Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Katowice Community
Historical illustrated capsulated highlights of the Polish community after the Holocaust, by decade, on wall in Jewish community center and shul in Katowice.

I had an opportunity to attend a once-in-a-lifetime event at an international conference – the conferral of the Deso Weiss Award on my wife, Dr. Isabella Reichel, for excellence in cluttering, one of the important disorders in the field of speech pathology. This award is issued only once every few years to only one individual in the whole world. The catch? The conference was to take place in Katowice, Poland, this year (formerly, and maybe in some sources even today, Kattowitz), and I didn’t have to be an archeological prodigy to conclude that if I were to attend, I would have to stay in that city and country for Rosh Hashana.

Upon making inquiries, I ascertained that there still is a Jewish community in Katowice and that services would be held within walking distance – only about 10 minutes on foot. Imagine the hashgacha pratit, that in an area of about 25,000 square kilometers, the only shul in the entire metropolitan area would be so close to where I had to be! How could we not go? But the rabbi I spoke to in June told me he was leaving his position and the community well before Rosh Hashana, and could not even guarantee a minyan on Rosh Hashana, so he advised me not to come. Whereupon I asked for the contact information of the remaining leader of the Jewish community, which led me to Wlodek Kac (pronounced as the more familiar Katz). I presented my credentials to him and offered to lead the services as rabbi, chazzan, Torah reader, and shofar blower, having served in all of these capacities in America (though many years ago).

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Mr. Kac replied excitedly that if he could spread the word that a rabbi from America would be coming, there would almost surely be a minyan. Normally, in his community that he is fighting to preserve, there would barely be a minyan on one day of Rosh Hashana (usually the first), if at all, but since the first day this year would fall on Shabbat, with shofar blowing only on the second day, we could have a shot at a minyan both days and even at night. This actually came to pass.

The great Jewish writer Sholem Aleichem (known as “the Jewish Mark Twain”), author of the original story on which Fiddler on the Roof was based, famously wrote, “The real pride of Kasrilevka is her cemeteries” – and this was written with tongue in cheek and with irony before the holocaust.

The Jews in Poland who are interred underground number in the millions, but a census of the Jews alive and above ground level ranges from about 3,000 or so affiliated Jews to about 5,000 to 15,000 unaffiliated Jews, with unlimited tourists to holy graves of tzaddikim going back to near antiquity (or so it seems) and to unholy places such as Auschwitz and other sites of iniquity. (Actually, the oldest identifiable Jewish graves in Poland go back “only” about 500 years.)

 

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Nevertheless, visitors to Poland who are interested in touring as individuals are apprised of two links on the Internet – one link is to a kosher restaurant that takes orders online, and one link listing kosher products in Poland. This link fills about 55 pages, in small print, with products organized by category.

Mr. Kac is clearly and consistently a very proper and diplomatic man. He also serves as vice chair of an organization representing all the Jewish communities of Poland.

In appreciation of my volunteering to lead the services, he arranged for me (and my wife) to be picked up at the airport, served lunch on our arrival in a room decorated by Jewish-themed banners next to a room with a wall full of historic photographs (see below), supplied us with kosher food throughout our trip, and even offered to personally escort us to and from the hotel for each service, and then personally drove us back to the airport on our return. (Mr. Kac even waited on line with us at the airport.)

I was told that everything about the services – including their duration – would be up to me. I therefore made it clear at the outset that I would defer to the congregants as to every melody they would be familiar with – not that there were many that were apparent to me – and I would chant melodies every time I would reach a section in the service that had been set to music, to the best of my knowledge.

With every passing year, there are fewer old timers who remember the old times, the old melodies, and the other traditions. But among the relatively older people there were three relatively young men, each of whom is particularly outstanding. Witek Jermolowicz, whose knowledge of Judaism has accelerated so fast in the past six years that he is actually applying to matriculate in a yeshiva in New York (he also picked us up at the airport, and provided simultaneous translation of my divrei Torah and comments, and blew the shofar); Slawek Pastuszka had studied with a grandfather and a chazzan as a boy, and spent half a year studying in Israel; and a third young man who is a historian and not counted in the minyan because he is not Jewish, but he is often invited to special events that he is likely to appreciate so the community can create a kiddush Hashem, and so that this young historian can convey a positive perspective to the outside world.

Witek and Slawek were actually knowledgeable enough to scroll the holy Torah scrolls to the exact points in the text where the appropriate Torah readings for each day were to take place.

There were only three rows of seats on each side of the mechitza, two seats in a row, apparently geared to a typical attendance, so it was pretty easy to generate an overflow “crowd,” with additional seats added for the occasion, and some people standing; however, it was not a “slam dunk” that we would assemble a minyan for each of the services, which I was told was unprecedented in recent years, but that is precisely what we did. (The table for the post-prayer kiddushim was set up for a few dozen people.) The entire Jewish community serviced by the shul consists of a bit fewer than 100 members at this point.

In my homilies and remarks (kept short for an audience presumably not accustomed to long and pompous sermons), I tried to emphasize Jewish unity throughout the world, referring, inter alia, to the daf yomi, as well as to the melodies of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, ob”m (whose concerts various people present had attended in “nearby” Krakow, and who I had been privileged to have interacted with personally, most notably when I had organized a symposium at Yeshiva University many years ago on how to respond to the “Jews for Jesus”).

When I mentioned the daf yomi, Witek and Slavek both immediately mumbled in an audible undertone, “Rav Meir Shapiro.” Impressive! The first cycle of the daf yomi began on a Rosh Hashana. I also deliberately pointed out that the Agudath Israel, whose World Congress established the daf yomi, had been founded in Katowice, as described by my late father, Rabbi Dr. O. Asher Reichel, in the biography he wrote on the life of Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Halevy, who united the rabbis of the East with the rabbis of the West for this historic occasion.

The experience had the desired effect, not merely by inspiring people to come for each service, expressing their excitement repeatedly (one old man even kissed me), but more importantly it energized the participants and galvanized the leadership to hire a rabbi from Israel and aim for actual minyanim on the night and following day of Yom Kippur, and hopefully for the participants to be more active in the future.

As small as the Jewish communities in Poland may be, especially in Katowice, their influence is absolutely astonishing. Mr. Kac in Katowice, and others elsewhere in Poland, are solemnly dedicated to preserving the millions of Jewish graves in their midst, and making sure that the real estate associated with the Jewish cemeteries will not be sold or used for other purposes. In addition, the Jewish community exports a tremendous amount of kosher products (referred to above) to very much alive people in America, Israel, and other destinations throughout the world.

The stopover of our flight back to New York – at Warsaw – intersected with many chassidim and others filling the majority of a jet plane returning from their annual pilgrimage to Uman, in the neighboring war-torn Ukraine. They were so energized that they even applauded at takeoff (not just upon landing) and some of them sang and chanted at some points along the way. The spiritual energy I felt – and hopefully had just transmitted – during, before, and after Rosh Hashana merged the two missions l’hagdil Torah u’le’ha-adira – to glorify and honor the Torah, and all it stands for.


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Rabbi Aaron I. Reichelm esq., has written, edited, or supplemented various books, most notably about rabbis and community leaders in his family. But one of his most enduring memories is hearing that his grandmother who he remembers as always being in a wheelchair consistently said that her favorite English song was “Count your blessings.”