Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

1 Adar I 5765 - February 9, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







The Most Awful Thing Was the Screeching of the Ravens . . .

By Yisroel Friedman

Introduction: A Fitting Symbol

Most awful was the screeching of the ravens, splitting the silence. The most prominent feature of the landscape at Majdanek was scores of black ravens, perching on barbed wires and atop the watchtowers and hopping in groups across the fields, pecking at the ground. With their blackness and malevolent appearance, they fittingly embodied the feelings that welled up upon visiting this place. The ravens are also a fitting image to recall in summing up this visit to Poland — a country that today remains a giant Jewish graveyard. Poland's Jews are long since buried, but gentile malice and ill will towards Jews is still palpable.

Scores of ravens gathered at the edges of the mountain of ashes, under its giant concrete dome, where eight-and-a-half tons of human ash bear testimony to what happened here six decades ago. Can the birds still smell the remains of blood and charred flesh after all this time? Do the nearby death pits into which thousands of murdered Jews fell, long since overgrown with fresh grass, give away any clue as to what they contain?

Coming out of the crematorium, we were struck again by their presence. A bright sun shone on the large black ravens that were hopping around. I don't recall having seen any other kind of bird while in Poland.

"How can daylight be pleasant to my eyes while I see your dead flesh in the mouths of ravens?"

Warsaw: Old and New

We stand in a large square at the junction of Mila, Nuska, Zamenhof and Kremliczka Streets. It once bustled with Jewish life; today it is silent. This was the center of the ghetto. Bouquets of flowers, some fresh, some withered, lie at the base of a huge, marble memorial sculpture. Groups of visiting youngsters from different parts of the world babble in a mixture of languages as they crowd the square. The locals wander in on their afternoon strolls.

"Aren't there Jews here anymore?" a young boy asks his grandfather, who has brought him on a trip to discover roots. That's the hardest question about Polish Jewry to face. Only the answer is worse — No, there are no Jews here, not anymore! There are just tombstones, memorials and graves.

Warsaw. Skyscrapers tens of stories high have sprung up in this ancient city alongside the massive, dull and uninspiring Communist era apartment blocks. The new towers give the city a Manhattan-like look and eager businessmen keep their eyes open for new moneymaking opportunities.

Wide roads, liberally studded with bridges and raised sections, offer modern solutions to the problems of increasing traffic volume. Yet the old-world atmosphere is still there. After having been almost totally razed by German air raids during the war, the city was carefully restored.

Precise replicas of its old buildings have replaced those that were destroyed. In rebuilt Warsaw, new has been successfully blended with old. All that's missing is a Jewish presence. It is staggering to consider the fact that virtually no trace remains of Warsaw's Jewish past, though the city was home to half a million Jews, before the War.

Nobody knows for example, what has become of the Jewish treasures that were secreted in cellars and underground hideaways before their owners were taken away to die. There is no trace of the library of the Gerrer Rebbe HaRav Avrohom Mordechai Alter zt'l, with its many rare editions and old manuscripts, that was hidden within the ghetto precincts. After his escape, the Rebbe announced that he would give half his portion in Olom Habo to whoever found his collection, but to no avail. Who has these priceless items today? There is no doubt that they still exist, but in whose hands?

Passing through a small gate in between two houses, one enters a large yard, and a red-brown brick wall — the remains of the ghetto wall — comes into view. This is where crowds of Warsaw's Jews were gathered. A map of the ghetto hangs on the wall. From the ghetto square, the Path of Heroism leads to the Umschlagplatz, the expulsion area, from where Warsaw's Jews left their city for the last time.

The Path of Heroism gets its name from the monuments to various people who fought Nazis and Nazism that line it. To the left, where a house once stood, there is now a grassy mound. Underneath it are the remains of the bunker that served as the central command in the famous ghetto uprising. The Germans blew it and its occupants up during the battle.

The Umschlagplatz gives nothing of its history away. Nothing of the shouting and yelling or of the weeping that its walls absorbed, or of the vicious beatings that it witnessed. The silence is deafening and oppressive.

