A Tallis In Biala
August 2, 2006
About 90 kilometers outside of Krakow, Poland lies the city of Bielsko-Biala, where a tiny Jewish community consisting primarily of Holocaust survivors and people who have only recently learned of their Jewish roots are struggling to maintain Jewish life amid a sea of hostility and painful memories.
A few weeks ago, in the offices of the local Jewish community, I met a young man named Jacek, who has devoted the past 12 years of his life to sorting, arranging, and cataloguing the archives and relics that remain of Bielsko-Biala's Jews.
Prior to the Holocaust, the area had a thriving Jewish population numbering in the thousands, and it was here that the famed Biala Chassidic sect once resided. Today, precious little remains of that glorious heritage in this tiny corner of Poland.
Jacek's great-grandfather was Jewish, and he feels a strong sense of responsibility to keep alive the memory of the city's Jews. With great care, he shows me some of the old prayer books and religious tomes that he has helped to preserve, the wrinkles in their pages testifying to their once frequent use.
Suddenly Jacek remembers something. He proceeds to unlock a cabinet and then removes an item wrapped in plastic, placing it on the table.
"This is a tallit," he says, "which belonged to a Jew from Bielsko-Biala who was murdered by the Germans. Someone managed to salvage it and brought it back to the community after the war. Those spots on it are blood, " Jacek notes, adding, "It is the blood of the person who wore it when he was killed."
When I hear Jacek's words, I instantly recoil. I imagine the fear and terror that must have gripped the unknown Jew who went to his death enveloped in this prayer shawl, his bloodstains the last remaining moment to his suffering.
Slowly, I reach over and place my hands on the edge of the tallit, visibly trembling as I touch this chilling artifact of death which embodies the heroic faith that so many showed in the face of the murderous Nazi fiends.
And yet, despite the unnerving emotions that it elicits, there is at least a sense of relief, of closure, that this tallit has found its way back to Jewish possession, where it will certainly be accorded the respect and reverence that it so rightly deserves.
But what about the countless other Jewish objects that have yet to find their way back? What will become of them?
The Talmud in Masechta Megillah (29a) famously states that the Diaspora's synagogues and study halls will one day all be physically relocated to Israel. Apparently, their connection with the Jewish people is so strong and so enduring that even the stones and bricks that comprise our houses of prayer will not be left behind in exile. So we can at least be assured that these holy sites will eventually return again to their once exalted status.
Until that day arrives, however, Europe's orphaned Judaica will continue to cry out, pleading to be brought home. The challenge for us is - will we hear their call?