Kaddish for the unknown

Every year on the day we observe the memory of the Shoah, the Holocaust which took the lives of six million Jews including one million children under the age of sixteen, I light a memorial candle for the souls of many members of my family whom I never knew.

Since 1727 the male members of my mother’s family who lived in Galician towns and villages in the area of Lwow (Lemberg) were all rabbis, chassidim of the dynasty of Belz in Poland. I am named for one of them.. my great-great grandfather.

One side of the family had emigrated to Palestine or to the United States prior to the outbreak of the first world war in 1914. The majority remained in Galicia under the Austro-Hungarian empire and after 1918 under the independence of Poland as sovereign government.

The years from 1918 until the beginning of the second world war in 1939 were years of bitter Polish anti-semitism and pogroms mainly in small villages but also occasionally in major cities such as Warsaw, Lodz, Lublin, Krakow and Lwow.

The Polish Cardinal Augustus Hlond was responsible for igniting the flames. In order to make Poland free of its 20% Jewish population he issued the cry, “Zydzie do Palestina”, the Jews should go to Palestine. Not needing any suggestions, Jew-hating Poles rose up in their numbers to attack Jews.

My wife’s grandfather was a textile factory owner in Warsaw, a devoutly orthodox Jew. When he learned that his mother had died in the city of Dzialoszyce he hurried to the train terminal in central Warsaw and bought a train ticket in order that he could attend his mother’s funeral.

While waiting on the platform for the train to arrive, a group of Polish teen-agers spotted him, an orthodox Jew with a long beard, black coat and a large yarmulke on his head. They rushed at him, shoved him against a wall, took a knife and cut his beard, removed the yarmulke from his head, spit upon it and threw it to the ground. Unable to arrive for his mother’s funeral, he determined that this was the warning to leave Poland. This happened in 1932 in the capitol city of Poland.

He sold his textile factory and removed all the machines used in textile processing, packed his personal belongings and he, his wife and six married children left Poland behind them forever as they sailed to Palestine. Only one daughter, her husband and son, chose to remain in Poland. They ended up in the Warsaw ghetto and from there to a death camp. The rest of the family arrived in 1933, bought plots of land to build their homes in the Montefiore section of Tel-Aviv, built a new textile factory in the industrial part of Tel-Aviv and fitte4d it with all the machines and parts which he had shipped out of Poland.
Within a year of their settling in Palestine my beloved wife was born.

In 1969 I visited Poland and saw the home where her family had lived. It seemed that nothing had changed in the Polish society. In that same year, 1969, thousands of Jews who had survived the holocaust were fired from their jobs and professions and were forced into exile. Most of them were welcomed in Denmark. A smaller number chose Israel, Canada or the United States. And in those new lands they told the stories of Polish anti-semitic persecution of the Jews.

I have no information regarding the few members of my mother’s family who survived the war years. We had worried and we searched for any survivors. Having finally located one family which had survived, my family sent tickets and money for them to leave Poland as soon as possible.

My mother’s family there were unknown to me in person. But I had been brought up to know them through their works and deeds as devout pious Jews whose lives were centered in Torah and Talmud and most hours of the days and nights they could be found in the prayer houses, shtiebels, which were found in every village, town or city where Jews lived.

I know each one of them by their names. They are listed on the parchment of my long family geneology between the years 1727 to 1927, hand printed by a great-uncle, a scribe, Rabbi Rafael Weissman in the town of Hrusziew on the occasion of two hundred years of my family’s association with the rabbinic dynasty of Belz.

One of my great-great-great grandfathers had served as the rabbi in the city of Nemirov in the late eighteenth century and had written a scroll of Torah.

I am the ninth generation of the family. My son is the tenth generation and his son is the eleventh.

We take immense pride in our family’s Jewish traditions and our long history of presently 293 years !

On Yom HaShoa, while mourning the death of six million Jews, I light the candle of remembrance for the unknown-to-me members of my family. I light the candle, recite the kaddish prayer and I weep.

My tears are for the many family members… rabbis, scribes, teachers, wives and children and grandchildren… the many whom I never met and yet feel myself bound to them by our blood and our faith.

By Jewish tradition, the kaddish memorial prayer can only be recited in the presence of ten adult Jewish males who form the minyan, the minimum number required for prayer worship.

In this time of the pandemic coronavirus there are no minyanim and Jews pray in their homes in safety.

Therefore I am sure that the Holy One, Blessed be He, will overlook my violation of the tradition and that He will hear my voice and will see the tears of my sorrow for family members I never knew whose lives were extinguished in the Nazi gas chambers somewhere in Poland.

After the recitation of the kaddish prayer I walked over to the wall where the very large family tree hangs and I bless the names of all the members whose names were listed from the years I could detect their lives, roughly from 1927, and who were exterminated between 1939-1945.

I was happy to meet some of the survivors a few years after the war, children and grandchildren of my grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Chayim.

As each year passes it becomes ever more painful as I realize the fleeting years of my own life.

At age 87 I have not too many more years to live.

Who, then, will recite the kaddish prayer for their unknown family… a family which perished and must always be remembered.

Yitgadal v’yitkadash Shmai Rabbah. Amen.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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