Today was the first day of March of the Living Australia. It was also the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah). I have been to many Yom HaShoah ceremonies, in Melbourne, Sydney and Israel, but none compare to the extraordinary, humbling and truly emotional ceremony that we had the privilege of participating in tonight.
The ceremony came at the end of what was only our first day, yet it feels already like we have been together for so long, given how much we were able to pack into just one day. After an introductory session, we walked through the Jewish section and in one of the old synagogues, as we came in to have a look, we heard some singing. Inside we found a group of maybe 20 or so Chasidim – some from the UK and some from Israel – who were visiting Krakow to commemorate the anniversary of the passing of one of their rabbis. Whilst in the synagogue, they burst into spontaneous song and then harmonious prayer.
In a city and a quarter where so much of the Jewish revival is for show or seems fake, these men (and yes, they were all men) and their singing, combined with their garb, felt like it brought some authenticity and a taste of the old world into a once thriving Jewish community. For some in our group this unplanned and unscripted moment will be a highlight of their tour.
Later at the Galicia Jewish Museum we were guided through the exhibit of 150 or so photos, by Kasia, the knowledgeable and very articulate head of education at the museum. She showed us the Galicia of old and the Galicia of today, from the old villages scattered throughout the region which used to be predominantly Jewish, to the modern Krakow Jewish festival. Most importantly, she pointed out that Krakow, Galicia and Poland in general do not have a one-sided story when it comes to the Jews and the communities that used to be here.
At some point in history some of the towns were more than 60% Jewish and Poland was considered the ‘Goldene Medinah’ – a land of prosperity and richness – but then at other times it was of course the land of tragedy and destruction. Both are part of the Polish narrative, though some are sometimes too blind to see it. Part of our reason for being here, especially at this time of year, is to open our own eyes and in the process hopefully remove the shutters for others.
Then it came time for the evening ceremony. All we knew going into it was that it was going to take place inside one of the refurbished old synagogues. What we didn’t know was that we weren’t going to be the only ones there or how moving it would be.
After all the usual keynote addresses, it came time for the candle lighting – six candles representing the six million Jews, like in every such ceremony. Whilst three of them were lit by three esteemed members from our group, the other three were lit by representatives of the visiting groups.
One by an American who was the family representative of Ed Mosberg, a survivor who dedicated his life to Holocaust memorialisation and Jewish philanthropy; one by Jessica, a Polish non-Jewish woman who spends her life learning and teaching about the Holocaust and its impact on Poland; and one by Jonny Daniels, the inspirational founder of an organisation called From The Depths, which is dedicated to Holocaust memorialisation.
As part of his work, Jonny discovered a non-Jewish family near Krakow who became the custodians of a Torah scroll when the Jewish family next door to them left it behind after they were forced out. Not knowing what to do with it, it lay dormant for over 70 years and at one point part of it became a doormat. When Jonny met them and discovered it, rather than burying it as per Jewish custom, he decided to preserve and restore and has been travelling the world looking for survivors and getting each of them to write a single letter so that each part of the restored section will be written entirely by survivors.
Without planning it in advance and knowing that within our group there was a child survivor, he asked Henry to write one of the letters with him, in a part of the ceremony that left everyone in tears. How could we not cry when we were witnessing an extraordinary act of revival in such a historic venue on the eve of such an important day?! It set the scene for what will undoubtedly be an even more emotional couple of days in Krakow and Auschwitz.
Written by Alex Kats - Participant, MOTL 2023