By Larry Gordon
Return to Poland? Are you kidding? Me? Us? But as of now, believe it or not, that’s the plan. While our roots are at Sinai and our hearts forever drawn east to EretzYisrael, there was an impossible-to-ignore detour or a circuitous sidestep that somehow led our families to Poland where they may have lived for several generations and–who knows–maybe even longer than that.
Courtesy of Ari Scharf at Project Mesorah, accompanied by the vast expertise of Rabbi Paysach Krohn, this July we are planning to walk in our father’s footsteps in a land that is drenched with Jewish blood but is also a locale on the globe once referred to as the Jerusalem of Eastern Europe.
My father grew up in a Polish shtetl that eventually ended up in Belarus. When we decided to go to Poland, I searched a map online to see where my father’s hometown was and what it would take to make a side visit to walk those streets he talked about so often when we were children. By the way, my Mom was born in the Bronx, which for the purposes of this piece is a little less intriguing.
As it turns out, while my father’s shtetl was once in Poland for a short time, after one war or another today it is in Belarus, about an eight-hour drive from the Polish capital city of Warsaw. I looked up travel routes by car, plane, and train and discovered it can take anywhere from 7 to 12 hours to make that trip. But then I spoke to an expert on European Jewry and an individual who has spent long stretches in Eastern European cities only to learn that crossing the border from Poland into Belarus can in and of itself be a full-day endeavor.
So why go to Poland? I think it’s important to stand on the hallowed grounds of Auschwitz, which will always be the symbol of fear and doom for Jews everywhere. Even as I write the word Auschwitz, I am filled with an air of shock and disbelief. I’ve read about it, seen films, and have spoken to people who were imprisoned, tortured, and lost family there.
Auschwitz is a place, a concept, and an idea that causes trepidation and fear all these decades later. To stand there with others who share similar backgrounds seems mightily important especially as the distance grows and the years fade.
But Paysach Krohn, who will be leading the Project Mesorah tour of Poland, says that while there is a great deal to mourn and to feel sorrowful over, there is also much more to be experienced and accomplished on a trip like this. “Rav Schach is known to have commented that if we are not connected to our past, there is then no hope for the future,” Rabbi Krohn said in a phone conversation earlier this week.
“It is vitally important to visit and stand in Auschwitz and Majdenek but there is also the davening in Lizhensk and the study of Torah in Lublin, and much more,” the rabbi said.
Political consultant Ezra Friedlander is also going to Poland on the Mesorah trip because he says he too feels strongly about being there. “Participating in the 70th anniversary of the liberation trip is how we respect both the plea of Holocaust victims never to forget them and to honor Holocaust survivors by attempting to grasp the horrors that they endured. That is why I feel I have to travel to Poland–so that I can internalize the strength and determination it took for the survivors to overcome this tragedy. Participating in this trip will give me the opportunity to pay tribute to survivors that I know personally,” Friedlander said.
That’s an interesting and astute observation by Mr. Friedlander. Many of us still know people who are survivors; some might be members of our own families. But how do you relate to and internalize the experience? How do you make it part of who you are unless you are able to stand where they stood and breathe in the air that they breathed?
Until you can do that, then somehow I suspect that the experience–though it may have impacted on you personally in some fashion–is still out there somewhere while you are safe in here. I will have a heightened awareness on the subject when I return, and I look forward to sharing that experience with the readers at that time.
In perusing the itinerary, I see that Shabbos will be spent in Krakow. This is Poland’s second-largest city where Jewish life–and a Torah way of life–flourished for over 500 years. As a kid in Brooklyn, I happened to grow up next door to a man who was known as the Krakover Rov, Rabbi Menashe Levertov. He was a descendant of a rabbinical family that lived in and around Krakow for generations. Until I recounted this story for Rabbi Krohn when we spoke this week, I had not thought about Rabbi Levertov for a long time, perhaps decades.
I just knew a few things about him. He was an elegant man with perhaps the neatest and most perfect beard I have ever seen on a man without it being constantly trimmed. I recall seeing him walking home from shul from Brooklyn Avenue just past our home on the way to his home on Montgomery Street (where my Mom, may she live and be well, has lived for the last 61 years).
I looked online for a picture of Rabbi Levertov this week and there he was–good-looking, stately, and graceful. When he would see me playing ball on our porch with my younger brother, he always raised his eyebrows and smiled as if to recognize and greet us.
Rabbi Levertov would eventually become known as a confidant and good friend of Oskar Schindler of Schindler’s List fame. He was known–in the movie version of the story as well–as Schindler’s rabbi. No, Schindler was not a Jew. He was German, but shielded hundreds of Jews by communicating to the Nazi authorities that his workers were essential to the war effort. Though Levertov was a rabbi, Schindler had him classified as an expert craftsman and metal-maker.
Rabbi Levertov and his wife had two sons, according to what I recently read about his history. When they lived next door to us in Crown Heights, they had two daughters. I can only imagine the events that transpired. Rabbi Levertov was taken out of the Schindler factory by the local commandant, Anton Goeth, three times to be shot. There was no reason why–just that Goeth made it a habit of shooting and killing several Jews almost every day. All three times, Goeth’s handguns jammed and Rabbi Levertov was allowed to return to the factory.
He was a brave and pious man. This is the part of the story I had to come to grips with yet again this week and I have not made any progress in trying to understand it. After his experience in Krakow, the loss of family members, he managed to make his way to New York and start a new life. In 1966, at the age of 60, Rabbi Levertov was walking home from shul on a rainy Friday night. He was crossing Brooklyn Avenue, which features a steep hill that cars still have a habit of speeding down. He was hit by a car racing on that downward street. He died right then and there.
