Rosh Chodesh at Elwood Shule: tale of twin survivors

Shabbos morning began in the usual way. I awoke, enjoying the extra hour afforded by Shabbos and headed quietly downstairs to the kitchen to enjoy a cup of coffee before davening. I usually read/learn a sefer with my coffee, and this Shabbos was no different. My concentration hasn’t been what it should and I can’t claim too much registered, even while I read “דברי הרב’’.

I experience various sources of stress at the minute, and I have come to realise that it’s more difficult to concentrate when one’s mind is somewhat diverted, even subconsciously. Nights can be the worst, as one is unable to consciously control the flight of mind and emotion.

Since my father הכ’’מ passed away, I’ve needed to cope with new and significant contributors to higher stress levels and, although I’ve always seen myself as relatively impervious to the rougher waves that life can dispense, I’m not as water-proof as I had previously imagined in delusion.

Stepping out into the brisk Shabbos morning air, I began the weekly long and lonely walk to Elwood Shule for Shachris. Elwood is but a shard when compared to its former exalted beauty and glory; but Elwood was my father’s Shule. It was our Shule. I am the Chazan on Rosh Hashono and Yom Kippur, and I daven there daily. My parents were married at Elwood. It was Rabbi Chaim Gutnicks ז’ל first wedding at Elwood. I was Bar Mitzvah’d there, as were my sons. It is, therefore, only natural, if not magnetic, that despite the almost empty and ghost-like pervading atmosphere, I continue this heritage; only now I speak to my father on the occassion, and ask why he isn’t walking with me. I don’t merit answers.

It hadn’t been a great week. Two friends recently lost their parents, one to the same dastardly illness as my father. In addition, my workplace is in some turmoil due to an internal managerial episode. I sense my wife and children see my ups and downs, and they are sensible enough to know when to speak and when to stay silent. I thank them for this.

As I approached the gates of the Shule, I recalled that it was the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s זי’ע Yohr Tzeit and no doubt the handful of Chabad Chassidim at Elwood would seek to be called up, as is the custom in Chabad. It was also R’ Zalman Serebryanski’s ז’ל yohr tzeit as well as Rabbi Groner ז’ל: a momentous ensuing week.

Elwood was rather more vacuous than usual. It seems that not too many had decided to come early. There was hardly a person under the age of 50. Where were all the young people? What is happening to our generation? Many attendees are “JFK” style attendees: that is, they arrive Just in time For Kiddush. What would happen if we didn’t have a delicious Kiddush catered by Peter Unger each week?

I’m not a contemplative davener. In fact, I’m now a poor davener. My dialogue with God is quick and lacks a previous more qualitative element. I usually grab a Sefer/Holy book from the Beis Medrash and learn while davening stretches out.

I sit in a barren area. It wasn’t always this way. There is nobody in my row, save a plaque remembering my dear father, and the ten rows behind me are void. I (now) make a point of going around the Shule and shaking each person’s hand. It’s what my father used to do. My father הכ’’מ was a far better person than me, though.

At that time, I noticed that one elderly gentleman, Mr Tuvia Lipson, had not yet arrived. Tuvia attends weekly. Apart from being a holy holocaust survivor, Tuvia enjoyed a stellar history after the war, joining the Israeli army, and rubbing shoulders with Shimon Peres and others. Tuvia remains an active and positive man. Despite losing his wife many years ago, he picked himself up and continued spreading the mantra that is emblazoned weekly in gold on his lapel, “זכור”-Remember.

At one stage of Layning, I noticed Tuvia entered Shule and I approached, wishing him Good Shabbos. Tuvia was shivering and complained that there was a cold breeze running across his back. Asking him to join me in my row, where the heating seemed to be more effective, he readily agreed. So, for the first time, Tuvia and I sat together, he sitting on my father’s seat alongside me. Tuvia whispered that my father used to call him “Pan Parantchik” which means “Mr Captain” in Polish, because Tuvia had apparently been a Captain in the Haganah.

