This blog post, originally published December 26, 2018, is being reposted in memory of Professor Irene Eber, who passed away in Jerusalem on April 10, 2019. May her memory be for a blessing.
We have an abundance of documentation concerning what life was like in Poland by people who lived there before the Shoah, during it, and, by God’s inscrutable mercy, after it. One such written record is The Choice: Poland 1939-1945 by Irene Eber. At the age of fifty, Irene Eber visited Mielec, her father’s hometown in Poland. It was the town to which she and her parents had returned in 1938 following their expulsion from Germany where they had been living.
The Choice is a very moving account of the author’s experience in wartime Poland, and her thoughts about what she had lived through. Irene Eber, her maiden name is Geminder, is an accomplished academic, a renowned Orientalist, Professor (emeritus) of East Asian Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem at Jerusalem and Senior Fellow of the Harry S. Truman Research Institute. Her book, as one might expect, is carefully, faithfully, and beautifully written.
One section of the book which I find profoundly moving is her own evaluation of what she had written. It is a stunning example of an author being able to look at and measure her own work. It is found in the book’s Postscript. It begins with the following observation.
Transforming remembered multidimensional scenes charged with emotions, imbued with sounds and half-remembered smells, and seen by the inner eye as movements and color into words flattened onto paper is ultimately unsatisfactory.¹
Eber goes on to express her dismay “at the inadequacy of words, their shortcomings when compared to the intensity of the memory they are meant to convey.” [Ibid.]
This was a feeling that I experienced over and over again during my time in Poland. Sometimes I felt it in a cemetery, sometimes in a synagogue, sometimes in a museum. It was a profound sense of disconnection, of alienation, of separation, of distance. A sense of extreme detachment rose up between where I was and what I was doing and where the Jews of Poland were and what they had been doing when they visited the grave of a loved one, or prayed in a local synagogue, or carefully folded their prayer shawls and placed them in their tallis bags. The grief I felt, the almost palpable sense of loss, was enormous. And yet, this feeling could not even begin to fathom the abyss, the gaping hole left in the soul of the world by what had been swept away in one sudden, violent, outburst of destruction. What was I to make of these attempts to save what can be saved of our Jewish past; how was I to understand them? Eber captures my feelings perfectly in the following passage.
To be sure, today a building here or there, a cemetery, a synagogue, remnants and reminders, might be renovated, and a plaque affixed, become a tourist attraction. But all such restoration and making presentable is, in effect, “museumification”; the life that has become a museum piece. Instead of a living, changing culture we have lifeless museums and exhibits in glass cases with neat labels attached. [Ibid. 209-210]
What a loss our world has sustained! What are we to do; what can we do? Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the last Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, writes the following in Entry 12, “Leaving Your Mark on the World,” in his inspiring book To Heal the Soul.
He who knows his place.
Be creative and contribute to the world, give it the best you have. Make a niche for yourself that will always be felt in the world.
Are not the “places” of our forefathers, the prophets, and other tzaddikim to this day not known in the world? What a void there would be in the world if, for instance, there had been no Baal Shem Tov?
So “he who knows his place”—who leaves a mark in this world with his life—his “place” will forever be known, even beyond his life.²
In 1943, when the Warsaw Ghetto was destroyed, Rabbi Shapira was deported to Treblinka. He died there in November 1943.
What a void there would be in the world if there had been no Polish Jewry, no Remuh, no Rabbi Shapira, no Jakob Leimann. I feel it is an obligation, my solemn duty, to remember their places, to think their thoughts after them, so that they will forever be known, even beyond their lives.
¹Irene Eber, The Choice: Poland 1939-1945 (New York: Schocken Books, 2004), 209.
²Kalonymus Kalman Shapira. Translated and edited by Yehoshua Starrett. To Heal the Soul (Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc.), 31.
Photographs © Beth Ben-Avraham, 2018