June 21, 2012
One of the first times I have ever entitled a journal entry by name. I am now flying high above Poland towards Munich where in about an hour or so we will be landing and have quite the lay-over (over 7 hours). The six students returning (a few are staying in Europe – one even going to Nairobi to do volunteer work) are for the most part sleeping and is well earned on many levels.
We took along a professional photographer – a Fulbright fellow. She has taken over 5000 photographs (not a misprint) and we are hoping to create a book of this particular experience. Perhaps a student will come forward and assist – unlike the filmed documentaries in the past and perhaps our work may be ready by next year’s Yom Hashoah if not sooner. We hope to land in Boston at 6:30 today (Thursday) though the clock will turn back the six hours we gained in Europe.
So onto Karolina and her story – she being a young teenager along with about 14 others from the local school who met with us the night before and then joined us for the closing ceremony along with two of their teachers(one of them an English teacher, another a history teacher, and the headmaster). The Mayor could not join us but sent two representatives. He had a doctor’s appointment as he had broken his leg in a skiing accident. Before drawing any negative conclusion, he had to walk with one crutch and visited the cemetery on more than one occasion and was so very gracious; even attending our school session. I honestly believe he is very interested in transmitting all of Korcyna’s history, including the Jewish community that once existed there and this I must say is an unusual experience for me to see such sensitivity and concern over a world that no longer exists.
So all these young Polish students – of course none of them Jewish – most likely Roman Catholic – are present and we are standing in the middle of the cemetery in a fairly large yet intimate circle. Four large candles are lit – two by the Polish students and two by our students. There are various readings. Karolina is standing opposite me in this circle as the service progresses. We have two translators. She is a petite young person. She is dressed very nicely; very respectfully. It seems as though, and this is just an observation, that there is a tendency for girls and women to dress more appropriately for these kinds of formal gatherings than boys. Many of the boys – in fact from memory everyone who had attended – wore those long/basketball length shorts, tennis shoes, and a tee-shirt with some company logo or saying, and perhaps a baseball type cap.
The girls, from my memory and the woman were dressed in either dresses or skirts and a nice blouse with matching shoes. I can’t say that all of them were, but it seems as though the majority, if not all were. I don’t know why this is the case.
I have digressed and I’d be interested in any comments from the readers about whether this is a true phenomenon (in general) or an isolated case. Hardly matters given what it is to follow.
Karolina had what appeared to be an extensive digital camera and she was photographing the cemetery before the service began. We had our own photographer Laura present and I had told her for purposes of documenting that she could photograph the service. Karolina (pronounced Kar-o-LEE-nah) had her camera draped around her neck with those holders that you typically see. When I had asked people to join in the 23rd Psalm, our translator only knew what I was referring to after I had finished and said that many of the students had learned it, memorized it, in Polish. Of course there is an extraordinary element of shyness, but Karolina recited it by heart in Polish and her recitation was not simply rote. It seemed to me to be quite moving – recited as prayer – in a kind of sensitive tone that matched the significance of the moment. At some point thereafter, I think I was speaking about the importance of names, I noticed that she had “quietly” lifted her camera and took a picture – not of me – but of my Rabbi’s manual that I was holding in front of my stomach. Our service continued with a few more reflections – mostly by the teachers, the students standing respectfully and attentive – as our students would as well (this is written honestly)- but keep in mind these young people have little connection to the Jews of Korcyna who perished other than what their teachers have taught them and what they have read. They recited the Kaddish (I stated each word and everyone repeated) and our service concluded.
I went over to Karolina with her teacher/translator alongside an asked her about the picture-taking of my book and I think at first I had frightened her slightly – for I think she feared she had done something inappropriate – and I reassured her that she had not of course. She very shyly responded that the color of the book, that it had prayers in it that I had read from, made it seemed right to photograph it for her memory. I took my Rabbi’s manual and gave it to her. I told her that it was hers so long as she needed it, but after she had finished with it, whether it be tomorrow or 10 years, she was to give it to the school for its archives and library as a keepsake. I believe that she was quite moved to receive it and I know it is in good hands.
Most of the Jewish books had been burned by the Germans when they entered Korcyna. In one section of the Yizkor book, one of the very few survivors returned to Korcyna long after the war. There were no books any longer – a place once filled with sacred texts of Talmud, Shulchan Arukh, Sifre (books of) Torahs – that had long ago disappeared from Korcyna. One account is of a man who was all alone in his home and he had been given two hours to clear out of his house and to relocate to another town (I believe he was shot along the way as I had also presented my copy of the Yizkor Book of Korcyna to the town). When told, the young Hasid went straight to a special cupboard, took out his own Torah scroll and left only with it. According to the Yizkor narrative, even the Germans, in a very strange sort of way, was impressed with this man’s devotion.
The account of the survivor concludes with his finding a torn off page of Talmud by sheer accident which I believe he takes back to Israel.
It was a fragment of a gesture , yet one that had significance in my own heart, to give a Jewish book, though I am sure her parents will question what in the world their daughter will do with a Rabbi’s manual, but I felt that Korcyna needed at that moment at least one Jewish text, something in Hebrew to remind them of an age once gone by and only to be remembered by those who thought it important; such people as the Mayor, the Headmaster, the history and English teachers, and most of all, I have hope and I have faith, in Karolina.