Szczecin, Poland — The Jewish senior citizens, dressed in casual skirts and suits, began filing into the headquarters of this seaside Jewish community shortly before sunset on the first night of Passover last week.
Walking up a darkened staircase at 2 Niemcewicza St., they took their places at tablecloth-covered tables, in a small room decorated with pictures of prominent prewar Polish rabbis, and began talking among themselves in Polish.
And one of them, Róża Król, wished me a gut yom tov.
Hers was the only voice I heard that night in Yiddish at the seder, which I was leading as a volunteer.
Król (pronounced cruel) is a voice of a disappearing part of postwar Jewish history.
Born in 1944 into a family of Polish Jews who had fled east, to the remote areas of the Soviet Union where endangered Jews found refuge after Hitler’s 1939 invasion divided Poland between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR, she was an infant when her parents returned to Poland after the war ended.
Like thousands of Jews, they settled in Szczecin (known as Stettin when part of Germany), a Baltic seaport in the northwest corner of Poland.
Król never left. As Polish Jewry grows into a still small but growing, and largely independent, Jewish community, led by young members who discovered their “Jewish roots” after Communism fell and proudly assert their Jewish identity, Król represents another, often-overlooked part of the country’s Jewish renaissance — those who never forgot, never hid, always knew their Jewish background. Who helped keep a spark of Yiddishkeit alive in the darkest communist years.
Król is the community’s institutional memory.
Outfitted in a smart black-and-gray skirt suit, she told her story.
In the immediate years after the war, Szczecin was a bustling Jewish city. At least 30,000 Jews came there, looking for relatives who may have survived the Final Solution, thinking of re-establishing their lives. Szcezin became the site of Jewish schools and kosher butchers and other amenities of a Jewish community.
In the early years, the seders drew overflow crowds. Rabbis led the seders. “There were a lot of rabbis,” Król told me. On the High Holy Days, worshippers spilled onto the adjacent staircase.
Król’s parents — her father, a tailor; her mother, a homemaker — spoke Yiddish at home. She attended a Jewish school where the instruction was in Yiddish. Then came anti-Jewish pogroms throughout Poland, and further anti-Semitic persecutions in subsequent decades. The country’s Jews left in droves.
Szczecin’s Jewish population dropped to the thousands, to the hundreds, to its present level estimated at several score.
Król stayed, but stopped going to seder. “I wasn’t interested,” she said.
Then, in the early 1980s, she became president of the city’s Jewish cultural association — a position she still holds — and started going again. “I had a responsibility.”
Each year, Król said, fewer people attend the communal seder; few members of the community feel competent to lead their own at home. Each year, a volunteer from abroad leads the Szczecin seder.
Last week, 33 members of the Szczecin Jewish community came to the seder — most by car, from many kilometers away — I led. They listened respectfully as I conducted essentially a beginner’s seder, explaining the readings and rituals, distributing prizes and awards donated by J. Levine Books & Judaica, and Queens friends Lisa Levy and Michael and Rebecca Wittert.
Król, who says she is not religious, read along.
When she left, she again wished me a gut yom tov. Like other members of the community, she took home some matzah to eat during the holiday.
Why does she come to the seder each year?
“It’s our tradition,” she said.
Next year in Szczecin?
Probably, Król said. “If God allows.”