Between Aliyos, Tuvia informed me that he had been in Bendigo for a few days. “Bendigo?”, I asked inquisitively. “Were you looking for gold? It’s cold over there”. Tuvia responded that he had visited the schools in the area and had spoken about his Holocaust memories and thereafter. This was part of his activities in the courage to care campaign. I shook my head in disbelief, after which he pulled out a wad of little notes and handed them to me. Korach suddenly became less significant, and I was mesmerised by the honesty and integrity of the short vignettes the school kids had penned in appreciation.

At that point, I thought to myself, this Shabbos, had already been more significant. It was then that Tuvia proffered another story: one that I had not yet heard.

Tuvia Lipson (centre) with three generations. Picture from jwire

Tuvia had decided one day to attend the “march of the living” with a son (Jack) and grandson (Jason). A former resident of Łódź, Tuvia suddenly informed his sons that they were going to try and see if his orginal family home was still standing. Tuvia had been born in that house, there being no hospital at the time for such events. Knocking on the door, an elderly woman answered and asked how she could help . Tuvia explained in Polish that he was born in that house, in a particular room, and if she would be so kind, he’d appreciate if she had no objection to him showing his son and grandson that particular room in which he was born. Rather surprisingly (based on other stories I had heard, where Polish owners are disquieted by the fact that “jews are returning to take back their houses”) this woman immediately ushered them in and agreed. As they walked towards the room, the woman stopped and said:

“I  know what you have been through and fully understand”

Tuvia was taken aback. How could she know what he had been through. Yes, she had the best intentions, and was willing to let them enter, but she wasn’t Jewish. She hadn’t been persecuted and subject to a policy of mass murder.

Tuvia retorted:

“With the greatest respect, you cannot know what I went through”

Upon returning from the room, they thanked the woman for her positive disposition and were about to leave when she said

“Would you like to have a cup of tea with me, so that I can explain why I do know what you went through?”

Inquisitively, Tuvia et al agreed and sat down to hear her story. She had been a little girl of 7 or 8 during the war, and her parents had concealed a little Jewish girl of the same age, under the floor boards of the house. Each day they would feed the young Jewish girl, and in the evening the little Jewish girl would emerge to wash. One day, after two years of hiding, word got out that the parents were hiding a Jew. That, of course, was a cardinal (sic) sin. Suddenly, out of the blue, there was a firm knock on the door, and two Nazi SS officers ימח שמם וזכרם entered demanding to know where the Jew was hiding. Frozen by fear, the lady’s father denied any knowledge of a Jew in his house. One of the Nazi officers became angry, and gave the father 10 seconds to reveal the location of the hiding little Jewess. During this episode, his own daughter, now the older lady, was hiding behind a wardrobe door and watched in horror at what was transpiring.

Suddenly a shot rang out and her father slumped to the floor—dead. The SS officer then turned to the girl’s mother and demanded

“now you tell me where the Jew is hidden, or I will kill you in the same way”

The lady’s mother also stood firm, and after a few moments another shot rang out, murdering her mother before her very own eyes.

At this point, the little girl ran out from behind the cupboard door and started attacking the two Nazi officers and cursing them for killing her parents. The officers were cruelly and clinically cold and ignored her entreaties and protest, as they walked imperiously towards the front door. Almost predictably, the Chief officer issued the chilling command to his underling:

Shoot the litte girl as well

They left through the front door and the underling trained his gun on the little girl and shot— only at the last-minute aiming his gun upwards to miss the target. The Chief Officer, thinking that she too had been eliminated left together with his underling, “satisfied” with his cruelty beyond human belief and sensibility.

