It is a bit surreal to be living and not living in Israel—in Gush Etzion even — at the same time (I travel back and forth every two weeks). It’s hard for me to concentrate on my job — serving the Jewish community of Krakow, teaching Torah, helping to facilitate the revival of Jewish life in Poland and the relationship between Jews and Poles — when in my homeland my family, friends and community are in a seemingly constant state of fear and loss.
The world has suddenly been gripped by anxiety and terror and I struggle to focus on the task at hand without checking my facebook feed every few minutes hoping to find no new crisis, (yet unfortunately too often my hopes are frustrated). How can I maintain my sanity?
There are, I believe, two approaches one can take to attempt to restore normalcy in one’s life: 1. Isolation. One can attempt to bifurcate the two lives—internal and external. What happens at my workplace stays there and I attempt to separate it from my personal domain. This is a very difficult endeavor, requiring great discipline. 2. Integration. One aspect of my public domain might positively influence my personal one, finding inspiration from one area to assuage the fears in the other. I opt for the latter approach.
This week I fulfilled one of my responsibilities as the representative of the chief rabbi of Poland by attending an event honoring the memory of Jan Karski in a small town in the mountains in Lower Poland. Who was Jan Karski? A hero. What was his act of heroism? He was not apathetic to injustice. Most of us discern right from wrong but few are willing to act on that moral clarity. Are we ready to sacrifice? Jan was and did.
A religious Christian Pole who during the war, Jan did not stand idly by watching the suffering of Jews by the hands of the Nazis; instead he worked undercover for the Polish Government in Exile, went behind enemy lines to retrieve classified information and publicize it to the world. He was caught twice, thrown in jails, tortured and almost died but miraculously survived and found his way to the allied leaders of state. One of his messages rung out most shockingly—Jews in Poland are being massacred and the world must know and act!
One might say he failed in his mission, as the world did not respond to his calls for action; the plight of the Jews was not ‘high priority for the Allied war mission’. Yet his willingness to give up his life for truth, for the plight of the weak, for Christian values of love—those became eternal, representing his legacy and perhaps the legacy Poland strives for when they raise him as one of the great heroes of the 20th century.
Today in Poland there are monuments in his honor, institutions which bare his name and strive to spread his message to all of Poland, high schools named after him as well as city streets. The more Poles know about Jan Karski and seek to emulate him to more Poland will emerge from a dark, horrific 20th century to a brighter, optimistic 21st.
One of the footnotes in Jan’s life concerned a small home in a hamlet in southern Poland called Marcinkowice. Perched in the mountains, away from city center in Nowy Sącz, Karski was on the run from the Gestapo and sought refuge from the fire. One family, knowing full well of the danger involved nevertheless took him in and hid him from harm, cared for him and set him on his way.
For 75 years this tidbit was tucked away, not memorialized due to fear of communism and perhaps due to the numbing passage of time. Last week a stop was put to it and history was corrected as we stood in front of the city Church and celebrated the hero and the heroes who supported him in face of adversity.
In the presence of Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek (a veteran, respected, light of the Church, himself a fighter against anti-Semitism and xenophobia, who received the Jan Karski award together with Elie Wiesel in 2007) I was asked to join with a prayer, a few words of memorial and a planting of a tree in his honor.
After reading Psalm 15 in Hebrew, a psalm devoted to lauding the virtues of the person who ‘will reside in the tent of the Lord’, much of which described Jan Karski to a tee (walks with simplicity, loves righteousness, speaks truth in his heart, despises those who scorn) I spoke about what it means to erect a memorial in honoring a hallowed place.
I said that Jacob finds shelter in the forest and decides in the morning to make a memorial much like we were doing in Marcinkowice. But then Jacob goes one step further, making a declaration to follow God’s virtues, be true to his morals and be righteous to the less fortunate. In essence he made a memorial in his heart. It was my honor to participate in the planting of a tree as a fixed memorial for a hero’s refuge but Mr. Karski I am sure would entreat us to follow in his stead, to erect a living memorial patterned after his life of moral turpitude, action, courage and conviction.
(I said all of this in Polish!, I hope they understood!)
At the luncheon (of which I dined on tea and fruit) I sat next to the Bishop and engaged in conversation. I spoke to him of how our Rabbinic assembly of Poland met and discussed the encouraging letter of the Polish Episcopate reinforcing the ideals of Nostra Aetate, fifty years later. He remarked that he believes great strides have been made in Jewish—Polish relations over the last twenty years.
The priest mentioned by the way that there is an area a few kilometers which was a mass grave where 2000 Jewish and non-Jewish bodies were dumped during the Holocaust. I imagined that a proper El Male Rachamim was not recited or at least for many years so I asked them to take us to the cemetery. The sign reads of Jewish and Non-Jewish Poles and a book with testimonies of the atrocities the Nazis perpetrated during that terrible time. I prayed, and engaged in the symbolic act of respecting their memory by placing a stone upon the monument.
Fighting terror is acting like Jan Karski in a sea of apathetic souls. Karski restores our faith perhaps not in mankind of today but in tomorrow’s generation. If terrorists are teaching their children to kill and hate we should not only teach the opposite but also support, develop, encourage and instill in our children more readily the values for which he stood.
With all my fears I take great pride in the fact that my son and tens of thousands like him will serve in the Israeli army and fight for those values. He is ready to sacrifice for his country, for humanity and walk in the footsteps of all those brave souls–Jewish and non-Jewish–who embody the courage of Jan Karski and the great heroes of our past and bring us a message of hope and promise for our future.