The only one of my mother’s melodies to remain is the sing-song of the shamash from the Rem’uh [Rabbi Moses Isserles] Synagogue in Krakow, as he passed at night through the streets of the ancient ghetto, Kazimierz, knocking on the window shutters and waking the Jews for selichot, the morning service. “Yidelekh, yidelekh, tayere koshere yidelekh, shteyen oyf, shteyen oyf lavoydes haboyre uleslikhes.” Jews, Jews, dear, kosher Jews, please rise, please rise to worship the Creator and for selichot.
My mother, Rina Poser-Laub Govrin left her beloved native city on the eighteenth of October, 1944, on a train going to Auschwitz. My mother never set foot in Krakow again.
Recently I was invited by the Polish Institute to participate in a cultural exchange program. I agreed only after receiving assurance that, alongside the official visit, I would be able to join in the annual march commemorating the expulsion of Krakow’s Jews. In 1942 the Jews were banished from their homes to a ghetto in the Podgorze district, and in 1943, after a series of murderous Aktionen, those remaining were deported by foot to the Plaszow labor camp, whose construction, inspired by the sadism of its commander, Amon Göth, was undertaken on the grounds of the Jewish cemetery.
The Memorial March from the Podgorze district to Plaszow was set to take place on a Sunday morning. I therefore arrived on a train from Warsaw to Krakow on Friday afternoon, before shabbat. On the platform I was met by Sylvia, my official escort, a petite, shapely woman wearing a checkered coat – a perfect Polish beauty. I took down my suitcases and shamefacedly apologized for their weight. I found it hard to explain the anxiety that gripped me in anticipation of retracing the footsteps of my mother, of my murdered eight-year-old brother, and so, tormented by the migration of souls that I had embarked upon, I dragged with me on my journey all the books I deemed absolutely essential for my survival: Kafka, and Rilke, and Gebirtig, and Primo Levi, and Szymborska, and Bruno Schulz, and Viktor Frankl, and a siddur, and a mikraot gedolot, and Noam Elimelech by the Rebbe of Lizhensk, weighing in all some 60 pounds…
Sylvia, delicate as she was, kept up a smile, even when, in her tiny car stuffed with baggage, we reached the small hotel with no elevator in Kazimierz, the ancient ghetto, and even as we athletically dragged the huge suitcase up floor after floor after floor. I was the one who broke down when I saw the cramped, dark attic I’d been allotted, with a skylight that barely illuminated the room’s old wallpaper. I knew that if I spent three days there, including the march of returning souls, they’d have to carry me out straight to the loony bin. Sylvia, feeling responsible, was drenched in sweat. Shabbat drew near, and it was only by sheer luck that, at that last moment, a comfortable room was vacated in a hotel a few alleys away.
And so we set out, Sylvia with the small bags, and I with the suitcase full of selected classics of world literature, bumping along the paving stones of the ancient streets. But then, in the midst of a struggle to negotiate a turn in the road, the suitcase handle snapped. The suitcase stopped and the detached handle remained in my hand.
“What will we do?” Sylvia was in a panic from the daze of Jewish wandering she had been thrust into. “It’s ok,” I said, trying to calm her. “I’ll carry the suitcase like this.” And immediately I began dragging the great weight God knows how. But Sylvia’s worry did not subside, sweat dripped from her brow, and her entire slender figure exuded despair. I knew I had to encourage her, and in a flash it came to me. “This reminds me of a song in Yiddish!” I called out, “Me without you, and you without me is like a handle without a door.” With my breath short from the effort of dragging the suitcase, I began to sing the love song set in a waltz tempo: “Ikh on dir un du on mir iz vi a kliamke on a tir…”
And so, down the narrow streets of Estery and Jozefa, with one hand waving the broken handle and the other grasping the orphaned metal rod, I lugged the huge weight as if effortlessly and sang: “Ikh on dir un du on mir iz vi a kliamke on a tir… ketzele, faygele, mayn.” The word “kliamke,” handle, had found its way into Yiddish from Polish. The familiar word and the sweetness of the waltz calmed Sylvia down a bit, so that finally even she began to hum along with the irresistibly beautiful tune.