At this point, the woman revealed to Tuvia, that she was the little girl who had experienced this near death experience. When the Nazis left the house, she descended below the floor boards and both she and the little Jewish girl escaped to a non-jewish relative and hid for a further two years until the war was over. At that point, Tuvia was taken aback and fully understood why she had originally stated

“I know how you feel”

Immediately, Tuvia approached Yad Vashem and had the story verified. In fact, the Jewish girl who survived was now living in Haifa and was in yearly personal and close contact with the woman, her saviour. Tuvia organised that a fitting memory  be established for the Polish mother and father, who had been murdered as חסידי אומות העולם—righteous gentiles and who are certainly occupying Gan Eden today.

I sat there both numb and cold. Had I not asked Tuvia to come and sit with me, perhaps I would never have learned this story. The last past of the Parsha failed to register as this story enveloped my psyche.

I don’t have any more to add. I remain in shock and awe. What was designated and planned as a standard walk to Elwood Shule, turned into (yet another) momentous privilege which perhaps served to help me place my own stressors into a more realistic context.

Should Jews make a pilgrimage to Poland?

The march of the living program has brought into focus the practice of visiting Poland for a  commemorative experiential post holocaust event. Several years ago, I presented a research paper in Kraków. My father and his immediate family survived the Holocaust through חסדי השם and his שלוחים Felka (Feliksa nee) Gallach and her father, Jozef Gallach.

The Balbin family of six sat, quite literally, in a box submerged under straw.

at the back of a ramshackle hut, in the rear of a remote farm in Závady, for a period of 2+ years. When they emerged, they had great difficulty standing. For a period of a dangerous six months they “lived” hidden in the corn fields adjoining the hut.

Felka and her father Jozef were inducted at Yad Vashem in 1998 and 1996 respectively, as righteous gentiles—חסידי אומות העולם—together with 6,339 Righteous Poles.

Felka on left, with my father

They assuredly deserved this honour, and I am here today because of their heroic efforts. A young 16-year-old Felka used to emerge in the dead of night, at great risk to herself, throwing potatoes, bread and other food scraps into the hole. Family Gallach never disclosed that they were hiding Jews at the back of their farm. They had a choice. By not supplying food scraps, starvation would have been inevitable.

My father eventually relented, and after a period of over 50 years, he became the first Balbin to personally visit Rawa and thank Felka face to face. Felka was quite ill, and we brought expensive and hard to obtain medicine to aid in her suffering from Parkinsons disease.

The re-union

It didn’t start there. Immediately after the war the family sent and continues to send clothing, money and medicines. We don’t throw out our excesses. Even grandchildren know that “it goes to Poland”. I was most fortunate to be present when my father met the elderly Felka (who has since passed away).

It was a difficult trip for my father; he was most apprehensive. Reluctant to speak Polish and reveal his identity, his demeanour was accurately captured by this photo. With his head down, often pacing, he appeared afraid to peer, explore or relate to the surrounds.

Our next stop was my father’s home town, Rawa. We visited his childhood home. He was transfixed and emotional. Was it something that he should have done? Was it worth me being there with him and experiencing the roller coast of emotions? Was this as much if not more for me than it was for him? Were the wounds worth re-aggravating? This picture reveals some of the emotion etched in his face better than my words.

Our next two stops were confronting and highly offensive. Wanting to visit קבר אבות we proceeded to the בית עולם. I was excited. Even though we are Cohanim and unable to enter a holy cemetery, I so much wanted to “connect” with my namesake, my father’s beloved Zeyda,  R’ Yitzchak Amzel ז’ל. The scene at the cemetery was shocking.

When were the tombstones removed? It was not during the Nazi persecution. It wasn’t even immediately after the war, when the tombstones remained intact. No, it was in the ensuing years, when almost no Jew was to ever visit this town of Rawa. The residents of Rawa clearly decided that a Jewish cemetery was just an opportunity to gather expensive stone and use it for paving and other mundanely servile needs. What type of person could do this? How were they educated? What milk did they drink? It’s hard to fathom. Unlike the Germans who have educated their youth and are intolerant to racism and anti-Semitism, this forsaken piece of earth was overtaken by brazen savagery. Is there another more diplomatic way to describe it?

