I spent my school year in 2006 visiting mass graves.

Based out of the Chabad center in Warsaw, Poland, my cohort of fellow yeshivah students and I spent the year in what we considered the ashes of the Holocaust. Sure, there were a lot of firsts—the first impromptu bar mitzvah with a Jew from Bialystok, the first kosher Shabbat meal in Wrocław, etc., but mostly our experiences seemed to center around mass graves. In Warsaw, in Majdanek, and wherever we traveled in Poland—the memory of what once was loomed inescapably.

Until I met Jakob.

I first noticed him shortly after I came to Warsaw, and I watched as week after week he came to shul on Shabbat afternoon for the minchah service, sat at the back and prayed silently. His dark eyes, narrowed in concentration, gave him the air of someone far older than his almost thirty years, and with the thin goatee and hat he sported (which fell somewhere between a French beret and a Russian cap), he resembled a beatnik, or perhaps a Soviet Refusenik. When three stars appeared in the night sky—symbolizing the end of Shabbat and the start of a new week—he would listen to Havdalah, take a sip from the cup of wine, and then leave, always with his siddur in hand. Save for a perfunctory nod or shavua tov, we never spoke.

Until one week, as I milled around the sanctuary after the prayers had ended, he approached me, purple siddur clutched to his chest, thumb held between the pages to keep his place. Looking me up and down, as if his eyes were scanning the whole of my character, he opened the siddur and held it in front of me. “Perhaps you could help me . . .”

The other congregants trickled out as we spoke, and soon only the two of us remained.

His name was Jakob Wejnsztein, I discovered, and although he had never left Poland for more than a few weeks at a time, his English was flawless, if heavily accented.

“I don't like the West . . .” he told me, nostrils flaring, eyes narrowed to slits.

“Why not?” I asked. After all, what did Eastern Europe offer to a Jew in search of spiritual growth?

“I don't like it because of how people see me there . . . It's the same reason I don't visit Auschwitz.”

Seeing the look of shock on my face, he sighed.

“I am a living Jew. Not a dead one. To you Americans, we are all dead. You come here to see the destruction of our people. You come to feel sorry for what happened, or even worse, to feel sorry for yourselves. But it doesn't change you. You go home to everything you left and resume life as before.

“You can not understand us. To Western Jews, the only Jew in Poland is a dead Jew.

I, however, am a living Jew. I pray three times a day, I learn Torah—from books and online. I am as alive as every other member of our nation.

“I know what happened 60 years ago; I live with it every day of my life. It surrounds me. Every street cries, blood soaked into its stones. But I didn't die like them. No. I live for them, and they live through me.”

His words poured out thickly, their energy tangible in the still air of the now-empty synagogue. And as I listened, I realized he was right. I, too, had seen him as an anomaly, a strange creature of the past.

The origin of the word Holocaust is the Greek holokausto, “burnt whole,” a sacrifice consumed by fire. Indeed, Polish Jewry had been sacrificed—a thousand years of history uprooted and destroyed, the surviving remnants replanted elsewhere. The Warsaw, Vilna, and Pressburg of the past became the Jerusalem, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and London that we know. Jakob did not fit with that picture. He lived in a land that existed only in my mental image of times long gone. Surely there was no future for a Jew here.

Yet here I was, in a synagogue built over the rubble of the ghetto, praying in the very place where the train tracks to Treblinka had once clattered a death knell, and Jakob—the child of Jews who chose to remain in Poland, who grew up in the shadow of Communism—was here as well. What right did I have to view him as anything other than the spiritual, passionate Jew he clearly was? Not a relic of some forgotten world; a living Jew! In my ignorance, I had unknowingly judged him . . .

We wrapped up the conversation and wished each other shavua tov, but this time it was far from the perfunctory nod of the past.

In my mind, perhaps only one living Jew had entered the shul, but two had most definitely left. Not only had Jakob found a new breath of life in Judaism, but now, thanks to our conversation, so had I.

That lesson still rings true almost 13 years later. Too often, when we speak about the joys of Judaism, we focus on the oy. A history of destruction—Crusades, Inquisitions, Pogroms, Holocausts, and Intifadas loom in our minds. But we must be careful not to let our Judaism die for the past. Our ancestors endured that suffering so that we would be able to live Jewishly, openly and proudly, in ways they couldn’t even imagine. It’s our responsibility to bring that life—the one they so longed for—into fruition. Say Kaddish for the past, but don’t forget to sing the song of the living Jew too.