What feelings did the Jews who waited here experience? Did they know where and how their journey would end? Did they leave with a prayer on their lips, begging for Heaven's mercy, focusing their thoughts as they set out on their way to the altar of martyrdom?

Suddenly the heavy silence is broken by the words, Yisgadel veyiskadeish . . . and our tears start falling. The people around me are murmuring prayers, beseeching Heaven and wiping their eyes.

"Would that my head were [a fount of] water and my eyes a source of tears, that I could weep all my days and nights over the dead children, the babes and the elderly of my communities . . ." (Yirmiyohu 8:23)

We didn't yet know that this was one of the less distressing visits. The major traumas still lay ahead.

Back in Time

As soon as you pass through the gateway into the Jewish cemetery, you enter a place where time has stopped. The sun's rays penetrate a thick leafy canopy, bathing the tombstones in soft light. The names engraved upon many of these stones have become etched into our nation's soul.

Warsaw's Jewish cemetery, on Gneisha and Ockopoda Streets is not the city's first cemetery but its surviving one. The stone remains of an old gate stand in memorial to the original wall. Nearby there is a hand pump that draws water from a well. It still serves its original function, providing water for hand washing when one leaves.

The Gneisha Street cemetery is the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe. Over four hundred thousand Yidden were laid to rest here. Prominent in the section for rabbonim that is situated near the entrance are the graves of the city's Chief Rabbis, Rav Chaim Davidsohn zt'l, Rav Berish Meisels zt'l, and Rav Yaakov Gesundheit zt'l. In a small building that rises higher than the surrounding stones, catching one's eye, the Chemdas Shlomo, Rav Shlomo Zalman Lifshitz zt'l, is buried.

Most of the headstones have suffered longstanding neglect. Undergrowth, trees and bushes grow around them, on and in some cases over them. Not far from the Chemdas Shlomo is the grave of the Maharil Zunz zt'l, who left behind a huge legacy of manuscripts covering every area of Torah scholarship. Lying on his deathbed, he called his talmidim and wrote down his parting wish on a wooden tablet, promising to be an advocate in heaven on behalf of anyone who publishes his seforim.

Standing still to say some Tehillim, one is struck by something strange. The universal custom in Jewish cemeteries is that the dead are interred with their feet directed towards the entrance, so that when they rise at techiyas hameisim they will be able to get up and leave quickly. Thus, at a grave, one stands at the end of the horizontal stone, with the headstone at the other end. In the Warsaw cemetery, the dead have been buried the opposite way around. The headstones are towards the entrance and the horizontal stones face the cemetery's interior.

The reason for this goes back to 5566 (1806). When the cemetery was dedicated, an unknown Jew, a vagrant, died in the Warsaw hekdesh. The man's identity was not established and the community had him buried. Through an unfortunate mistake, the nameless wanderer was buried the opposite way round with his head towards the entrance. When the Chemdas Shlomo learned what had happened, he ruled that from that day on, all the city's dead should be buried that way, so as not to distinguish between the anonymous traveler and the other niftarim.

In the Presence of Giants

The main path leads one inside the area, towards the far end of the cemetery. There are headstones here with Polish inscriptions. The graves they mark are of devout Jews but government decree demanded that Polish lettering be used. Rav Meisels intervened successfully to have the law revoked. He told the authorities that the Jewish community was suffering loss of income because the Jewish engravers, the only ones who could engrave in Hebrew, now had to compete with their gentile counterparts.

It is easy to get lost as one walks around inside the huge cemetery. My guide is Mordechai Schiff, who knows the pathways of Jewish Poland as well as he knows his way around our hometown, Petach Tikva. We turn left and come to a thickly wooded area where the light is dim and the air pungent and damp. Thick undergrowth almost covers the path and we make our way through the forest, heading for the tomb of two of the Torah world's most pivotal figures, the Netziv of Volozhin zt'l, and Rav Chaim Soloveitchik zt'l.

