In Poland’s ghost towns, something from nothing

A sheynm dank in pupik! This Yiddish expression says it all: “Many thanks in the navel!” Or, more colloquially: “Thanks for nothing!”

The phrase is usually used sarcastically, to mean quite the opposite of “thanks,” but taken literally it expresses what I felt on my first visit to Eastern Europe last November as a participant on the Northern California Board of Rabbis’ mission to Poland and Germany.

When I returned to the Bay Area, congregants at my synagogue who survived the Nazi slaughter in Poland challenged me to think about what exactly was being renewed within those veritable ghost towns now devoid of Jewish populations. These Jewish survivors expressed in no uncertain terms to me that they had no interest in ever returning to Poland. Could the rabbinic mission I was on change the way I, or they, viewed that country?

What struck me in Poland, as we visited killing field after killing field, was that at every mass grave our group stood before, I encountered a nothingness like nowhere else. Whereas the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau has had some of its infrastructure preserved for the sake of teaching the next generations, the killing fields are in rural areas, mostly hidden away in overgrown forests, or tucked away behind city centers, not directly visible from the streets where people walk. And yet in almost every one of these towns there is a restored synagogue that serves as a museum to teach the next generation of Polish Gentiles about this horrifying history.

Those who served as our knowledgeable and insightful guides evinced a genuine interest in the Judaism effaced in their midst, a kind of gratitude for the responsibility and possibility of carrying forward this legacy. It really hit home during the vibrant Shabbat meals we enjoyed at the JCC in Krakow, where all the volunteers serving and cleaning up were young Polish Gentiles who wanted to give back in some way to Jewish life in the city.

When you visit so many killing fields, and stand before so many mass graves, a certain numbness begins to set in, even while reciting memorial prayers like the Kaddish and the El Malei Raḥamim. At some point, I found myself grasping at straws — how could I continue to pray in the face of such horror? It was at that moment of “bottoming out” that I recalled poignant words spoken in the 1800s in the small Polish town of Kotzk. The teaching is from the Kotzker rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, who said, as recorded in Emet Ve’emunah, “[upon reciting the Modeh Ani/ Grateful Am I/Before You…], ‘Who is the ‘I’? And who is ‘Before You’? So [at that very moment] he stopped and spoke no more.”

The clarity of the Kotzker rebbe’s words stung as I tried to process my pilgrimage. The more I found myself returning to the refuge of silence, the more I was able to process the overwhelming sense of nothingness I was confronting at these killing fields. This in turn challenged me to turn inward, back to my inner self, allowing my own needs, my own concerns, my own agenda to be effaced. When that purging begins, there is an opening that follows. To have the courage to be open before the ultimate No-Thingness by asking:  “Who is the ‘I’? And who is ‘Before You’?” is what allowed me to make it through the devastation I was witnessing and to understand how much there was to be grateful for. Gratitude for serving a vibrant traditional-egalitarian Jewish community in San Francisco; gratitude that my maternal grandparents, Leo and Lily Matlow, of blessed memory, were able to escape from the Lodz Ghetto in Poland to Eretz Yisrael, while the rest of their family members perished; gratitude for my wife, Elyssa, and daughter, Talya, who were out of harm’s way and flourishing back home.

On the other hand, I could also hear these words  written by renowned 20th-century Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz,  who fled Communist Poland and lived in the United States from 1960 until his death: “Some people say we should not trust our eyes/That there is nothing, just a seeming/These are the ones who have no hope/They think that the moment we turn away/The world, behind our backs, ceases to exist/As if snatched up by the hands of thieves.”

What struck me is that, despite witnessing the Nazi devastation of Poland and the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, through his poetry, Milosz continued to remain hopeful. He searched for ways to survive spiritually in an otherwise ruined world. His hope in humanity’s untapped possibility to lead redemptive lives, coupled with his Catholic upbringing, led him to a gritty gratitude, even while confronting the atrocities that fascism and corrupted politics wrought upon his homeland. So from exile, Milosz still found a way back to gratitude by channeling it through his unflinching hope in the human condition.

We need a way to navigate the demands of self to make space for gratitude. Too often we find ourselves overprogrammed and distracted to the point where anything outside of ourselves and our family is simply too much to process, never mind express gratitude for.

So what I’m suggesting is that from the spiritual perspective, “thanks for nothing” points to something beyond sarcasm, even beyond obsession with our own needs. It points, rather, to the place of paradox that emerges when nothingness gives way to gratitude.

My takeaway from what I witnessed in the killing fields in Poland is a little that holds a lot. Whether it is the silence surrounded by nothingness of the Kotzker rebbe, or the  hope in humanity’s untapped possibility envisioned by a poet like Milosz — it all points to a future emerging in Poland. Acknowledging the possibility of any such afterlife from the horrors of the Shoah begins with a sheynm dank in pupik!

The rabbinic mission to Poland and Germany was sponsored by the Foreign Ministry of Germany, the Koret Foundation, the Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland, Sinai Memorial Chapel, the Milton & Sophie Meyer Fund, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and individual donors.