First, let me catch you up quickly on what I’ve been up to for the past two days. Yesterday, after driving out of Warsaw, our group visited two smaller cities Kazimierz and Lublin. In Kazimierz, our group first visited a Jewish graveyard which housed a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. As you can see in the pictures, this memorial is unique because it is a wall made out of stones – but not just any kind of stones – former Jewish gravestones. Small fact: when the Nazis invaded Eastern Europe some of the first locations destroyed were the Jewish Cemeteries. The Nazis would literally dig Jewish gravestones out of the ground and transport them to nearby towns to use as pavement. Could you imagine?
Well today, several of those gravestones have been plucked back out of the pavement and returned to the cememtery. To commemorate the Holocaust, the community of Kazimierz set up a memorial wall, built out of Jewish gravestones, meant to look like the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. I found the memorial to be quite powerful. At the wall our group discussed the meaning of Poland, or as called in Hebrew: “Polin.” It is legend that when the Jews arrived in Poland during the middle ages, as they walked through the pine wooded forests they could hear a voice from the Heavens saying “Polin” – “Po” meaning here and “Lin” meaning you shall dwell. For over 1,000 years Jewish people made their homes in Poland, each generation living and dying and memories being past down. The memorial stood for this Jewish memory, the wall of the graves, even after WWII, still standing.
Now the next part of my blog post is my favorite part to tell because it was such an amazing moment to witness and share in. I honestly feel so special that I got to see it. Today, after our group visited the cute city of Zamosc and learned about its Sepharidic and Ashkenazi combined synagogue and culture, we drove to the small town of Lezajsk. Our purpose in visiting Lezajsk was to learn more about its Hassidic roots, particularly about one of its very famous Rabbis, Elimelech of Lizhensk. Standing in a small wooded corner of Lezajsk today is a little cemetery housing the mausoleum for the great Rabbi. Our group gathered inside the mausoleum and looked at the grave standing before us. Initially, I didn’t feel that much. It was the grave for a man I didn’t know and hardly knew anything about. It wasn’t until I learned the back story that it all started to click.
Next to the grave, our group sat down and one of our leaders Rabbi Josh helped explain to us what Hassidim was and what it meant to be a good Hassidic Tsadek (head Rabbi). He explained to us that Hassidism was a Jewish religious movement which found its roots in Poland in the eighteenth century. The movement is a sect of the Orthodox religious custom and emphasizes passion, mysticism, and full devotion to your community’s Tsadek or Head Rabbi. The Tsadek was the man to look to with any problem because it was said that he acted in a way as a liason to God – as though only he could understand and articulate God’s true wishes. To help us better understand this movement, Josh told us two stories about Hassidism and we discussed the different traits we’d want in a Hassidic leader.
I mentioned in the discussion that I would want my Hassidic Tsadek to be kind and to have humility. If he were a good leader he wouldn’t have to overstate his power. He should never be crookedly condescending towards his people and should be happy to provide support and advice. Moreover, we discussed how his character should reflect the character of God and he should try to relate amongst the people, leading by example and not by command.
Anyways, after we finished this talk, the eldest member of our group added something to our discussion that brought it to a much higher emotional level and for me, opened my eyes to the influence of a religious leader. It helped convey the meaning of someone’s life even after they have died. It showed me the meaning of family and how so much love and respect can be passed down through the generations.
M (who has requested his name be kept private)is the oldest member of our group and he is a professor at Towson university. I didn’t know this until today, but M is a Holocaust survivor. He was born during the Second World War in a small town in Romania, where his parent’s lived in the Jewish ghetto. M had two Jewish parents and when his father was sent to a slave labor camp in Russia, M was still a baby. His mother tried to flee Romania with him and go across to Russia in order to meet back up with his father. Luckily, he and his mother safely crossed the border, his mother missing incoming gun shots by bending down to help her son bandage his feet.
With even more luck, M and his mother were able to meet his father again, now out of the slave labor camp. They made their way to America and M lived the rest of his childhood years in the Bronx – a boy so close to being taken by death, now safely living in the Big Apple.
But that wasn’t all the news M had for us. There was something more he wanted to share. It turns out that he knew all about the great Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk. It turns out M knew all of the details we used to describe what we wanted in a Tsadek were true in this great religious leader. Why did M know this? Well, because M is a descendent of Rabbi Elimelech. M is the Tsadek’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-Grandson. They are eight generations apart and his ancestor’s story has been passed down from generation to generation.
M told us all about his great-great-…..-great grandfather. He was an amazing man – smart, humble, and righteous. M told us that this was the third time he had come back to Eastern Europe to visit his ancestor’s grave. It is true that on every anniversary of this Tsadek’s death over 10,000 Hassidic Jews from around the world travel to this very gravesite. M has joined them twice and he says he can’t help but get emotional when he sees the impact that someone in his own family had on the world. Rabbi Elimelech was a greatly revered leader, admired by both Jews and Christians in Lezajsk. Even our tour guide in Lezajsk told M today that she prays to Rabbi Elimelech every morning – and she’s not even Jewish! It is all so amazing to me.
M and I have gotten to talk several times on this trip and we share several common interests including Yiddish language and culture, as M was raised speaking Yiddish with his family. We also happened to run into the oldest living Holocaust survivor from Lublin while we visited that city and the three of us spoke together in Yiddish – it was all so special.
It touched me to watch M connect with an ancestor that means so much to him, his family, and the Jewish people. I’ve learned a lot about Hasidism on this trip and I think I have a greater appreciation for it now after learning about M'’s own ancestor the great Tsadek Elimelech.
Today I know will be another powerful day as I will be visiting the Concentration Camp I have learned about my whole life, Auschwitz. I hope I am mentally prepared – I’m sure it will be an emotional visit – but I am also looking forward to Shabbat tomorrow evening, where I’ll be celebrating with Jewish residents in Krakow at their beautiful JCC.
As always, thanks so much for reading.
Until next time,