Although we recall very different tragedies, everyone here in Poland this week, Jew and Pole alike is crying tears of loss. Both here and in Israel on Sunday nations will stand in silent attention for two minute memorial sirens. And those tears, if shared, could help mend the long term wounds that have divided Pole from Jew.
We need to recall how the hand of friendship extended to Jews from a Pope native to this very city did so much in healing those relations, as did the policies of the late president Lech Kaczynski, who visited Israel not log ago. Now it’s our turn to return the favor.
We’re not doing anything heroic, mind you, and the teens are having an incredible time. But now new lessons must be added to the lessons of the Shoah…like how to go up to the clerk at the desk of our hotel and say “I’m sorry” in Polish.
Our Polish guide spoke to us this evening about today’s events, calling it a nightmare from which he hoped the nation would soon awaken. He gave us background on the people involved, the political system and the meaning to Poles of the Katyn_Massacre. He broke down when mentioning Kaczynski in the past tense, or when describing the others who perished on the plane, who represented the entire Polish political spectrum. We asked what we could do. One girl asked how to say "I'm sorry." I asked him whether it might be a good idea for us to wear black ribbons while marching at Auschwitz on Monday. He cried again, saying that yes, the Polish people will be paying attention. I don’t know if we’ll be able to pull it off, since everything in the country is closed on Sunday in the best of times, but I hope that the March organizers are on the phone right now calling Riverside with a very big order of black ribbons, because from such small gestures come great healing. We recalled Bill Clinton’s attending the funeral of Yitzchak Rabin and how his simple words “Shalom Haver” (“Goodbye Friend”) bought Clinton a lifetime of love and trust from the Israeli people (who, as the current White House occupant knows, do not easily give their hearts to politicians).
We are here. We have chosen to be here to represent the Jewish people. This is our moment to say “Shalom, Haver.”
Only someone devoid of a soul could sit in this beautiful city and not feel Poland’s pain tonight. Walking in the main square of Old Krakow this afternoon, with Polish flags and black ribbons sprouting everywhere, the faces of the shopkeepers were a study in numbed sadness. This morning, when we heard the news at services (see more on that below), I commented that the portion contained Aaron’s response to the sudden, tragic deaths of his sons: stunned silence. The faces on the street today were the faces of Aaron. And since relatively few here speak English, there was no way to communicate sympathy, except through a fleeting sympathetic glance. Now I know that all we need to do is say “Przepraszam” (pshehprahshahm), “I’m sorry,” and we’ll have played an important role in the Polish healing process - and in our own as well.
If we blow it, especially if we blow it because of ancient anger, however justified, for past Polish action (or inaction), we will be guilty of handing Hitler a posthumous triumph. He will have robbed us of our humanity.
Our group spent a most extraordinary Shabbat here in Krakow. We learned of the tragedy this morning during services held at the progressive Tempel Synagogue, a beautiful and ornate testament to the vibrant diversity that was Jewish Krakow before the Holocaust. It is now an empty shell (though painstakingly restored since the war) and no longer an active shul, so the service this morning was conducted by March of the Living groups who happened to be staying in Krakow. We were joined by a group of about a hundred from Australia, along with groups from France, Israel and Long Island. The service reflected different styles, Ashkenazi and Sephardic, Orthodox and Liberal (though the women sat separately) and some of our teens had parts. We had our first taste of the other side of the March experience, the side that is not sad but life-affirming, the chance to share a moment with Jews from around the world. It was thrilling to share this service today with these other groups, and the geographic and denominational differences just didn’t seem to matter.
The portion this week, Shemini, contained the inexplicable tragedy of the sudden deaths of Aaron’s two sons – on a day and weekend when we mark the unspeakably horrors of the Shoah as well, now, of this Polish tragedy, the portion gained a sudden added relevance.
In truth, everything has more relevance now, most especially prayer. I was privileged to lead Kabbalat Shabbat last night at our hotel, and the very act of praying as Jews on the ground where a generation ago our people were butchered so mercilessly added a new sense of urgency to the prayers. And the knowledge that those same victims prayed so relentlessly for a salvation that never came added a tone of complexity as well. But more than anything, there was a feeling of celebration and togetherness. We ended the service with a special Kaddish for the 6 million, something that we’ll be doing throughout the week.