Brad Hirschfield, an Orthodox rabbi, couldn’t make himself recite Mincha, the afternoon prayer service, one afternoon last week.
He had just left Auschwitz.
Rabbi Hirschfield, director of educational programs at CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, was part of a 50-member American delegation that visited Poland for the dedication of a renovated synagogue in Oswiecim, the town where the death camp was located.
The day before the dedication, the group had a guided tour of Birkenau, the Auschwitz satellite where the killings took place. It was the rabbi’s second time there; his first was two years ago, with a delegation that went for the synagogue’s groundbreaking. “I expected returning to the camp to be easier than the first time,” he said. It wasn’t.
The first time, he thought about the Holocaust in personal terms — a friend who had survived Auschwitz; the stack of shoes taken from children who were killed there. “I have two little girls.”
This time, he said, “I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the suffering … for the Jewish people.”
So when the group went to the synagogue afterwards, for a pre-dedication look at the building, he didn’t take part in Mincha. The words of praise rang hollow in his mouth. “I couldn’t daven then.”
The next day was the dedication of the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue, a small Bobover prayer hall before World War II that was used as a carpet warehouse after 1945, was surreptitiously discovered by a Jewish scholar from London eight years ago, and was restored by the New York-based Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation. Businessman-philanthropist Fred Schwartz heads the foundation.
The one-story stucco-stone building with high-arched windows, across a square from a large church, with no external markings identifying it as a Jewish site, was renovated along with an adjacent once-Jewish house. In the synagogue, the only remaining one of a dozen in the town before the war, are a prayer space, exhibition hall and meeting room that will be available for Jews who visit Auschwitz; the last Jew of Osweicim died this summer.
Members of the Polish Jewish community, government officials, Catholic priests, Israeli representatives and Prince Hassan of Jordan attended the synagogue’s dedication.
“The fact it stands there as a Jewish presence is very important for the residents of the area,” said Rabbi Hirschfield, who was invited to join the delegation to add a “spiritual dimension” in Poland and the previous Shabbat in Berlin.
Until last week, people who visited Auschwitz would get right back on their buses. Now, said the rabbi, “there is a Jewish space to go to after you leave the barbed wire.”
The dedication included speeches, the Shechecheyanu, led by Rabbi Hirschfield, a mezuzah installed by Schwartz, a kosher meal prepared by a kosher restaurant in Teaneck, N.J., and Mincha.
The rabbi said the first few words of the service, Ashrei yosheiv beitecha — “happy are those who live in your house.” And he kept saying them. “I must have said the words 500 times to myself.” Jews, he thought to himself, were again praying in a house of worship that survived Nazism and Communism.
Rabbi Hirschfield finished Mincha at his own pace. Near the end he concentrated on another phrase, shalom rav… – “establish abundant peace on Your people Israel.”
The root of shalom is shalem, wholeness.
The synagogue’s dedication, he said, restored that feeling, which he had not experienced the previous day. “Because when you feel broken, what you need is to feel whole again.”