A long walk, which brings the cemetery wall into view, brings us to the tombs of a number of great tzadikim. Some of the tombs have been renovated while others have an air of neglect. The rebbes of Vorki, Biala, Amshinov, Radzymin, Slonim, Kaidanov zt'l, all great leaders and men of renown, are buried here.

Beside the tomb of the Rebbe of Tchechnov zt'l, an untrodden path leads under the trees to the neighboring tomb. Here lie the holy bodies of Reb Chaim, whose approach to lomdus revolutionized learning in the yeshivos, ushering in focus, clarity and penetration, and his grandfather-in-law, the Netziv, whose tremendous labors in Torah yielded an output of classic seforim and set the atmosphere in Yeshivas Eitz Chaim in Volozhin, the "mother of the yeshivos." Standing by the graves of these two giants, lynchpins of the Torah world, I can't help myself; my eyes mist over and become wet. The tears come, rolling down my cheeks.

Concrete has been poured over both of the graves, into which the original headstones have been set. By mistake, Reb Chaim's headstone was placed over the Netziv's grave and vice versa but that has nothing to do with the confusion of emotions that I feel while standing here. Heartfelt prayers spill over from a heart heavy with both personal and collective woes — prayers for relief from problems and suffering, for the welfare of Torah scholars and for the plans of our enemies and maligners to be thwarted. May the two tzadikim who rest here be advocates on behalf of their disciples who sit and study Torah in Eretz Yisroel, procuring them the strength to hold their own in the face of economic privation and the turbulent times. The sound of our Tehillim echoes off the walls.

An Abrupt Ending

The town of Gura-Kalvaria, known to Jews as Ger, or Gur, is about an hour's journey from Warsaw. Today there are not more than a handful of Jews remaining. One of them keeps the key to the beis hamedrash and carries a heavy load of memories on his stooped shoulders. He says that whenever Jews come to visit, his emotions churn. As a child, he learned in cheder together with the late Gerrer Rebbe HaRav Pinchas Menachem Alter zt'l, and his memories of those days are still fresh. The suffering and wandering that he subsequently underwent have not ended happily for him.

When the Germans arrived, he and his brothers fled like hunted animals. After the war he returned to Ger and took up the threads of his shattered life, though in a different direction. The children of this man, virtually the last Jew in Ger, are not Jewish! He tries to avoid opening old wounds while telling his story, but the anger lodged in his heart has not abated and he knows no peace. A solitary, detached figure, he has been robbed of both his past and his future. Not even the key that he carries with him can offer him any hope. He speaks dryly, in a heavily accented Yiddish, but his words aren't capable of conveying all that he feels. When Jews visit a little light comes to his eyes, shining through the loneliness and isolation.

The red brick beis hamedrash with its large, vaulted windows has a very familiar look. The balcony of the rebbe's apartment, with its wrought-iron work, seems to be leaning outwards, as though embracing crowds of visitors in welcome. Inside, the beis hamedrash is empty; huge and gaping, it is like a mouth opened wide to yell. The oven that was used for baking matzos still stands in the ezras noshim, as if waiting, heightening the emptiness.

Everything is still here except for the Jews. The key bearer relates how the town's Jews were murdered one cold night. Even when he describes the town in its heyday — the masses that used to flock here and the tefillos in the beis hamedrash — it sounds outdated, like the door to an empty room, creaking on a rusty hinge. Ger lives on but not in this place.


An iron gate prevents uninvited intruders from entering the cemetery. Tombstones are scattered across the area, not necessarily in their correct positions. From afar one sees a red-brick tomb with a sloping roof. Inside, iron plates with magen dovid cutouts completely surround the Rebbes' graves. Two marble stones affixed to the wall declare this to be the site of the resting places of the Chiddushei Harim and of the Sefas Emes. The many scattered notes attest to the fact that it has not been forgotten or abandoned.

Outside, the wind in the trees and the quiet country calm almost lead one to forget that a glorious chapter of our history came to a bloody end here. Happily, there is a sequel but it is unfolding far away from here.

