From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

A Shabbat Evening in Warsaw

There is something better than modernity, which is eternity.

Solomon Schechter

Poland. To a Jew, even the word sounds cold and forbidding, conjuring up images of peril. It was here, in Poland, that the Nazi war machine placed its camps of death, interlaced in the snow by endless miles of train tracks like so many spider webs of murderous intent. Their names call to mind the horror of the Holocaust: Chelmno, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, Plaszow, Maidanek, and above all—Auschwitz.

Twenty-four of us, ranging in age from thirty-five to eighty-two and representing every part of the Jewish spectrum, had traveled from all over the United States on a pilgrimage to Eastern Europe. We came for many reasons: to pay tribute to family members who had perished here; to link ourselves to unknown Jews who were members of our extended family; or to exorcise persistent demons that tormented us with vague nightmares and wordless dreams.

And now here we were in Warsaw. The city itself is completely new, having been totally leveled by bombs during the war and then rebuilt. There is nothing left of the city as it had been—and only bittersweet remnants of Jewish life.

Gathering for a Shabbat dinner at a small kosher restaurant, we joined together in song and lingered in the glow of the Shabbat candles. Outside, the rain came down in torrents.

After dinner, our guide led us through black, rain-drenched streets to the beautifully restored Nozyck Synagogue, the only synagogue functioning in Warsaw today. Thanks to the Ronald Lauder Foundation, which has undertaken the renaissance of Jewish life in Poland, the Nozyck sparkles under fresh paint and polished brass—but does not play host to many Jews. The older generation is all gone, and what is left of the younger generation has intermarried. Those who attend services do so in an attempt to revive memories of a life that was but is no more. There is a large and gaping hole where a vibrant Jewish life once flourished.

We were late in arriving, and the shammas (the caretaker) bowed to us as he let us in.

“So sorry! Too late,” translated our guide. “The rabbi has gone home. No one is here.”

Our disappointment was palpable. I felt tears come to my eyes. To have come this far and not to be able to attend a service in this city brought a sharp stab of regret.

“At least, please, can we look at the sanctuary?” one of the older members of the group asked. “We won’t stay long, but if we could just go inside, it would mean so much to us.”

The aged caretaker led us down a few shallow and uneven steps into the foyer of the synagogue, and then left. The lights were still on in the sanctuary, and we could see that it was indeed beautiful, with a high ceiling and golden-white walls. We felt a mixed sense of wonder and heartache, for here in this Jewish place, there was no living Jewish presence of any kind, except for us.

“We don’t really need a rabbi, you know,” whispered someone in the group. “We don’t need a rabbi to lead us in the services.”

“No?” someone else asked.

“Of course not. Anyone can lead the service. Why don’t we just do it ourselves?”

With a few more words, and whispered assent among the members, it was quickly decided: We would hold our own Shabbat service. We would lead the prayers, sing the songs, and say Kaddish.

I went to the front of the sanctuary, and there in a stack was a jumble of prayerbooks. Thankfully, they were in Hebrew, and many of them were legible. As we distributed them, I felt some trepidation.

“I don’t know if you will all feel comfortable with this,” I said in a quiet voice. “I know that some of you come from traditional Jewish backgrounds. Would one of you please lead the service?”

No one volunteered. They shook their heads and politely declined.

“We don’t know quite how to do it—but could you?” one of the people asked.

I didn’t want to presume, but with the group’s approval, we began.

“Bar’khu et Adonai ha-m’vorakh. . . .”

And so it was that half a century after the fall of the Warsaw ghetto, we held a service in the historic Nozyck Synagogue. It was quite an unorthodox minyan, after all: It did not have separate seating for men and women. Some of the men wore yarmulkes, and some did not. The service was led by a woman and two gentlemen who shared the prayerbooks between them. The cantor was also a woman. There was no great choir, and there were no throngs of Jews there to respond to the prayers. Instead, there was a small and devoted group who had come to this far place to pray, to remember, and to pay tribute to those who had lived and died here. It was a simple service of great beauty and purity.

Yet we were not alone. All around us were those who had prayed here in years past. I could feel their eyes as I turned the pages of the prayerbook. I could hear their voices in my mind as I mouthed the ancient words of praise to God. Even though there were only two dozen of us in that sanctuary, the room seemed filled with the presence of hundreds, even thousands, of those who had come before us. Jewish life was rekindled for a moment, and as we all recited the Kaddish prayer, the demons were put to rest and the dreams were held at bay—for a little while. It was a Shabbat evening I will remember for the rest of my life.

When we left the synagogue afterward, the rain had stopped and there was a new moon.

Patti Moskovitz

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