It’s his Krakow in which we hope to spend Shabbos this coming July. According to what I’ve heard and read, Krakow has had a revitalization of its Jewish Quarter and it is one of the must-see stops in Eastern Europe, filled with shuls and kosher restaurants.
Though it is a short five-day visit, I’m still trying to figure out a way to visit the town where my in-laws were born–Tishivitz. It doesn’t look that far from Krakow on the map and I hope to get there. Both my in-laws’ families were completely annihilated. Both are sole survivors of large families. Last year in Florida, I met a man who is an old friend of my in-laws from that same town. Today he is about 90 years of age, perhaps a little older. His entire family was also wiped out. He told us that he had taken an interest in seeing to it that the Jewish cemetery was protected and preserved so he bought the property and now owns the cemetery in Tishivitz.
On the subject of cemeteries, we will be visiting many gravesites of more than a few great sages from generations ago. These include the kever of R’ Chaim Brisker, the Netziv, and the Chemdas Shlomo. We will also travel to Ger and see the ohel of the Sfas Emes and the Chidushei HaRim. We will also daven at the kever of the Noam Elimelech in Lizhensk before settling in for Shabbos in Krakow.
So we are going not just to be there, but to declare a victory of sorts. We will G-d willing be there to declare exactly the opposite of what those brutal, sadistic enemies hoped to achieve–that is, the end of Jews and Jewish life in Poland. But no, mir zenin du–we are here–we will be there, all of us together. v
Finally, Frum Cops
He is best known as the rav of Talmon in Israel, the settlement community where Gilad Sha’ar and his family resided. Gilad was one of the three boys kidnapped and murdered when hitchhiking just a year ago outside of Jerusalem. The boys were doing what many do as a way of getting around the country. It was accepted and nothing unusual. But then the evil forces of terror struck.
The events catapulted the families–the Frenkels, Yifrachs, and Sha’ars–into the limelight. It was the last thing they ever wanted. These events also shone a light on the important work of Rabbi Rami Brachyahu, the rav of Talmon.
Rav Brachyahu has worked these last few years–before Talmon, a community of 300 families found itself in the news–building a program to revolutionize and change the moral fiber and character from within of the Israel police.
His program–Ma’aminim B’MishÂtarah–Âis akin to a Hesder-type program, except that this one is attached to the police force and not to the military. Israel’s police do not have the best reputation. They do an outstanding job of administering law and order but have demonstrated on occasion a level of insensitivity when dealing with the chareidi or ultra-Orthodox community in Israel.
Rabbi Brachyahu’s program, which was introduced in 2010, is already impacting in a positive way on the Israel police force. His objective is to bring an aspect of Torah scholarship into an otherwise mostly secular force by incorporating, where possible, aspects of Torah and halachah into the daily operations.
Some of the programs already instituted include: Establishing a system of halachic support, including writing unique halachot for every police unit, opening a hotline for halachic issues and any problems which may arise, establishing a special support system for ultra-Orthodox police officers who handle the ultra-Orthodox community, and advancing a special system for shalombayit and education among the police officers.
The idea here is to build a level of trust between the community and the police. It’s an innovative and long-overdue idea that is finally being implemented. The project needs input and resources from interested parties around the world. For more information, write to Rav Rami at email@example.com or visit www.maaminim.org.il/english/files/mishtara_TJH2014.pdf.Â v
Michael Scotto Seeks County DA Office
He’s a career prosecutor in the Manhattan office of the District Attorney. Michael Scotto understands law enforcement and he wants to bring it home to where he lives in Nassau County. With the ascension of former DA Kathleen Rice to serve in Congress, Ms. Rice’s assistant, Madeline Singas was appointed to complete her current term.
The Democratic candidate is expected to face off in November against Town of Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray. But before we get to that, there will be a Democratic primary on September 10 between Mr. Scotto and Ms. Singas.
Michael Scotto says that as DA he plans to crack down on more than seatbelt violations and texting while driving–which seems to have been the centerpiece of the Nassau County DA’s office for a while. Perhaps it is just that it is these kinds of violations, dangerous unto themselves, that people seem more able to relate to.
But Michael Scotto says as DA his plan is to focus first and foremost on murder. He explains that here in the center of Nassau County in Hempstead, Long Island, the murder rate is the sixth highest in the nation. He says that currently not enough of those who commit violent crimes are being sentenced to adequate prison sentences. “Violent criminals do not belong on our streets.” He explains that more than 40% of those arrested today for felony offenses are given the opportunity to plea down the charges, often avoiding jail time.
“I’m a prosecutor,” says Mr. Scotto, “Not a politician.” And if he is victorious in September and then again in November, Michael Scotto plans to get down to the business of keeping Nassau County safe right away. And he cites many statistics that he feels are indicative of a lax implementation of the law currently in the county. He says that we need to crack down on the drug trade and that there is a heroin epidemic in the area that has resulted in over 100 drug-overdose fatalities during the last year. “That’s way too much and intolerable,” Mr. Scotto says.
While he might be the underdog at this point in a race that is just beginning to take place, Michael Scotto is running hard with a great deal of energy and a vision to keep Nassau safe on a multiplicity of levels. Watch these pages over the next few weeks as the campaign takes shape going forward. Scotto is a no-nonsense, no-politics-as-usual candidate who takes the uncompromising implementation of the law very seriously.
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.