The Indelible Impression

Majdanek and its awful black ravens . . . a field lies at the forefront of our view with a tractor moving across it, making bundles of hay. In the background are the dreaded wooden huts. Everything is green; grass even grows inside the camp. Wartime pictures of this place are always in bleak shades of black and grey. Today we gaze upon a pastoral scene; warm sunlight bathes green and golden meadows.

Nothing here has been reconstructed; everything remains as it was then. Climbing into one of the watchtowers, one looks upwards and sees a raven perched there. They sit on the fences too. Our emotions churn as we walk along the path leading to the crematoria, which stand by the mountain of ash. The ravens have ensconced themselves here. A wave of the hand disperses them only momentarily; they flap blackly away but soon return.

To the right stand the dark wooden huts. The gas chamber is at the front. It looks like a shower room but its walls have been stained green by the gas and bear the scratches of human fingernails. In an adjoining room stands an orderly arrangement of canisters of the deadly Zyklon B. A peephole in the door afforded the sadistic murderers the spectacle of their victims' frantic death throes and knowledge of the moment that the gas had completed its work.

The huts still contain the pallets that served as the cramped sleeping quarters of the camp's inmates. Merely looking at them gives no indication of the discomfort and suffering that they saw. Nearby however, stands a pile of eight hundred thousand pairs of shoes that brings home the dimensions of the tragedy with colossal impact. The pile seems infinite and though it is smaller today than it once was (the shoe leather having shrunk with the passage of the years), the horror of what it represents has in no way diminished.

We continue making our way around the camp, going forward in the silence that is punctuated only by the ravens' screeching. To our left stands another group of huts and to the right, a huge, concrete domed structure, adjacent to the massive chimney of the crematorium. Inmates were given the job of clearing out the human ash from the crematorium and piling it here — eight-and-a-half tons in all.

All attempts to say something fail; tears suddenly come instead of words. Overcome by pain, there is no choice but to surrender to the overpowering distress. "May Hashem remember them for good with the world's other righteous folk and avenge His servants' spilt blood . . ." (Av Horachamim, Shabbos morning)

From atop the steps of the Mountain of Ash, the impressions of the death pits can be seen. Although grass covers the entire area, the ground hasn't straightened out and the depressions indicating the pits that the prisoners were forced to dig and were then shot into and buried, are still there. When the camp's death machinery couldn't keep pace with the arrivals, tens of thousands were murdered that way.

It was twilight when we left. The huts and watchtowers stood empty, desolate and silent. In the half light the place could have been mistaken for an innocent shtetl or for the backdrop for a Yiddish play. The visit left a gaping, empty hole inside us. Awaking the following morning after a restless night's sleep in Lublin, the feeling was still there and questions still tormented us. Does Eisov hate Yaakov to such an extent?



Because that's how it is — "It is a well-known halochoh that Eisov hates Yaakov."

So much?! So much?!

Yes, so much . . .

A Siyum in Lublin

Lublin was a flourishing Torah center before the war. It was the first of Poland's cities to be announced Judenrein, and thus it has remained. The SS took over the enormous building of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin and burned the yeshiva's huge library including all its rare and valuable seforim. After the war it served as a medical college, until its recent return to the Jewish community.

One has to stand far away in order to fit the whole of the building's facade onto one picture. The extent of the loss of the yeshiva too, can also only be absorbed from a distance in time. The beis hamedrash that once resounded with fiery Torah debate now cries out in its emptiness, though thankfully, many of the bnei Torah who once filled it managed to escape Poland in time and went on to spread their Torah elsewhere. It is a long time since the walls have heard the sound that echo through them today as we complete maseches Chulin with the Daf Yomi schedule and my friend Chaim Spitzer of Petach Tikva intones the hadran.

We descend below ground level and the janitor shows us a small room with an appearance of neglect.

Moving aside some of the wooden floorboards he points to the space beneath and notes, "This is the mikveh."

A small gate affords entry into the cemetery that was used for Jewish burials for over four centuries. The oldest tombstone is that of Rav Yaakov Koppelman zt'l, who was apparently Rav Yaakov Halevi Pollak, whose reputation, according to the Ramo, extended throughout the Jewish world. Climbing a low hill brings us to an iron cage that was built to protect the grave of the Chozeh of Lublin from vandals.

