Travel and Healing—Silver Winner: Resurrection in Poland

By Lenny Karpman

Faces, tattoos, and empty mothers’ arms flailing after lost children flashed before my eyes. I sobbed. From deeper within me, the sobs crescendoed into 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 clear.

I was back in Cracow after a mandatory, but reluctant visit to Auschwitz.

Thirty years before, Perla and Gabriel had come with their tattooed forearms, then Rachael, Stanley, Mendel, Ignatz, Riva, Goldie 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. I had to make a pilgrimage to Auschwitz.

Dawn came at last through the dusty window of the overnight train from Budapest to Cracow. I hadn’t slept much. As we rolled through small towns along the Polish border, I shivered 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. 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 Catholic math teacher who knew English invited me into his home for dinner with his wife and kids. She served me a dish called Jewish fish. Traditionally it was part of Christmas dinner.

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 place 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 mental 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 swastika.

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 chant 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 Remuh, translated the codes of Sephardic (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 II. 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. Entombed no more, 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, the same pain that remarkably resurrected a part of me that had been dead. 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…”

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