What an amazing journey my son is on! As we are blessed to receive daily updates (except for Shabbat) from the CESJDS trip chaperones, I'd like to share with you an excerpt from Day 3.
From Warsaw we headed to Ger (Gora Kolawaria in Polish), the former seat of the Gerer Hassidim. We were met at the remains of the Jewish cemetery by Felix Karpmann, an 86 year old survivor who is now the last Jew in Ger, a community that once numbered over 3,000 Jews (today Ger has 24,000 inhabitants; only Felix is Jewish). Felix was 17 when he was shipped to Treblinka along with his parents and two brothers. He and one brother were chosen to work, and they hid in the piles of clothes transported with the victims on the cattle cars. Twelve days later, they slit the throats of an SS officer and made their escape. He spent time in the Warsaw ghetto, joined the Jewish resistance, and he and his brother were among the Nazis’ most wanted in Gora Kolwaria for their anti-Nazi actions. Felix survived the Shoah hiding in a classmate’s barn under a stack of hay. He is now married to this classmate, and his mother-in-law is a recipient of the Righteous Gentile award from Yad Vashem. Felix now cares for the cemetery and Beit Midrash, our next stop, which was the center of learning for the Gerer Hasidim, the 2nd or 3rd largest sect of Hasidim today (they are now centered in Jerusalem and Brooklyn). For Felix, Judaism is about the children, the “Shayne Yiddishe Kinderlach,” a phrase that we repeated back to him with smiles on our faces. He watched as others begged God for assistance, for anything, and heard only silence. Today, he no longer believes, for how could a God abandon his people. And yet here he is, single-handedly preserving the Jewish sites and soul of Ger for those who visit each year and for those who died living a Jewish life. And yet he also urged us to remain Jewish, to remember that it is important to be proud. He survived because he “was strong as an ox,” and we should honor the lives of his families and the survivors and other victims by remembering these stories. Our visit with Felix was certainly the highlight of our day.
The Gerer Beit Midrash was once one of the most elite yeshivot in all of Poland, where students were known to climb the poles to get a glimpse of the Rebbe as he gave a shiur (lesson). We learned of the Sfat Emet, grandson of the great Rebbe of Ger. We heard a Dvar Torah about Pirkei Avot 1:6: “Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Perachya says, ‘Make for yourself a teacher and acquire for yourself a friend, and judge each person favorably.’” According to our peer, this is how the Gerer Hasidim lived. For them, the Rebbe was their teacher, a deeply spiritual friend and leader, and their lives revolved around their communities. It is our task, we were urged, to follow these same teachings as we seek to ensure a strong Jewish future. “Without teachers, there would be no Jewish education. Without friends, there would be no community.”
We took these words to heart as the A Capella choir led us in Hebrew song. The favorite, “Nachamu,” was the encore piece, and students were beaming as we sang along to the words “Comfort my people,” bringing traditional and modern Jewish words back to Ger. We sang and danced with and around Felix, singing songs of his childhood as well as modern Hebrew songs, and stealing pictures with Felix at every opportunity. We danced and jumped and brought joy and life, celebrating the Europe that was and each other. What a powerful site!
This Shabbat is Shabbat Zachor - a Shabbat of Remembering. Remembering what the nation of Amalek did to us as we left Egypt and blotting out their name. It is also the Shabbat before Purim where we meet Haman, a descendant (alleged) of Amalek, and remember the desperate end he held in store for all the Jews.
It is a Shabbat for remembering the past and helping it shape a better future. I am thankful that both of my children have had the opportunity to meet this wonderful man, Felix, and learn about his life, his philosophy and his will to survive. Thank you, Felix, for being a teacher to our children.
Ideally we should be blotting out all impulses to behave in such a hostile, negative and deadly way toward others. What we need to remember is that while there is evil in the world, there is also good in the world. Let us make it our job to find the good where ever it may be and enhance it.
Shabbat Shalom u'Vracha