A shock awaits us further on. An ancient, blackened tombstone belonging to a talmid of the Pnei Yehoshua has been defaced with a yellow swastika. Antisemitism lives on here, though the country's Jews have long since gone. We can read the looks in the eyes of the locals even though we cannot understand their words. The protective measures that have to be taken and the damage that has been done to some of the tombstones are a chilling reminder of the feelings that still run high over here.

Not far from the Chozeh's resting-place is that of HaRav Shalom Shachna zt'l, father-in-law and teacher of the Ramo and himself a talmid of HaRav Yaakov Pollak. Nearby stands the headstone of HaRav Ezriel Horowitz zt'l, the av beis din of Lublin, who was famed for his great intellect (eizener kop). Despite Rav Ezriel's opposition to chassidus, his relations with the Chozeh were warm and cordial. The Chozeh's leading talmidim would visit Rav Ezriel frequently to hear his penetrating Torah thoughts and to engage him in Torah debate. The lettering can be read easily despite the damage that some malicious hand has wrought to the stone.

The overgrown bushes make it difficult to make one's way through the cemetery. Down one of the paths is the broken headstone of HaRav Shlomo Luria, the Maharshal zt'l, adorned by beads of hardened candle wax. Although the stone here stands in silence and solitude, the Maharshal's Torah resonates in botei medrash everywhere; we say some Tehillim.

There is something dismal about the cemetery in Lublin. Perhaps it is the stark contrast between the glory of the past and the desolation of the present. Nothing remains except for that old, well-known hatred.

End of Part I

Ma'ariv in Warsaw's Beis Haknesses Nozhik

The building is impressive both without and within. Although there has already been a degree of renewal, the atmosphere inside is one of longing for bygone days when the place was filled with mispallelim. Those who once peopled it were of the type that would never allow a hint of reform or modernity to encroach upon their worship. Soon, ma'ariv will begin.

"They're very particular that only nusach Ashkenaz should be used," notes R' Chaim Spitzer, my companion. It is Reb Chaim who has been showing me the highways and byways of Jewish Poland and ensuring that as a chiyuv I can lead the prayers wherever we go. Strange as it may sound given pre- war Jewish Warsaw's overwhelmingly chassidishe flavor, prayers in the city's botei knesses were conducted in nusach Ashkenaz, with the exception of the chassidishe shtieblach that crowded the Jewish streets.

The magnificence of the Aron Hakodesh is in stark contrast to the pitiful number of mispallelim but the place is active; tefillos are held here thrice daily. This too, is where the city's Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Michoel Shoudrich, can be found.

Most significant is the fact that it isn't a minyan of pensioners. The nucleus of the community is comprised of young family heads who have rediscovered their Yiddishkeit. Some of them had to undergo geirus; others did not, having been born to verifiably Jewish mothers. There are even a few individuals who observed their Yiddishkeit in secret and who no longer need to hide. The city also has a Jewish school, that attracts non- observant as well as observant families.

But nobody imagines that anything remotely like Jewish Poland's past glory can be recreated. What little was left after the Holocaust was lost to intermarriage. Is there any hope today for renewal? Perhaps, who knows? What Jewish life there is in Poland today proceeds calmly and quietly, with the gentle rhythm of autumnal leaves falling from the trees. Yet one can't escape the uncomfortable feeling that after all, although autumn can be a beautiful season with its mellow weather and glorious colors it heralds the end of a cycle, not its rebirth.

Vehu rachum yechapeir ovone . . .

For now, ma'ariv begins in beis haknesses Nozhik.

I Belong to the Second Generation: Some Thoughts on Our Trip to Poland

As soon as I returned from the trip I sat down to write. (This material was written originally in Av-Elul.) Time has a cruel way of obliterating impressions and of skewing perceptions. The impact of sights and scenes fades; it becomes much harder to tap feelings that surface momentarily and swiftly recede. True, time has a benign aspect as well. It allows the dust to settle, affording a clearer perspective. Once the cloud of emotion has dispersed, hindsight allows for noticing more details and gaining a deeper understanding.

