Touching the Memory

Jews in Poland; hotograph taken in Warsaw by Alter Kacyzne; copyright held by YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

My father usually invited an oirech (a poor person) from among those who had lined up at the door of the Beit HaMidrash to join us for [a Sabbath] meal. These were itinerant beggars, of whom there were, unfortunately, many in Poland. I was fascinated by these vagabonds who lived at the margin of our society, and their presence at our table added excitement and mystery to the celebration.

This from a memoir by the former rabbi and director of Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel, Ben-Zion Gold. In the Introduction, Gold says that he wrote this memoir, The Life of Jews in Poland before the Holocaust, to rectify an “imbalance in the way we remember the Jews of Europe.” That is, we focus on the Holocaust and ignore how Jews lived, the “vitality and richness of Jewish life” in Europe before the most deadly wave of anti-Semitism—and of mass murder of people of many backgrounds. (See, please, Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, and I would also here recommend Tzvetan Todorov’s La Conquête de l’Amérique: La question de l’autre — The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other — which speaks powerfully of human savagery on our side of the Atlantic.)

That said, I must also note that Gold’s memoir came most to life for me in its antepenultimate chapter, which tells how he, unlike his parents and three sisters, escaped: avoided being murdered by the Germans. Reading this chapter I was reminded of how my young son, whenever he heard of some terrible occurrence or threat (e.g. nuclear war), would tell me how he had figured out a clever way by which he, at least, was going to avoid harm. There is a link to a pdf of Rabbi Gold’s short chapter here. The chapter tells of one of the ways in which a few people, with great luck, strength, and perseverance, managed to survive.

After the Holocaust, Gold, who had been a very religious young man, found it hard to make his way back to God. As he writes:

Along with the loss of my family and my people I had also lost two important sources of stability and comfort: the belief in divine providence and the belief in the goodness of human beings. The destruction of the largest and most devout Jewish community in modern history undermined my belief in divine justice, and my experiences in concentration camps led me to conclude that human beings are potentially the most dangerous creatures on earth.

In the final lines of his book, Gold writes about the “antidote” he eventually found. His book was published in 2007, and so he is not writing here about the recent war between Hamas and Israel, nor do I know what his position on Israel was. Moreover, I was raised in a multi-ethnic home by parents who called themselves atheists, and I have become profoundly more skeptical—even of atheism—than they were. So Rabbi Gold and I may not share all the same religious or political views. And thus I have read the final lines of his book as speaking not for me, but for himself and towards many people, and from the perspective of a devout and thoughtful man whose particular life has brought him to particular conclusions ideals for religion, and for homo sapiens.

Gold writes that—to the fact of human beings murdering countless other human beings who they had never met before—the antidote he found is a

reflection on the name Israel, which was given to the patriarch Jacob, “because he had striven with God and with people and had prevailed” (Genesis 32:29). Wrestling with God and ourselves is an essential part of Jewish religious piety. This is particularly important in our time when some Jews, in their zeal for God, are prepared to suspend the ethical. As against that, what characterizes Judaism is the integration of the ritual and the ethical, the concern for both the holy and the human.

— Wm. Eaton, Zeteo Editor


Alter Kacyzne with his daughter Sulamita and his wife Khana in Warsaw, ca. 1930Notes

The photograph at the top was taken in Warsaw by Alter Kacyzne, and the copyright is held by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which was established in 1925 in Wilno, Poland (now Vilnius, Lithuania) and subsequently relocated to New York City. YIVO preserves manuscripts, rare books, diaries, and other Yiddish sources. The Library contains more than 385,000 volumes from the sixteenth century onward, and the Archives holds more than 24 million documents, photographs, recordings, posters, films, and other artifacts.

The photograph accompanying these notes is of Alter Kacyzne with his daughter Sulamita and his wife Khana in Warsaw, ca. 1930. Kacyzne was a writer, poet, and photographer who traveled throughout Poland after World War I, chronicling Jewish life. To escape Nazi persecution in Poland, he fled to Ternopil in the Ukraine in 1941. By the time he arrived the Nazis already occupied the city. He was beaten to death by Ukrainian collaborators during the extermination of the town’s Jewish population. His daughter Sulamita survived, hiding in Poland as a non-Jew. His wife was killed in a concentration camp.

In his memoir, Rabbi Gold describes how during Sabbath meals, between courses, his family would sing “zimrot” (hymns) set to “nigunim” (melodies) favored by the Jews of central Poland. Starting in 1976, a woman named Jane Myers began recording Rabbi Gold singing these songs, and a CD was eventually put together: Touching the Memory: Songs Remembered from a Childhood in Poland.

Click for pdf

Touching the Memory

William Eaton is the Editor of Zeteo. A collection of his essays, Surviving the Twenty-First Century, will be published by Serving House Books. For more, see Surviving the website.

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