Re­vers­ing a Pol­ish shul’s des­e­cra­tion

Lo­cal high school­ers to re­store To­rah to syn­a­gogue burned by the Nazis.

The Canadian Jewish News (Montreal) - - Front Page - JAN­ICE ARNOLD jarnold@thecjn.ca

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.

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