But this trip among the sad remnants of Jewish Poland was not undertaken in the hope of understanding. It is impossible to understand. It was a journey of the heart. Each site represented another abandoned stop on a People's march through its exile. Every name — Cracow, Lizhensk, Warsaw, Gura-Kalvaria — touched a raw nerve. My writing is a trial at crystallizing my feelings and impressions in words; a not- altogether-successful attempt at expressing the minutest fraction of what one feels when faced with the sea of blood and the river of tears that rises and swells when confronting Jewish Poland. I am still in pursuit of that goal and am still mercilessly pursued by the sights and images that give me no rest.

Decades have passed but nothing has been forgiven. To forgive, one has to know what the dead have to say. Otherwise, how can one assume to speak on their behalf? And one can't know what they think. If they appear, it is only in dreams, where they say what they want. They don't answer our questions.

Yet the dead have another way of communicating with us! People return to Poland in order to visit their dead relatives. They all have connections there that were cruelly severed. When we take up those ripped threads they lead us to things that we had forgotten, to things that we never knew, or that we had forgotten that we once knew. Why do we "hate" a particular food? Because it was forced on us! Why was it forced? Well, go ask why? Why were Father and Mother so nervous about us joining class trips? Why would they force us to wear a sweater so that we wouldn't catch cold, even when we felt so hot? What were they afraid of? History tries to provide explanations but the simple truth is that Poland has left an enormous, indelible impression upon our souls.

Many threads lead us to Poland. One can try to weave them all into one cohesive piece of fabric but one soon discovers that there are more holes than material. Poland doesn't give away many of its secrets. What happened can't be grasped; neither can its consequences. Knowledge of our history only serves to increase the frustration that has been passed on to us with our genes, that we too will pass on.

My mother came from Poland. She never forgave and now will never do so!

In our home, as in all others, the country was referred to as Polania, not by its Modern Hebrew name, Polin. Poland will always retain its position of disgrace in Jewish history but you can't separate the Polish experience — the Jewish Polania that once existed — from the Jews.

When the Zionists tried to tear their background away from the forlorn Polish refugees, they left them suspended in mid- air. They had no roots in the Israel of the young sabras. They existed there but their lives went on in the Poland of the past. A huge, mass grave filled their souls. Their hearts gaped with pain and more than one of them reached the stage where they had to yell, to weep and to sob bitterly and loudly. That endless, searing pain is something that I can identify with too.

But, as we know, life goes on. On the relay track of life, the baton must be passed on to future generations. We must remember but we must also gather our resources, take a deep breath and continue. Our descendants must never lose the collective memory of what once existed and was destroyed throughout Jewish Europe.

And, what was washed away there by rivers of blood and waves of hatred has indeed been rebuilt here. Our new institutions carry the same names as the old ones in Poland and Lithuania: Lublin, Ger, Slobodka, Ponovezh, Mir. They are, in a sense, candles that have been lit in their memory. The bricks that have gone into building the Torah world here contain handfuls of earth from the great edifice that existed over there. We sit and pore over the Torah of the giants whose graves are in Poland such as the Ramo, the Bach, the Tosafos Yom Tov and the Megaleh Amukos in Cracow, the Netziv and Reb Chaim in Warsaw, the Noam Elimelech in Lizhensk and the Chozeh in Lublin.

The old Polania with all that the name evokes no longer exists; it has now become mere Poland or Polin. But Polania is still with us — its homes with their inhabitants and their atmosphere and its sages and their Torah.

The story of Polin is one great long elegy, many of whose chapter headings are still there, though no Jew exists there anymore. Poland is one great tombstone over the mass grave of a holy community that ascended, shone for four centuries then set and has risen again here.

"For it will never be forgotten by their descendants" (Devorim 31:21).

So much for our trip of the living through the land of death — through an accursed land. May the ground never cover their blood!


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