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A Spirited Seder in Szczecin

April 12, 2018 3:39 PM

We spent the first days of Passover with the Jews of Szczecin, a Baltic seaport in the northwest corner of Poland. It is a bustling city with approximately 400,000 inhabitants, including some 60 Jews. We quickly discovered that the Jewish community is a very close-knit oneThe Jewish community is a very close-knit one where each member is treasured. Every Shabbat and holiday, they gather at an old apartment that serves as their synagogue, complete with Torah scrolls, Jewish books, and other artifacts from before the war. This apartment served as our headquarters for the duration of our stay.

We landed in Warsaw, where we loaded our rental car with food and other supplies for the Seder before driving six hours to Szczecin. The days preceding the Seder were extremely hectic, compounded by a significant language barrier, but thank G‑d our preparations went smoothly, and we were excited to greet our guests as the sun set on Friday evening and the first Seder night commenced.

The room quickly filled with an eclectic mix of people—children, college students, middle-aged couples, and senior citizens, 30 people with a shared enthusiasm for celebrating their Judaism. Earlier, when we had discussed the Seder with Nikolai, the president of the community, he told us to expect the last person to leave by 10 pm at the latest. In the end, almost everyone lingered past midnight, chatting and enjoying what they called “energia i wibracje,” energy and good vibes.

The highlight of the Seder was the song Ve’hi She'amda:

“And it is this [covenant] that has stood for our forefathers and us. For not just one enemy has stood against us to wipe us out. But in every generation there have been those who have stood against us to wipe us out, and the Holy One, Blessed Be He, saves us from their hands.”

Szczecin was once home to 30,000 Jews and dozens of beautiful synagogues and other institutions. Kristallnacht, deportations to Auschwitz, Polish pogroms after the Holocaust, and years of CommunistHe told us to expect the last person to leave by 10pm oppression took a tremendous toll on this community, and some may debate the possibility of Jewish survival in such an environment. As our guests raised their glasses together, joy evident on their faces, it was living proof that the Jews of Szczecin will continue to endure. We took a brief detour from the Haggadah and launched into a spirited rendition of “Am Yisroel Chai,” and the excitement in the room was palpable.

As we cleaned up in the early hours of morning, we reflected on the difference between events in places like the United States, where religious freedom is taken for granted, versus our Seder, held in the shadows of Szczecin’s tragic history and current winds of anti-Semitism. We felt that every mitzvah done here was an act of courage and defiance, and we felt privileged to help facilitate that.

Jewish Life in Poland

April 21, 2015 1:07 PM

My phone buzzed. I quickly scanned the email. “You have been selected to be a part of the Rabbinical Student Visitation Program. Assignment: Poland.”

Poland. Its recent memories make us shiver, but we are determined to help the Jews who still live there. We would be spending Passover in Szczecin, which is up north, close to the border with Germany.

We left on March 31, which coincided with the 113th birthday of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, who founded this program 72 years ago.

After several delays, many hours and a couple of misunderstandings, we settled into our motel.

We contacted Mikolai, the community head, to make the arrangements for the Seder. In broken English he told us that he would meet us at our motel at ten o’clock the next morning and take us to the synagogue.

The synagogue turned out to be a second-floor, two-room apartment with a tiny kitchen. One room was used as the synagogue; the other was designated as the social hall. Unfortunately, all four of the synagogue’s old Torah scrolls could no longer be used.

It was time to breathe some life into the place and set up for the Seder. Just in time, our shipment of food and supplies arrived from Warsaw, and we brought the boxes upstairs. Between cooking and shopping, all in a foreign city, we finished with barely minutes to spare.

Our guests started arriving at 6:30 pm. We welcomed them warmly, trying to figure out who could be our translator. Rosa, an older woman, seemed to fit the bill. Yiddish was her childhood language, and she was thrilled to be able to help out. She had been yearning to converse in Yiddish for quite a few years, and here was a great opportunity!

Before the Seder, the women lit candles. As we progressed through the Seder, everyone took turns reading parts out loud in Polish. We could tell from their expressions that they really identified with the story—most of them had been oppressed during their lifetime, and they understood the meaning of slavery and freedom. Rosa translated for us with much animation and emotion, and that contributed a lot. We made sure to include lots of stories and songs, too.

The next afternoon, Rosa stopped by the synagogue and asked if we would like to join her for a walk around the city. While showing us the sights of Szczecin, she shared its tragic history.

Szczecin was the first Polish city invaded by the Nazis. After the War, when the surviving Jews returned to rebuild their lives, the Poles attached and killed many of them in a deadly pogrom. Over the years, some Jews trickled back in, mainly from Russia, but the vast majority had moved to greener pastures, including Israel. Less than 30 Jewish people now live in this city which was once home to 400,000.

We returned to the synagogue, determined to utilize our remaining time in Szczecin to rejuvenate our fellow Jews, beginning with the second Seder. Seven people attended, and it was an inspiring and intimate evening. Like any family gathering, everyone stayed to chat long after the conclusion of the Seder.

The next day we spent time conversing with Mikolai. He told us that he had been raised in a staunchly Communist home. His mother, who was from an Orthodox family, fell ill at a young age, and called Mikolai to her deathbed. She said she deeply regretted forsaking her roots, and urged Mikolai to learn about his heritage.

That was a turning point in Mikolai's life, and he began his Jewish journey, ultimately becoming head of the community. Though his knowledge was limited, he felt passionate about keeping the Jewish faith alive for the few Jews left in Szczecin. When night fell, marking the end of the holiday, we printed out a picture of the Rebbe for Mikolai. He was clearly moved. “I already feel the Rebbe’s blessings," he told us. We said a heartfelt goodbye, and began to prepare for the long trip home.

As we traveled, we had plenty of time to reflect on our experiences. We were proud to be able to walk on the streets of Poland, proclaiming our Jewish identity in a city where so many Jews were killed simply for being Jewish. We were honored to be able to make a Seder for people who had risked so much to practice their Judaism. And we felt privileged to be the Rebbe’s emissaries to bring the light of Torah and mitzvahs to this dark corner of the world.