Reconnecting Ties

Rabbi Wayne Franklin’s Reflections on Experiences in Poland

September 2016

We were the first people to observe Shabbat in Rabka-Zdroj since the 1940s. Many of Rabka’s Jews were shipped to nearby death camps, while others were murdered at the SS school for slaughter, which had been established in their town.  A group of us from Temple Emanu-El in Providence, Rhode Island, along with friends from New York and Massachusetts, came to spend Shabbat in this picturesque spa town, not knowing its gruesome history. We welcomed Shabbat with participants in the Forum’s Leaders of Dialogue program and their families, along with members of the Forum’s staff. Our Shabbat in Rabka became an unforgettable day of worship and learning, eating and walking, and especially creating new friendships.

Two members of our group were rabbis, who led the chanting of the Friday evening service, and explained the meaning and background of the prayers and the dinner rituals.  We lit Shabbat candles, chanted Kiddush over the wine, and gave thanks for the food with the blessing over the challahs. When our children are with us, we bless them at the Shabbat table with the priestly benediction from the Book of Numbers, invoking prayers for God’s protection, favor and peace. We explained this custom to our new friends, Karolina, Narciz and Michal. Karolina and her husband, and Narciz and his wife lovingly blessed their children as we experienced the beauty of this spiritual moment together.  We felt a common bond, despite our different religious traditions, languages and backgrounds. The warmth and peacefulness of Shabbat was enriched with an abundance of delicious food. Our friends shared stories they had gathered through their research, which has propelled them to courageously expose the truth about the tragic end of the Jewish community in Rabka. It was a moving evening for all of us.

Shabbat is supposed to be an uplifting time, a time of relaxation, a time to reflect and share good company. It’s a time to be at peace.

On Shabbat morning, Narciz and Michal guided us through town, pointing out locations where Jewish businesses once operated, while bringing to life the powerful stories of what happened to the former owners of the places and their families. They led us into the neighborhood where many of the town’s Jews had lived, and showed us the stairway leading to the site where the synagogue had stood. The stairway had been overgrown and buried for years, but after Narciz and Michal examined old photos of the area, they determined where the stairway must have been. After successful probings, they painstakingly worked for months to uncover the stairway. We were able to ascend the stairs to the empty spot where Rabka’s synagogue once crowned the neighborhood.  Narciz then invited us to relax in the garden of his family’s home nearby, which had been the home of the last rabbi in Rabka. We enjoyed homemade plumcake prepared by his wife, along with refreshing drinks, and grapes grown on the vines, which surrounded the garden where we sat. Narciz spoke with tearful emotion, saying how privileged he felt to welcome the children of Abraham to his home. We, his guests, we deeply moved by his words of love and friendship.

After lunch, Michal told us how a local school had been transformed by the SS into an academy for efficient murder, making what some Jews had thought might be a place to evade capture by the Nazis, into a prime location for their target practice.  Rabka’s beauty and serenity had been twisted by the invaders.  But we felt a sense of comfort and peace with our new friends, and with other residents of Rabka who joined us for our final Shabbat meal and for the Havdalah ceremony, which ended our unforgettable day of hopefulness and peace.  The camaraderie and kindness we experienced all through Shabbat made us wonder how different things might have been. We are confident that the future will be brighter, with the Forum’s Leaders of Dialogue helping to show the way forward.