June 20, 2012
Our work is very near completion; there being over 500 headstones to catalogue, to transcribe, to photograph, and so forth. Not everyone is readable, but the vast majority can be read, such that there seems to be so much work lies ahead upon our return. Yesterday was very moving.
The work began in an almost monotonous way; the way one gets up and says simply “another day of work.” Our office, our place of ‘business’ is the cemetery and I cannot say that it is inspiring to read ‘matzevah’ (headstone after headstone) that talk about how righteous this person was, how they extended their hand to the poor and to those in need. Yet, each life is important and when one compares our headstones in Jewish cemeteries to these, the latter say so much more about what the community values; perhaps a high holy day sermon in that regard. Every once in a while you come across a woman who died in childbirth and either one of her children or more likely the husband is describing in first person on the headstone how tears are falling from his eyes. Then one “wakes” up and realizes that people very much the same as you and I in the heart of hearts live each day with the good and the tragic.
The weather was quite warm and humid. We were guarded a little by the shade due to the large trees. Two other students joined in the transcriptions so that our progress was quite good. But they are not the only story that I write this morning. I wonder what motivates our young people on this journey who are doing the very heavy difficult work of washing the headstones so that they can be read or clearing out the overgrowth and brush – you can’t really imagine it unless you’ve been on previous journeys. There they are scrubbing away, moving buckets of water to each headstone, some tilted way over, being careful with the lettering and treating each one carefully, so that by the end of the day, they are tired, exhausted, and have no idea what these headstones say or represent. I think it takes a real act of faith to do this work; particularly if one is not Jewish. It’s easy for me in that regard, though after 11 such restorations, it too takes a toll – taking some comfort in the midrash story of the old man who plants the fig tree next to the young boy, who seems tired and unmoved by the new, yet continuing to plant as if that is the work that one must do for whatever the reason, even if it is unclear its ultimate value other than some future randomness that may or may not occur.
We have only 15 headstones to transcribe this morning and then the service at 11:00 a.m. We will depart thereafter for Krakow and catch an early morning flight on Thursday morning.
After we finished for the day, a most extraordinary thing happened. We were told to come to the public grammar and high school for a presentation. When we arrived, we went upstairs to its library, joined by the Mayor and his Vice-Mayor. The Headmaster of the school, the history and English teacher (and her husband), and students from the local school were there to greet us and then more. After introductions, they gave us a wonderful lecture that resulted from their own research of a project that they had begun in 2006 that included working on the very abandoned and neglected Jewish Cemetery that we had worked on. They showed us picture of their work and it was remarkable. But that was not all – no far from it – they had done research on the Jewish history of Korcyna and of Poland in general and gave us a wonderful presentation about their knowledge of the Jewish community of Korcyna; their students who were present – I would say 20 sat their politely (they came voluntarily?) and listened.
They had a registry that they showed us that showed all the Jewish students and their parents and how they had enrolled in the public school there (this was told to us in the Yizkor book that is online). Before the 20th century, Jews of Korcyna only sent their children to religious schools; never to the general Polish one because such studies were not considered truly ‘useful’ for it did not teach them the Mitzvot and Torah. Many were Chasidim. But in the 20th century, things changed even in Poland where more trades were being encouraged by non-Jews to participate and Jews in Korcyna began to send their children to the public school as well because they saw the world becoming both more open (how tragic looking in the rear view mirror of history) and more demanding; such that they realized that for their children to function in the “real” world, they had to send their children to receive a more general education. And so we saw name and after name in this original registry of Jewish children and the names of their parents and the dates of attendance – and the names corresponded to those in the Yizkor book that is online. I even saw the name “Feigenbaum” and I am told that on my father’s side (I think) we are related to all the Feigenbaums, but to borrow an old Yiddish expression, this could be a buba maisa (loosely translated – grandma’s tale- could be true, maybe, but one is too respectful to discount it – at least altogether).
I will say that never before in the 10 previous restorations had we ever been treated to such a lecture and it showed a remarkable insight into the good-heart of these people that begins with the Mayor and their desire to “teach their children” the history of their town and the people who lived there. All of this, after 50 years living under the Soviet thumb where such teachings would have been forbidden. If only the world was like this community on this evening.
As is the custom at these sorts of things, I was asked to speak near the end but before the Mayor- thank goodness and of course I was completely unprepared. I had noticed first a small book on Janush Korshak (forgive the spelling). Their students knew who he was but I’m not sure ours did. I wanted to explain for it is a story worth telling. Jan Korshak was very famous in Poland before the War. He was the leading child psychologist in Poland when the Nazi invasion occurred. Tragically, he too was in the Warsaw ghetto. He took it upon himself to be in charge of the orphanage; brought about because of the death of parents, either at the hands of the Germans, or at the death caused by starvation. You can only imagine how difficult this work must have been – well probably one can’t imagine for it is beyond comprehension.
Jan Korshak had the opportunity, because of his immense stature in Poland, to leave the orphanage before the children were to be sent to Auschwitz (I am doing this from memory but no one corrected me but if I am wrong on this please tell me), but he refused. Instead, he went with them so that they would be comforted and cared for throughout the journey to Auschwitz and he too died with them in one of the gas chambers at Birkenau, the very site that we had just visited.
I told this narrative at the time not realizing that the Polish students had studied him (we had a translator). I talked about the importance of history and education in light of today’s world; that all the education in the world, all the new advances in technology, engineering, computer science, and medicine, mean nothing if we do not remember where we came from, where we learn from our history and study ethics, philosophy, and morality and then, despite the challenges, work to incorporate them into our present day.
By looking at the Jewish history of Korcyna and what happened to a people that no one in that room remembered you were helping to prevent such calamities – such destruction. I must believe that and of course I sound very rabbinic as if I am on some type of soapbox and I do apologize. We tend to devalue these areas of study – history, philosophy, classics, religions – in favor of the more pragmatic “stuff” and it is understandable because this is where the “kemach” (real material) of life is; or so we think. But what must underlie it, at least I think so, is a kind of dedication to where we have come from, what we want our humanity to consist of, this nurturing of the human heart and that our work, our sensitivity to life, springs from that condition, and that our learning is motivated from a true desire to better the world.
As corrupt as this thinking may seem to many, many Germans believed that what happened to the Jews was going to create a new world order; a better world. 8 out of the 15 people present at the Wannsee Conference had doctorates. Goebbels, may his name be obliterated from the earth, even recognized just how monstrous the acts taken against the Jewish people were, yet he said it was necessary and not refrain from lack of courage.
Yet, no one took that step back and said what we are doing is wrong. When the allies learned about the death camps, they did not stop and bomb the railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz. If they had done that in the spring of 1944, perhaps, just perhaps, a majority of the 500,000 Jews from Hungary might have survived. No one of course knows, but now we will never know. I believe deeply that only in the study of the past can we know how to act righteously in the future. You know it’s ironic that I use the word righteous in this context because so many of the headstones, I would say 95% at least, have that word mentioned either tzadik or tzedakah mentioned in it. Perhaps there is still much to learn from these headstones and the tediousness of this work.