Last week I wrote how important it is that the second generation of Holocaust survivors begin to take over the work of preserving the memory of Jewish life and culture in the many towns and cities that had been mostly destroyed during the Shoah. I used the actions of the survivors of Piotrkow as an example of what can be done by the survivor generation and their descendants. Over the years memorials have been built, and the cemetery repaired with ohalim to the local tzaddikim rebuilt.
This year the second generation took over; they not only cleaned and catalogued the cemetery but also got the town involved. A mini Jewish festival was held with hundreds of participants, with movies, song, dance, lectures and a Shabbaton as the grand finale.
The weekend of June 27-28, 2008 marked a unique event. A group of Piotrkow survivors and descendants, joined by a contingent of Polish Jews and local citizens of Piotrkow, gathered in Piotrkow and exuberantly celebrated a Shabbat of prayer, festive meals, Shabbat songs, Torah learning, and of reconnecting with the Piotrkow legacy.
The event was organized by Michael Traison, a U.S. and Poland-based lawyer, who had previously led Shabbatonim in other Polish communities, and by David Jacobovitz, a second-generation descendant of Piotrkow survivors.
As with any trip to the Alter Heim, the first stop was to the memorial sites, to remember those that had been murdered during the Holocaust. In Piotrkow the first stop is the Rakow Forest just outside of town. It was there that the Germans killed over 500 Jews in 1942 after being kept in the Great Synagogue for days without food or drink. The group gathered together to hear presentations from the Ambassador of Israel, David Peleg, and the Ambassador of the U.S., Victor Ash, the Director of the Zamek Museum, Henryk Pol, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Rabbi Michael Schudrich and the Mayor of Piotrkow, Krzysztof Chojniak.
From Rakow, we went to the Jewish cemetery in Piotrkow. The group fanned out, seeking evidence of their families’ gravestones, a number of which were found. They met with the people doing restoration work, which was being conducted by several of the group’s members, who had arrived earlier in the week.
The Great Synagogue of Piotrkow had been transformed for the event. Normally a library, the stacks that filled the room had been pushed aside to leave a large open space in the middle, for seats occupied by Shabbaton attendees.
The best description came from one of the Shabbaton participants, David Jacobowitz.
“First, there was a Klezmer concert featuring the Jarmula Band. Hearing a lively rendition of Am Yisrael Chai sung in the Synagogue, the site of so much religious vibrancy, and also so much horror, was deeply moving for us. The cheerful Klezmer music resonating from these walls filled us with a feeling of optimism for the future. The Nazis had tried to utterly destroy us and now we were here singing “The people of Israel live!”
As evening fell, we set up the room as a synagogue with a Holy Ark for the Torah, and separate sections for men and women. We commenced with the Minchah prayer and then Kabbalat Shabbat. As we listened to the sweet melodies of the chazzan singing “Lecha Dodi: Come in my [Sabbath] bride),” our hearts were filled with mixed emotions for what had been and what was destroyed. Our voices filled the room with Shabbat songs and reverberated from the walls of the holy place.
After Maariv services, our group proceeded to the public school. There, the cafeteria was set up in a festive manner to accommodate 150 people. Among them were the international guests, the Polish Jewish group and dozens of local Polish dignitaries, including the mayor and his wife, leaders of the city government, church leaders, as well as Robert Marzec. He is the fine Polish man who had done so much to preserve the synagogue and the cemetery and would be receiving an award in Krakow in recognition of his contributions.
During the course of the meal, a number of us spoke of our families’ experiences during the war. Our remarks were translated into Polish for all to understand. A number of the Polish visitors also offered greetings and Rabbi Schudrich delivered a beautiful Torah thought, enhanced by his unique ability to translate his own words into both English and Polish.
The next morning, we arrived in the Synagogue for the morning services. We conducted the Shacharit service, read the Torah (which had been brought from Warsaw’s Nozyk Synagogue courtesy of Rabbi Schudrich) and concluded with the Mussaf prayer. Afterwards, one of the participants, Itzik Tushinsky, spoke of his father’s experience in this very room, where in 1942, he had been rounded up with other Jews who had survived the deportations and kept in the Synagogue for days, only to be rescued at the last moment.
After services, we walked together to the school, where we again enjoyed a festive meal together with local Polish visitors. Afterwards, we returned to the hotel and most of us joined a walking tour of Piotrkow, one for English speakers and one for Polish speakers.
There also were classes in Torah led by Rabbi Schudrich, Rabbi Meisels and Michael Traison. Afterwards, we returned to the school for a festive third meal, after which we joined in the Maariv (end of the Shabbat) service. Following that, we all went out to the park in the center of town where there was an amphitheater and joined in a musical and stirring Havdalah ceremony in the open air.
As the Shabbaton closed, and we all went our separate ways, we were heartened by memories of our experience. We had joined together in the first Shabbat to be held in the Great Synagogue since the outbreak of World War II. During the weekend of June 27-28, 2008, Piotrkow shone brightly as a center of Jewish life, song, prayer and culture. Those of us that experienced it will never forget this singular event.