That evening, after prayers at the ancient Rem’uh Synagogue, I was invited to a shabbat meal held in the hall at the top of the half-deserted Hochschule Synagogue and organized by the young rabbi, Boaz Pash, who had been sent to Krakow from Israel. The modest meal, served at tables covered with paper tablecloths, drew a unique admixture of guests: two or three elderly members of the community, living in solitude and speaking tatters of Yiddish, several wildly excited women, some of whom had recently discovered that beneath their Polish biography a Jewish girl had been kept in hiding for the past sixty years, and who were now frantically trying to bridge over a lifetime, a group of goyim from France and Poland meeting in Krakow for discussions of good will, and a few young people who, having also one day discovered that ancestral Jewish blood was flowing in their veins, founded a group called “Cholent.” They were the ones serving the simple food to this curious congregation.
I was seated at the foot of the table, facing the French. The young rabbi addressed the members of the community with fatherly warmth, made the blessings, went over the songs the guests knew, and encouraged them to say a few words. And so, between the modest courses, a young American who somehow wound up in Krakow got to deliver a “sermon.” For a moment it seemed as if he were nostalgically recalling his Bar Mitzvah party, but then the young man, whose literary ambitions were apparently influenced by Henry Miller, led his story from the synagogue bimah straight to the toilet, and to his uncle, who sighed while he masturbated in the midst of the celebration in one of the stalls. The lecherous grin was still on the young man’s face when the door of the hall burst open, and in sallied two shtreimels three feet high, and beneath them, two white-bearded Jews wearing traditional kapotehs. “The Rabbi of Galicia and his shamash,” the whisper spread among the castaways seated at the table. The rabbi, an American who receives his appointment (and salary) from New York, gave a short speech in a thundering voice, after which he burst out in song in a yet more thundering voice which seemed to emanate from an amplifier. At first the thickly bearded shamash joined him, but when some of the emotional ladies also joined in the singing with their indecent feminine voices, the shamash took off, and shortly after the rabbi departed as well, sternly carrying the weight of his enormous shtreimel.
The community of castaways was left fragmented and forlorn following the Sermon of the Toilet and the departure of the shtreimels. Confusion settled on the tables.
Suddenly the voice of the young rabbi rang out, “Michal, sing that song.” What is he talking about, I thought, astonished. “What song?” “The one you sang in the street today.” “What?! How do you know?” “I passed by and heard you singing. That’s how I recognized you.” The circumstances of my dizzying visit to Krakow rushed through my head, what had been told, what had been silenced, the pitiful state of the community, the rabbi’s appeal, and I knew I had no choice but to do my part.
I sang the Yiddish love waltz. After the first time the guests at the tables hummed the tune. “Again!” called the rabbi, and the next time everyone sang, instinctively rocking from side to side and waving their hands, “Ikh on dir un du on mir…” By the third time, everyone rose to dance around the tables, with the young rabbi at the head, waving his arm.
The sudden echo of my private experience made me giddy. And then, when the dancing stopped, on impulse I declared, “I have another tune for you! From here, from Krakow.” The excited ladies, the elders, the rabbi, all raised their faces to me when I began the sing-song of the shamash from the Rem’uh Synagogue, which had reached my ears in my mother’s voice, “Yidelekh, yidelekh, tayere koshere yidelekh, shteyen oyf, shteyen oyf lavoydes haboyre uleslikhes.” Jews, Jews, dear, kosher Jews, please rise, please rise to worship the Creator and for selichot.
The standing guests nodded their heads, listened; the flushed older women, the ardent youth, some of the Jewish elders hummed along in Yiddish, and the young Israeli rabbi repeated after me the tune that had been exiled from the streets of the ancient ghetto of Krakow and forgotten, “Yidelekh, Yidelekh…” At a late hour we emerged, a small handful of guests summoned to Szeroka Square in the heart of Kazimierz. The large square was totally empty. “How does it go?” the rabbi asked, as he began chanting in the dark, “Yidelekh…” Following him, more voices joined in, “Yidelekh, yidelekh, tayere koshere yidelekh, shteyen oyf, shteyen oyf lavoydes haboyre uleslikhes.”
The façade of the Rem’uh Synagogue, and the great gate of the ancient cemetery, locked at that hour, shone white through the darkness. And in a melody’s return, the sing-song of the Rem’uh Synagogue shamash echoed once more, across the destruction, and after so many years, passing as he once did through the nighttime streets, knocking on the shutters and waking the sleeping – the dead and the living – for selichot.