Reversing a Polish shul’s desecration
Local high schoolers to restore Torah to synagogue burned by the Nazis.
Montreal high school students participating in the March of the Living this spring will symbolically reverse a historic desecration.
During their week in Poland in April, they will leave the thousands of other Jewish teens on this annual educational trip of remembrance for a day to visit Szczebrzeszyn in the southeast of the country, near Lublin, for a poignant commemoration.
The Nazis burned hundreds of Torah scrolls in the main synagogue in that town days after they invaded Poland.
On April 25, the approximately 225 Grade 11 students, along with the chaperones and Holocaust survivors accompanying them, will take part in the completion of a new sefer Torah, commissioned by the family of the late Mike Dym, who was born in Szczebrzeszyn and was among the few survivors.
Jews had lived in that small, but vibrant, community since the 16th century. On Sept. 13, 1939, the Germans broke into the historic synagogue and forced worshippers to take the scrolls out to the street, where they were set ablaze.
According to 2017 March co-chairs Lawrence Witt and Amy Brownstein’s information, the synagogue housed 310 scrolls. The synagogue was destroyed a couple of months later.
The majority of the 3,200 Jews there did not survive the Holocaust. Many were murdered at the Belzec camp. Several hundred did escape into the surrounding forests where they organized partisan units, but not many lived to see liberation.
One of them was Dym, who fought in the underground and immigrated to Montreal after the war. Here Dym, who died in 1995, founded a successful steel pipe and piling business and became a leading member of Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation. The business is headed today by his son Jack, who sponsored the Torah.
This portable scroll, 14 inches in length, will be dedicated to the 41 Montreal survivors who have accompanied March of the Living delegations since 1990, some repeatedly. Montreal has been participating in the March, a two-week journey that concludes with a week of celebration in Israel, since the international program was launched in 1988.
Witt and Brownstein say that the close to 270 participants in 2017 will be the largest number in more than a decade, and Montreal has had one of the strongest participation rates throughout the March’s history.
Each participant, including the 10 survivors, will write one letter in the scroll. The delegation will then process it to the synagogue site. Although there are no Jews in Szczebrzeszyn today, the synagogue was rebuilt as a museum, Witt said.
The students are learning about some of the now-deceased survivors, who had an especially close rapport with the kids, such as Ann Kazimirski, Peter Kleinmann and Mayer Shondorf, said Witt.
The presence of these eyewitnesses is considered a precious element of the program, which seeks to instil in Jewish youth a sense of connection with the catastrophe that befell European Jewry and an appreciation of the State of Israel as the guarantor of the Jewish future.
A highlight of every March is the thousands of teens from around the world – last year there were 15,000 – walking the three kilometres from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Yom Hashoah in an affirmation of Jewish continuity.
The names of the 41 will be embroidered on the velvet cover of the scroll, which will be brought back to Montreal and be taken on March of the Living each year thereafter. The Torah is always read on Shabbat as well as Mondays and Thursdays during the March.
Between Marches, the scroll will be made available for other community uses to be determined.
While the Dym family is covering the cost of the scroll, the March’s Torah Project includes a parallel $500,000 fundraising campaign to create an endowment to subsidize the cost of the trip overall, directly assist students who otherwise could not afford it, and provide extra services needed by the elderly survivors, such as adapted transportation and day hotels, said Brownstein, who serves as March of the Living’s survivor liaison.
With rising costs and the falling Canadian dollar, March of the Living, which is run under the auspices of Federation CJA, has become expensive for many. The price this year is $5,875 (US).
This year’s spike in participation, up from an average of 150 in recent years, is partly due to grants totalling almost $300,000, Witt said.
He thinks it also has to do, ironically, with fewer kids being enrolled in the Jewish high schools. Parents of students in other schools may feel the March is a means of bolstering their Jewish experience, he said.
Brownstein added: “At Bialik and Herzliah, school virtually shut down for two weeks, but at non-jewish schools, students were not supported in going, and were told they would have to make up for the time lost.”
With their greater concentration today in certain private and public schools, Jewish students feel less isolated in choosing to take part in March of the Living, she believes. Around 100 of the participants this year are from non-jewish schools, she said, including about 20 each from Royal West Academy and Lower Canada College.
Witt, a lawyer, said his participation in March of the Living in 1992 was “a profound experience that changed my life,” but would not have been possible if he had not benefited from a subsidy. He was attending Lindsay Place High School, a public school in Pointe Claire.
“I wasn’t that connected to the Jewish community or Israel. I’m a third-generation Canadian. My grandfather fought with the Canadian army in World War II, but I had never met a survivor,” he said.
“Peter Kleinmann, a survivor of Flossenburg, who was on that trip had a big impact on me. We formed a relationship. I later spent a year in Israel and volunteered with the IDF.”
He is the first march alumnus to chair a Montreal trip. Brownstein’s two daughters are alumni, and this will be her fifth MOL since serving as a chaperone in 2012.
For more information, visit www.moltorahproject.com.
The Montreal contingent of the 2016 March of the Living gather at the Auschwitz death camp.