the synagogue in Jaslo is a laudable effort to remember a place of Jewish worship that was burned down by the Nazis twice – the first time local Poles tried to save it. My parents would often say that there was no anti-Semitism in the town, and I certainly don’t remember any from my childhood.
However, the façade of the destroyed synagogue should in no way turn the Toronto version into a memorial shrine. Every Jewish institution being built today must be evidence of contemporary Judaism that’s alive and thriving, despite the challenges and the memories.
There’s a tendency in some quarters, particularly among those who’ve no personal experience of the destruction of European Jewry, to turn the Holocaust into a kind of religion that allows the past to control and perhaps stifle the present. The Shoah must indeed be commemorated at special events and in special places, but synagogues should be there to help worshippers celebrate the present and look toward the future.
I hope, therefore, that the room to commemorate the Holocaust that’s planned for the new building won’t be turned into a chapel. It’s by living in the here and now that we make sure – in the Toronto Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim’s famous words – that Hitler won’t have a posthumous victory.