My husband a retired rabbi from LA and I were invited to Poland to help emerging Jewish congregations in 5 cities. We found ourselves in a very lovely apartment near the old walled city of Lublin. Our host and interpreter was Piot, a twenty six year old student with a Jewish studies major at the nearby University of Lublin. He was a disorganized fellow, tall, blond and very cute.
One of the first things Allen did was lead a Friday night service at a restaurant in the old city. It was accompanied by a four piece very good Klezmer band with Piot as lead player on his electric guitar. People pounded on the tables and clapped. It was a noisy and totally delightful service.
At the end of the service, Allen announced that he was starting some new jewish classes the next day at our apartment and everyone was welcome to come. Brochures were passed out about the classes. We all started to pack up and get ready to go back.
An older man in his mid seventies, with sliver hair and a portly body, came over to our table. He spoke only Polish and through college student sitting next to us, he explained that his name was Darish and that he wasn’t Jewish. He told us, “My son has come often to these Jewish services and this time he encouraged me to come with him. He told me how meaningful and fun they were, so I came and really enjoyed myself. I would very much like to come to the class on Judaism tomorrow but because I am not Jewish I wanted to know if this would be proper?” “Of course,” said Allen,”Everyone is invited”
The next morning Darish was the first guest to come. He was very early and seemed a bit anxious. Luckily Piot had come just before him and was able to translate. Darish, a bit sweaty and pale said, “I have never met a rabbi before and I had to talk to you. It is very important to me that you listen to my personal story.”
“When I was a little boy about six years old I lived with my grandparents in a small village not far from Lublin called Majdanek. The German’s built a death camp there in 1942. To this day, I can smell the burning flesh from the ovens. It stuffed up your nose, and ashes fell on your clothes, but worse was the smell choking you, because you knew it was those people from the trains dying a horrible death. I can remember the trains, cattle cars filled with desperate people. Squeezed so tight together that some people just died standing up. From our little home I could hear the shouting of the Nazi guards and dogs barking.”
“Most people just went on about their business, farming or being storekeepers. Most were afraid to lift their eyes and see what was going on. It could happen to us they thought; but some were just glad to get rid of the “dirty Jews.””
“My grandparents would go to the electric fence in the dead of the night. Some people gave those unfortunates pieces of bread or potatoes, but my grandparents bartered with the new arrivals before they gave them any of their merger food.”
“One day, I found a pair of men’s silk pajama’s hidden in the bottom of the dresser. I asked my grandmother where they had gotten them and she said it was from one of the new arrivals at the camp. Maybe the pajama’s were just too refined or elegant for the older farming couple. Maybe they were embarrassed or felt that it was out of place. Maybe they even felt a sense of shame or guilt. Those silk PJ’s were never touched or worn by anyone in my family. I remember them very well and they sat like discarded emeralds in the bottom of that chest of drawers for as long as my grandparents were alive.”
As I listened to the English and Polish back and forth, I saw tears streaming down Darish’s face and I felt his pain. Then he asked. “Please forgive us.”
This moment reminded me so much of Simon Wisenthal’s book “The Sunflower.” In the book which was based on a true story of a dying Nazi solider who asked forgiveness from a Jewish prisoner. The book dealt with several moral questions. Does a Rabbi or any Jew have the power to forgive sins committed against other people? Can anyone take away the sense of guilt and shame?
Allen’s answer to Darish was “You were just a child it is not your sin. You were an unusual child one who was very sensitive and who was greatly upset by what you saw and heard.” He replied “but it is the sin of my family.” Darish stayed for the morning class and he came back later that day for the class in the afternoon. He brought with him a book he had bought during the Communist period in 1980’s. It was a Rabbinic anthology of Talmud and Midrash moral stories told by rabbis.
The next day Darsih was back for the final class on Jewish history. He stayed after the other people went home and showed us a beautifully arranged photo album of his family going back to 1860’s. He showed us each picture and mostly told us about the male members of his family. One was an army officer, another a teacher, earlier relatives had adventurous stories of men who settled the land. Most of the women were mothers and wives as was common in the past.
Then Darish asked Allen another question, “Does anyone in my family look Jewish?” Allen pointed to a few of the women because the men had professions that would not have been associated with Jews at the time. Allen said, “I really do not know but it is a possibility”
We were leaving Lublin in a few days and Darish insisted that he take us outside of the town for a short excursion. We asked Piot to join us so he could translate and give his input into the places we would be seeing. We took off early in the morning and went about an hour and a half to a very tiny town. There was a huge field of dirt, like a rounded mound, and Darish said that this is where the Jews of the village had been murdered. It had been mostly a Jewish town. There was no plaque of any kind just an empty field. “A graveyard,” said Darish, “Poland is one huge graveyard”
In town there was one large square building standing; a synagogue. It had been used by the Nazis during the war as a storehouse. During the Communist time the town was going to tear it down, but they ran out of money, so the old building just sat and deteriorated. When Jewish tourists started coming to Poland, it was restored and turned into a museum. Inside there were display cases of items people had left behind; menorahs, sabbath candle sticks, even an ark which had held a Torah and a hanging eternal lamp. On one side of the room there was a carved staircase which led to a tiny room where the shamus must have lived.
When Darius dropped us off at our apartment He hugged both of us tightly and to Allen he said,”This has been the most important day of my life”.
Allen told Piot that he needed to keep in touch with Darish and have him help with the events, services for this emerging Jewish community. “Darish wants to do something to help you make this little seed of a new Jewish Community grow out from the ashes of Majdanek”.