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Buried echoes of the past

What an absolutely haunting image.

Hundreds of sliver pieces,of Judaica, sprawled on a table. Shabbat candle sticks. Chanukah menorahs.

Part of the trove of Judaica unearthed in Lodz, Poland this month. (Twitter via Adam Pustelnik)

Silverware. Bechers (kiddush goblets), including petite ones for children to sip. Also, a filigreed crest of six individual flowers shaped into a classic semi-circle arc of a napkin holder. And endless more items.

Candlesticks are a weekly vision for us, as we ignite Shabbat candles. At Havdalah, we hold a decorative spice-filled object. Our familiar ceremonial objects that lace our Jewish lives. Silverware? We eat with it three times a day.

What is so special about such a collection?

It’s special, it’s haunting, because it is the contents of a hidden hoard that was accidentally discovered at 23 Polnocna Street in Lodz.

To see the inanimate objects that outlived their owners — indeed, it’s haunting.

It provokes the emotions and the imagination.

For after all, before WW II, Lodz Poland, was a center of rich, thriving Jewish life. It was a city where around a quarter of a million Jews lived. After the war, only a few thousand survived.

I wonder, who were those children who sipped their kiddush grape juice or wine from those tiny petite bechers? Were they as excited for that sip as I was when I was little, and still to this day, witness the unbridled delight of innocent little children at the Shabbat table, bursting with excitement for their little Friday night sweet sip of kiddush?

The tall Shabbat candlesticks — who were the women who lit them? Were they lit by an elderly grandmother, surrounded by her children and many grandchildren who lived nearby — is that perhaps why the collection is so large? If so, did she, like my own grandmother, weep with tears glistening down her cheeks, as she whispered lengthy heartfelt prayers by the glow of the amber dancing flames, as her head was wrapped in her pristine white “lichtbenching” scarf and apron, gracefully encircling the candles with her hands as she welcomed the Sabbath Queen before cupping her hands over her closed eyes?

Or, perhaps, was one of the candlesticks that were ignited at twilight, just as the streaky golden sun was setting into that of Friday night’s sacred Shabbat, by a newlywed?

Who were the ones cupping the kiddush cup and inaugurating the Shabbat meal? Who were these fathers, grandfathers and sons?

While it is a haunting question mark, a secret enigma we will never know the exact intimate stories of, or fate of the lives and tragic ending of the people who never returned to claim their silver Judaica ceremonial pieces, of course generally speaking, we know their ultimate fate of death, of murder by gassing in concentration camps.

We know. But they didn’t know. How painful to see this treasure trove of silver Judaica that must have been wrapped and hidden with so much hope. They thought they were going to return. That is what seeing these carefully newspaper wrapped items says.

And those vintage newspapers! I wonder what is printed on them, what they reported? I wonder, as tensions were mounting and emotions becoming more fearful and fraught, how was the political climate conveyed? What were these people packing their treasures away thinking? How were they informed? What narrative wrapped their precious pieces of their Jewish lives?

What were the thoughts running through the minds of the owners, their anxious terrified beating hearts, as their hands wrapped these pieces of their lives and stuffed them into the box, laboring to bury them deep, deep in the ground below their homes, just as they were about to be ripped from their own lives, ripped from the only homes they had known?

Construction workers involved in a building remodeling project in central Lodz happened upon this huge collection as they were digging deep underground.

It’s been at least 80 years. Poland was invaded in 1939, so when did this family — or was it perhaps a group effort of an entire building’s worth of families? When exactly was this hidden?

All the secrets and mysteries are shrouded in the haunting Holocaust silence generations since have learned to live with, powerfully and poignantly, faithfully still striking a match to kindle Shabbat and Chanukah candles.

Sometimes, when a discovery of objects from the past is made, be it an archaeological dig or otherwise, the items found and seen through the current lens of modernity might seem interesting, but archaic.

Irrelevant. Or, out of sync, out of place.

Seeing these ceremonial Judaica pieces, while we shall never know the story of the families from that particular building on Polnocna Street, nonetheless the items do tell a tale of the survival of Judaism even after the Holocaust.

While suffering such staggering pain, tragically but understandably, many after the war abandoned ritual Judaism. Back then after absorbing the trauma of the war, it was not a foregone conclusion that ritual Jewish items would be in use today. Unearthing them now — 80 years later — could very well have become like unearthing an irrelevant vestige from the past.

Yet. Shabbat candles are burning bright. Chanukah candles glow by the windows. Havdalah is recited weekly.

In an effort to cut them and their Jewishness from the world, the people from Polnocna Street were murdered. Their catastrophic wanton murders today known as the genocide that is the Holocaust.

Meanwhile, here were people, with hope in their heart, unaware how monstrously depraved and low humanity was about to sink.

They were obviously scared, yet were picturing coming home.

A future life. Making kiddush on Polnocna Street again. Celebrating Chanukah again. Havdalah.

They clearly had no idea.

Their probably hard-earned and carefully chosen Judaica still mattered to them. Mentally, they were still living in the dimension of normality, investing energy in preserving material items. Little did they know the imminent drastic change of dimensions they would soon be enduring, their considerations becoming about life and death. The stark and painful contrast of it all is wrapped up within this collection too.

Finding these items tells a story, of the assumptions of temporary displacement-as searing as that may be, these families harbored.

How innocently far they were from ever imagining the unimaginable.

It is the incalculable loss of human lives that is history’s unforgivable plight in the saga of the Holocaust.

The inanimate objects are not the story.

And yet.

The material ceremonial Judaica that was stolen, lost, hidden or found. They tell a story, too.

For the Jewish life these inanimate objects animated — this has survived.

While it’s heartrending that the owners of this silver collection didn’t survive or make it back to retrieve their carefully wrapped Shabbat candlesticks, the customs and rituals that those families at Polnocna Street in Lodz lived by and loved, their Judaism — this, lives on.

It’s these buried echoes from the past that, even after 80 years, still surprise us, still return to us as reminders and persist through time.

Copyright © 2023 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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