Atypical Shabbat in Warsaw – Day Three
Cold. Wet. Gray. Like the grainy images we have all seen of past Jewish life in Poland. That is the way I imagine Warsaw, and every other city in which Jews were crowded into just 70 years ago on the eve of their destruction. And that is the city of Warsaw that we experienced today.
After a Shabbat morning service and Torah study, we headed to explore the new Museum of Jewish Life in Poland, slated to open in October. We were all deeply affected by our docent, Martha, who clearly had not anticipated our questions. Sure, she could describe the construction and architecture of the museum. She could address each period of Jewish life in Poland. But when asked about her own identity, she seemed taken aback. The daughter of a Catholic father and a Jewish mother, she was raised in a home where Communism was the official family religion. A class trip to Israel reintroduced her to her ancestry, and after five years in Israel and a brief stay in America, she returned to Poland to reclaim her past. Now, she sees it as her mission to restore the place of the Jews in Poland’s historical narrative. It was powerful to see a personal struggle to rediscover an identity; it was inspiring to learn this perspective on why we are here.
While the museum’s emphasis is the many contributions of Jewish life in Poland, our walking tour of the monuments to Jewish life in the Warsaw ghetto certainly took us back to the suffering of the Jewish people in this place. We were cold and wet as we sloshed through the gray landscape. But we did not dare complain. We were all acutely aware that we had sturdy shoes, multiple layers of clothing, some of us had gloves, and all of us were fed and headed ultimately for shelter. Who were we to complain, especially standing in the footsteps of those whom we were here to remember.
The topic of our Torah study this morning, from today’s parasha Kedoshim, was the Torah’s commandments not to stand idly by the suffering of our brothers, not to hate others in our hearts, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Tonight, as we put our heads to our feathery soft pillows, we are confronted by challenges that make sleep elusive. How can we begin to empathize with the suffering of the Holocaust’s victims without feeding the flames of anger and hatred? How do we formulate an active and instructive response to these events such that we become more attuned to the suffering of others, be they Jewish or not? How do we own this victimization without victimizing others?
Tonight, international stage and synagogue star Dudu Fisher sang us songs of lament, prayer and hope. It was a poignant way to bring in the new week and the difficult commemoration ahead. I pray I can find the one melody that will bring me just a little sleep before the sun rises to the new day.
Rabbi Craig Scheff