To add insult to injury, as we walked to our car and passed through a park, three Polish men sitting on a park bench, who would have been some 60 meters away, raised their legs, placing their hands on their genitalia, gesticulating with mannerless intent. We were wearing hats and not Yarmulkas. My father would not allow me to wear my Yarmulka. I had wanted someone to attack my Jewishness so that I could “fight back” in an emancipated manner not available to my forbears. Those males would have been under 10 during the war and yet they not only recognised Jews from the distance, but sought fit to poison the atmosphere with their anti-Semitic display. It’s worth noting that the population of Rawa Mazowiecka was roughly 50% Jewish and there was  harmonious coöperation for many hundreds of years.

With a sour taste in our mouths we left Rawa. On our return to Melbourne, Dad was proud that he had visited Felka, but the extreme negative experiences left him ambivalent at best.

It has been part of my mission to try to reclaim and cordon off the Cemetery. I’ve been working with Australian politicians unsuccessfully, and sadly, Michael Danby MP has been unable to help over many years despite his efforts. I am now working with Rabbi Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi, and others. It’s at a delicate stage.

Several years ago, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner caused a storm when he stated

In a conversation with Ynet, [Rav] Aviner explained: “As is well known, leaving Israel is permitted only for the sake of mitzvah, while visiting the death camps is not defined as a mitzvah by the Halacha. There are important figures and great rabbis who have not visited there.

“Clearly what happened in the Holocaust must be remembered, but this can be done using films, books, the Yad Vashem museum and there are even the testimonies of survivors who are still alive,” he stated.

And what about the emotional experience?

“I once told educators that in any case the impression vanishes after six months, like any other emotional experience with a short shelf life. They smiled and said that it actually fades away after three weeks.”

[Rav] Aviner also said that the trips have not been proven to have an “educational value.” “For some this experience is very difficult and they come back utterly distraught,” he added.

‘Why should Nazi collaborators benefit?’
Another argument against visiting the camps, according to the rabbi, was the fact that the Polish people “collaborated with the Nazis” and were now making a living off of these visits. “I’m not busy holding a grudge against the Poles, but we shouldn’t provide livelihood to people who allowed death camps to be built on their land and who are now making a profit out of it.

“They are not my friends and I don’t want to support them.”

Rabbi Aviner’s view is shared by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, a renowned Talmid Chacham and others.

A few weeks ago, my cousins visited Rawa. Their experience was even worse than ours. When knocking on the door of my father’s home, they politely asked if they could just come inside and take a look for sentimental reasons. They were rebutted with the words:

“No Jew will cross this door again”

Why? What had any Jew done to them? Most were living in houses that were not their own or that they had purchased for peanuts immediately after the war. Was that the answer?

They were also affronted by the graffiti at soccer stadiums. Apparently, the biggest insult to the opposing team is to paint a Magen David, and accuse the other team of being “Jews”. During games, they hatefully spifflicate “Jew, Jew, Jew” at each other. Coincidentally, I had also read that:

It describes a derby match from November 2008 in Krakow between the city’s teams, Cracovia and Wisla, whose rivalry is such that it is described here as a “holy war”.

Some Wisla fans sang an anti-Semitic song about the supposed Jewish origins of their rivals and when a Cracovia player left the pitch, fans shouted: “To the gas chambers.”

When the match ended Wisla players went over to their fans to thank them, some of them making obscene chants about Jews.

Beforehand, some Cracovia fans made monkey noises at Wisla’s Brazilian player, Cleber, when he was sent off.

But this is not the whole picture. Wisla now have two Israeli players in their first team, and one of them, David Biton, is the club’s top scorer this season.

Anti Semitic imagery when Hapoel Tel Aviv played in Poland

Our youngest daughter will be visiting Poland with her Seminary in a few months time.