How far back do we go in searching for our memories? And if we find only their ghosts, how do we revive them? Last month thousands of mostly Hasidim descended on Poland from all over the globe in order to get close to the grave of the holy Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk on the anniversary of his death, to hear the stories, catch a glimpse of the sights, sense the holiness and be entranced by the spirit.
Reb Elimelech is a unique Hasidic personality as he seems to transcend all Hasidic sects; he is not the rabbi of one but of all. He was known for his piety, his humility and for being the main force in bringing the Hasidic movement to Poland. Ask an average Pole on the streets of Krakow what a Jew looks like he will most likely describe a Hasid, something for which Reb Eliemelech is most responsible.
As Hasidim visit, venerate and re-vivify the grave of Reb Elimelech they declare that though Jewish life in Poland died with the Holocaust and subsequent Communist era, the memory of its glorious past must not and will not disappear. Each year thousands of Jews spend precious hours at the ‘ohel’ of the great Rebbe, erect tents of chesed, meditation, of course prayers they bring the teachings of Reb Elimelech, and through them, Reb Elimelech himself, alive.
Reb Elimelech died over two hundred years ago, he left no Hasidic line, and by now no direct lineage; yet the idea of Rebbe Elimelech and the stories about the Rebbe, resurrect the Polish Hasidic culture, breathing life and energizing the entire Hasidic world.
We Jews are not unaccustomed to such a process of memory revival. We have been doing it on various occasions for thousands of years and the upcoming holiday is no exception. Recently I lectured to a group of Christian seminary students about Pesach and its representation in the Torah. I noticed that much of the story centers on a break in the narrative in chapters 12 and 13 of Exodus.
That break which seems most anti-climactic as it refers first to the concept of the new moon, then mostly to the seemingly tedious and less dramatic laws of the ‘korban Pesach’ (Paschal lamb), which I argued (in Polish) should actually be regarded as the most important aspect of the story. The notion of an animal sacrifice being a representation of our own sacrificial acts—willingness to give up our lives for God—finds it source in the very story in chapter 12. The emphatic description of how the korban should be eaten (and as opposed to any other korban, the entire animal is eaten by the family here) provided our ancient forefathers, and by proscriptive association, provides us with a recipe for memory revival:
“And this way you must eat the korban, your loins girded, your shoes strapped, your staff in your hands—eat it in a hurry, this is the Pesach to God”.
Why the rush? We generally assume it is because the Hebrews were rushing to leave Egypt, but the actual hasty exodus took place in the morning hours. At midnight, when the plague of the firstborn was pervading Egypt the Hebrews were actually not allowed to leave their homes. They had hours to rest, enjoy the entire Lamb with Matza and herbs—a regular family barbecue! So why the rush? This was the topic of my (preponed) Shabbat Hagadol Drasha which I gave over this past Shabbat as I will be spending the actual Shabbat hagadol and Pesach in Krakow.
It would seem there is a necessity to feel that our redemption in all its facets was rushed, unplanned by man and lacked Israelite control. God took us out from Egypt, not politics, not a charismatic leader and not ‘the course of time’. God’s redemption must be considered as the prototype of all redemptions—the leader charges the divine command, the people comply with willingness despite unknown consequences and personal sacrifice, the enemy lies, mocks and defies God, and then, in the darkest hour, God acts, alone, miraculously showing the world and more importantly His nation, that at some fateful moments in history, God acts alone. This is expressed over and over again in the Hagadah and this theme of surrendering to God in times of darkness and great light has permeated Jewish consciousness for millennia.
In Israel we celebrate the joyousness of the exodus, rushed towards redemption; in Poland we cannot help but recall the evil haste with which our recent ancestors were removed, stripped of possessions, identity and ultimately sacrificed at the hands of pure evil.
On the day thousands of Hasidim went to visit their rebbe, I too went searching. For me though it was not to a great Rebbe but to my great, great grandmother and her family who were murdered in or near Dębica (100 klm east of Krakow) during the terrible ‘aktion’ by the Nazis in 1943. There was nothing glamorous at the time of their demise; the final 500 Jews were rounded up and murdered. Tiny numbers in Holocaust terms, yet they belonged to me, etched somewhat indistinctly in my families’ faded memory.
My great great grandparents, Golda and Avish Ferber grew up and lived in Dębica together with their many relatives along with thousands of Jews who resided in this area of Poland dating back 600 years! (Much information can be gleaned from a wonderful book called ‘Sefer Dembic—The Book of Dembitz’, which can be seen at this site: http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/debica/dembitz.html).
Unfortunately while there is much history and many written records, the only written record is of their demise as they are included in the list of those murdered. The family (most notably, my cousin Miriam Ferber) hired a genealogist to try and find not about their death but their lives, their trade, family living but to no avail. Our thoughts wander aimlessly in the malaise of the tragic memory erasure.
I made a special stop at the Dębica Jewish cemetery in search of my past. Entering the hallowed grounds we noticed immediately that the cemetery had been destroyed and stones were simply piled up in a corner on most of the land.
I found out from others searching that what remains is only due to the kindness of one survivor family (Nissenbaum) who invested in cleaning up the stones, trying to find original locations, erecting a memorial and keeping the place in order.
Unfortunately I came up empty-handed. There were gravestones but most of them were pre-war and their letters were rubbed out. Another blow to my personal memory revival. I then traveled to the site where many Debica Jews were taken and killed in a forest.
As we began our return we did have a chance to visit the town Synagogue in Debica, the building still intact. Unfortunately it functions today as a supermarket though some survivors are struggling to turn the Synagogue into a museum of the Jews of Debica.
Perhaps there are different layers of memory revival. We Jews revive memories of the Exodus from Egypt with sights and sounds, emotions and experiential activities; we also revive ancient destruction memories of our Temples and exile by mourning throughout the year.
Ultimately, we involve ourselves in the revival of memories of our more recent traditions; whether they are attending to the broken down cemeteries of our Polish past, making a heritage tour to Poland to understand the history of the Jews in Poland for over a thousand years, or participating in the remarkable rebuilding of Jewish life in Krakow by helping young Poles who recently found out they were Jewish to appreciate the profound beauty and rich history of Judaism.