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A Place in Crakow, Poland to Cry
By Lenny Karpman
Faces, tattoos, and empty mothers' arms flailing after lost children
flashed before my eyes. I sobbed. I wailed the wail of a wounded animal. A
comforting hand massaged my shoulder. A voice told me in Yiddish that it was
good to cry here, that this was "our Wailing Wall." I remembered only a few
words in Yiddish from childhood, but the consoling message was inexplicably
Perla and Gabriel had come first, with their tattooed forearms thirty
years ago, then Rachael, Stanley, Mendel, Ignatz, Riva, and Sam. They were
survivors of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau. Because of my love for them that
grew over decades in the intimacy of our patient-doctor bond, I felt
compelled to honor their wounds and to honor the memory of the six million
who hadn't survived, and make a pilgrimage to Auschwitz.
Dawn came at last through the dusty window of the over-night train from
Budapest to Cracow. I hadn't slept much. As we rolled through small towns
along the Polish border, I shivered and shook at the vista of rows of
railroad cars standing on the sidings. In the darkness, through squinting
eyes, I thought that some of them were cattle cars. Like a volcano erupting
from deep within the earth, images from old newsreels resurfaced from their
burial sites where I had interred them as a child, images of human cattle,
stifling, sobbing, praying, trying to comfort the children, on the way to
slaughter. I prayed for light so I could see that the cars were not cattle
cars. First light that day was orange like the flame in a furnace. They were
cattle cars. I tasted the salt that trickled over my upper lip and turned
away from the window.
The fairyland of Cracow was surcease from thoughts of holocaust sorrow.
The giant Market Square in the center of the old city was radiant with spring
tulips and lilies. It echoed the music of strolling musicians. Baking
breads, grilling sausages and simmering stews and soups perfumed the air.
College women in sandals, shorts, tank tops and flirtatious smiles tried on
amber necklaces and gold bracelets. Artists covered the old city walls with
their newest paintings. The sun glistened off the golden dome of the
cathedral. The turrets of the castle rose from treetops on the hill. Swans
glided across the river below. The opera house wore its sumptuous
undergarments inside, ornate as only an opera house can be without being
garish. The fourteenth Century University, in which Copernicus had studied,
exuded charm and dignity. I hid there for days, denying that my purpose was
to visit Auschwitz. A math teacher who knew English invited me into his home
for dinner with his wife and kids. On a walking tour around the city, he
reluctantly consented to translate the ubiquitous graffiti for me. It
proclaimed "death to the Jews." He guessed that there were only a few hundred
Jews in Cracow. There had been more than 60,000 before the Nazis.
Friday morning I went to Auschwitz, the spot on our planet where more
people were murdered than any other in the history of our species. I was too
numb to feel very much. I marched from building to building with wooden
movements of a heavily medicated patient. The people walking alongside of me
were wide-eyed, silent and frugal with their body language. We passed
displays of human hair, eyeglasses, suitcases with familiar family names
painted on them, combs and brushes. My mother's family left Poland before the
First World War. My Father came to America as a child, a few years later. I
was born in 1938. When I reached a display case filled with the clothing of
children who also had been born around 1938, I froze. Which of them would
have grown up to be my cousins or peers had they not been gassed and
incinerated here? The line filed past and left room for me to stand like a
statue. Several minutes later I was able to take in a deep breath and exhale
a soft sigh and direct my feet to move on.
Soft music drew me down a corridor to a candle lit chapel in which
Israeli high school kids were chanting soft background prayers in Hebrew as
one by one they read the names from a leather bound book of family members
who had died here. Outside, one of their buses had been marked with a
I rode back to Cracow in silence. I directed the cab driver to take me to
Kazimierz, the Jewish district outside the old city. The sun would be setting
in a few hours and I wanted to find a place for a Sabbath service so I could
sing the prayer of mourning in the company and security of survivors. He
dropped me in the middle of a block that appeared prominently in the movie,
Schindler's List. The old gray synagogues, religious schools, and ceremonial
bathhouses hovered closed and empty. At the far end of the block was a
memorial museum and cultural epitaph. It served as a second dose of
anesthetic, preventing my numbness from departing.
Back up the block, a synagogue from the sixteenth century hid behind
a wall. A famous rabbi, Moses Isserles known as the Remuh, codifier of
Sephadic (Middle Eastern, North African, and Spanish) religious law and
amended them so Ashkenazi (Central European) Jews could use them as well. He
wrote his historic tome and prayed in this building in the 1560's. During the
Swedish invasion of Poland in 1704, the rabbi's headstone and casket and the
others in the cemetery adjacent to the synagogue were buried so they wouldn't
be destroyed. They were not uncovered until excavation of the site after
World War Two. The cemetery was reestablished as it had been in the 1600's.
From broken headstones and remnants of holy places destroyed by the Nazis, a
mosaic wall was built around the synagogue and cemetery.
I went through the gate in the wall, into the cemetery, then into the
ancient chapel. The anesthetic began to wane. Two people sat lost in prayer.
Afraid that I might disturb them, I moved back outside and stood facing the
wall. The pieces of tombstones drew me further into feeling and awareness.
Lamentations poured out of my throat and tear ducts. I chanted the chants the
Israeli kids had chanted until I choked on the words and howled in pain. It
was then that I heard the voice and felt the hand on my shoulder. Wailing
Wall indeed. The outpouring of my pent up feelings honored the dead, honored
the survivors, and honored my journey to this place. I had found the
destination of my pilgrimage. The tears began to cleanse. I turned to the
voice and saw no one until I adjusted my gaze downward. Beside and slightly
behind me was a ninety year old man who stood no more than four and a half
feet from his sandals to his skull cap. I hugged him long and hard and he
hugged me back. His old eyes glistened back at me.
Eight of us waited until an hour after sunset to begin our service, but
Jewish law requires a minion of ten. Three of the parishioners left and
returned with two men in wheel chairs, wearing the empty gazes of advanced
dementia. One of them seemed to respond ever so slightly as we sang the
mourners prayer "Yisgadal, v'yiskadash, sh'may rabah"
from the June 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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