June 16, 2012
I begin with an attempt to overcoming guilt. I have davened this morning and I know that unless I write during the Shabbat, I will fall behind too much and get too discouraged and feel as though I am not with the people I care most about. I too at times feel disconnected from the reality of my own life and yet these experiences over the years have made me more aware of just how unique year end and year out have become in my own understanding of Judaism, my Judaism, and the richness of a past that is no longer.
Let me first begin by saying that the people of Korcyna have been so gracious, warm and open. The Mayor of the town was there to greet us as we came off the bus, though we were close to 2 hours late (I had no idea he was going to be there). We talked for another hour and a half and it was clear that not only did he welcome us and saw this as benefitting his community, but that most important was it for the children of Korcyna and the adults too to remember the rich history of Korcyna, of which a significant part of it was the Jewish community. It was for this reason that he did everything in his power to secure permission for us by the regional and national governmental authorities for us to come and he was successful.
Things have changed so much over the years; no one use to care at all about these God forsaken cemeteries (literally) or at least that was my impression when we first began so it was easy to go in and do this work. Now, it seems that there is great concern and in some ways, it is a good thing that there is governmental and rabbinical oversight. Rabbi Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland (ironic isn’t it when you consider the total number of Jews who were there before World War II (over 3,000,000) and the total number today. According to one source, there are no more than 15,000 and that seems very high, but so be it. But in any event, we have secured permission.
The Town of Korcyna is more akin to a suburb of the town of Krasno, where we are staying. The cemetery has – according to our Project Manager Steve Glazer – 400 stones and at least 200 that are legible. But I can tell you that the town furnished us with two very hard working men who helped us clear the overgrowing brush – standard for this work – that uncovered over half of the headstones that were not visible upon entry. There is a cement wall built in the 1930s by a Wolf Koref, z”l (May his memory be for a blessing), that stands to this day. We will remove the unspeakable, but fading graffiti that is found in one section (hardly visible) but there. But please do not form an unfavorable impression.
Before we began our work, the Mayor insisted on meeting everyone and had school faculty as well as students there to greet us and to welcome us. We were moved by their warmth and the work. Our contact person in Poland who had arranged everything seemed a little annoyed (I should not be writing this) but only because it was delaying our work. Arik is a very kind soul who works for the regional government in Sanok where we restored its cemetery in 2010.
Some of you may be pleased to know that because of the memorial we built there, many people, according to Arik, now come, including local villagers, and light candles and place flowers on the “New Cemetery” that was erected where the building that was used to prepare the deceased for burial once stood. It is heartwarming – I suppose one could succumb to bitterness about the absence of Jews and what occurred there and throughout Poland – many rightfully – some with far more right than I who now engage in this project – to draw that line in the sand. And one could be more cynical, skeptical at best to say, “It’s easy to be loving and embracing of a people who are no more.”
But I must say it doesn’t have that feel here. There was an elderly man, and we’ve had that experience in other places, which lives next door to the Jewish cemetery in a beautiful brick home. He remembers firsthand the death of so many Jews and many of the Jewish townspeople, their names – how so many of them were killed. Who hid the Jews – and those who were informers and collaborators. His own father would give food wherever he could and even told Jews with whom to hide. This elderly man’s account was consistent with what we had read in the Yizkor Book. And you know the tone of voice seemed as if he was obsessed, perhaps even a little exaggerated. Yet, the accuracy could not be discounted. Those who bore witnessed who were not Jewish – seem to have this urge as well to recount what they saw – particularly those who witnessed mass executions and simply outright murder – as if they have waited their entire life for this moment- I know this sounds exaggerated. If you could just have heard the ongoing stress in his voice and our hopeless attempts to conclude the conversation, yet unable to because of its nonstop character, perhaps you would have sensed something different, though at all times we need the help of a translator.
This leads me to our student leader who was born in Poland and then at a very young age immigrated with his parents to the United States. He speaks Polish and served as the translator. Maybe I should not be writing this, for he would be easily identifiable. He served as the translator for this elderly man. He stood patiently, while some of our guides were concerned that perhaps we were falling behind in our work – understandably so because of the elderly nature of this man and his tendency to speak in such an animated way that perhaps it was more cathartic to him which tended to reduce one’s belief in the accuracy, and yet everything he said, including the group and individual killings and the march of the Jews from Korcyna to Krasno, where they waited in the town square – the very town square where we ate - and then marched to the train station and placed in cattle cars to be sent to Belzec was accurate including the month, the date, I believe, and of course the year.
Yet, there our student leader stood quietly and patiently listening, translating and so forth. He had graduated from Dartmouth just six days earlier and could have done something completely different. Yet, he felt it important. This same person returned to the cemetery and continued his work which consisted of the heavy labor of removing the tremendous quantity of overbrush, thorns, and fallen branches – more than one can adequately described, here for the entire day – as did so many students whom I won’t mention as space does not permit. All of them are the best of Dartmouth, and is in part one reason why I often say I have the best rabbinate in the country because I have such wonderful students with whom I work and with a congregation and community that is so understanding.
I miss you all,