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Michael Rosental Guzman
Int. Relations and Jewish Advocacy.

Bialystok, Essaouira and Sinai

Marc Chagall’s painting of the Yemenite HaGoral synagogue. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s, NY.

June 27 marks a special and sad day on my calendar: the burning of the Great Synagogue of Bialystok in 1941 at the hands of the Nazis. This tragic event, known as Black Friday, took place on the first day the Nazis entered the city. They rounded up the Jewish population and burned down the central synagogue with 600 Jews inside. Additionally, the Nazis massacred Jews throughout the city, bringing the total death toll of that day to around 2,000 Jews. This dark day marked the beginning of the extermination of Jews from Bialystok and the end of Jewish life in the city.

The great Synagogue of Bialystok – Poland – Built in 1909/1913 and destroyed by the nazis in 1941. Source: http://museumoffamilyhistory.net/mfh-syn-bialystok.htm

Bialystok is the city of origin for the Rosental family. My great-grandfather, Hilel Rosental, grew up two blocks from the Central Synagogue. We are unsure if my family attended that synagogue, but we know it was the closest one to their home in Szulhojf. Thanks to Hashem and the Zionist movement, Hilel left Poland after WWI, moving first to Palestine and then to Colombia. The only things the Rosentals have left in Bialystok are an address, some vague testimonies recorded by my grandfather David, and a monument to a burned synagogue.

Family Rosental in Bialystok in the early 1900s. Photo from the family archive

Recently, I had the honor of participating as part of the WUJS delegation in a forum coordinated by the Mimouna Association, a wonderful organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of Jews in Morocco. I had the opportunity to share and learn from academics, community leaders, and activists working in heritage preservation and protection.

The forum, which focused on Sephardi history and heritage in Latin America, was held in Essaouira, a city known in the Jewish world for its coexistence, Jewish heritage, and Rabbi Chaim Pinto, and known to the broader world for its streets, art, and excellent seafood. When I entered the synagogue of Rabbi Pinto, I understood that while my family had never been here before and we came from a completely different place, this synagogue was as much a part of me as the Bialystok Central Synagogue.

Jewish heritage is a collective and universal heritage. It belongs to every single Jew, regardless of both space and time. In the Haggadah, we are commanded by Hashem to see our history as a collective one, as if we personally left Egypt and went to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah.

“In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as if he left Egypt, as it is stated (Exodus 13:8); “For the sake of this, did the Lord do [this] for me in my going out of Egypt.” Not only our ancestors did the Holy One, blessed be He, redeem, but rather also us [together] with them did he redeem, as it is stated (Deuteronomy 6:23); “And He took us out from there, in order to bring us in, to give us the land which He swore unto our fathers.””

This is not just a nice paragraph added to the text; it is a difficult obligation—the duty to preserve our heritage worldwide. If not a single Jew from Bialystok had survived the war, I would have expected all Jews, including those from Essaouira, to see the Great Synagogue as their own. This is one of the major challenges our generation will face: the preservation and protection of the heritage of communities that no longer exist. The Jews of Kaifeng, certain Sephardic communities in the Americas, Yemenite Jews, and most Ashkenazi communities in Europe—all of their rich histories must be protected as if they were the stories of our own grandfathers.

Chaim Pinto’s tomb in the jewish cemetery of Essaouira – Photo taken by me.

Each year, I struggle to understand how to honor the Jews killed in Bialystok. This year, the answer came from some young Moroccan Muslims who have worked to protect the legacy of the Jewish community in their country. Their work is a call for the younger generations of Jews to take up the challenge, to ask how we can preserve the history and legacy of those who did everything to bring us to where we are today.

I hope some of the Jews from Bialystok are watching us from heaven and feeling relief that we are all committed to remembering them. We all left Egypt and went to Mount Sinai. We all learned at the synagogue with Rabbi Chaim Pinto in Essaouira, and we were all destroyed with our synagogue in Bialystok.

That is the blessing and the responsibility of peoplehood.

About the Author
Michael Rosental Guzman is an International Relations Student and a member of the Jewish Community in Colombia. He is part of the Youth Network of the Latin American Jewish Congress and part of the IMPACT Fellowship of the Bnei Brith.