By Ms. Honey Kern
Cold Spring Harbor High School
New York, United States
I did not see the writing on the last remnant of the Warsaw Ghetto, but when the bus with our students (Israeli and American) pulled into the driveway of the last synagogue in Warsaw, the Nozyk Synagogue, there it was in all of its red-paint fury: "JUDE IS DEAD." Imagine, in English. Next to this was a symbol, a circle with a cross through it. I don't know what that means. Anyway, Nili Eldar, the principal of the Kiryat Motzkin School, pointed the writing out to her students, and we all got off the bus mumbling and headed inside the synagogue.
My heart was pounding. I had no voice. I was thinking of what to do. I was thinking of my students and wondering what the kids were thinking. Then, as we entered the synagogue, we saw two Polish painters painting the staircase hallway! I couldn't believe it. I couldn't understand it. Why were they there? What brought them there at the very moment that I was trying to figure out what to do about the writing that desecrated the wall of that old place?
I believe in a person's fate, in life's ironies. Still, I was unprepared for so many things that happened on this trip, like the graffiti, but I was so happy to see those painters.
Like a typical American, I went over to Gideon Goldstein, our tour leader, and asked if he thought the painters would take $20 to paint over the outside wall. Gideon thought for a moment; he could see that I was upset. Then he asked me an important question: "Should it be removed?" I knew what he meant. Maybe the world should see that hatred still existed in Poland against its Jews. I didn't need to think to answer. To me the message was one of hate and had to be removed. Gideon said something. I don't exactly remember what, and then he disappeared.
Meanwhile, we all were asked to move into the room of the main synagogue, and for a while I lost my thoughts in the next thing that happened. There, in the center of this beautiful, simple, whitewashed temple, stood a wooden pulpit, and three men were talking to our students who were seated on prayer benches around them.
The first elderly gentleman was speaking Polish or Yiddish; this was translated into Hebrew by Shalom, a Holocaust survivor who was travelling with us through Poland, and then translated into English by Gideon for the American group.
I can see it all clearly pictured in my mind. Three men, three ages, three languages telling a sad, sad story.
The man who greeted us told us that there were no circumcisions there anymore; no Bar Mitzvahs took place, no weddings. There were, after all, only 200 registered members of the synagogue left. All were elderly. I looked at the face of each man as he spoke these words. It was painful for each of them to tell us this. Poland, before 1939 had 3,000,000 Jews, and now there were probably only about 3,000 left.
I listened and watched the proud, elderly gentleman say that people ask him why he stays there. He told us that he stays to take care of the synagogue, that it keeps him busy.
When the talk was over, Gideon called me over to where he was. He said that the painters had gone home, that the wall outside would be painted tomorrow. My eyes always show how I feel. I was disappointed. I wouldn't be there tomorrow; I was there now. I couldn't bear it. My mind was burning. Someone asked me to give a donation to the synagogue. Of course. Then, I heard my name called again. The painters were still there; they had been found in the basement; they would paint the outside wall of the synagogue. God, I was so happy. I wanted all the kids to go outside, to photograph the graffiti and to photograph that wall again when it was whitewashed and clean.
We did just that. We snapped those cameras! The painter took his time, but the wall was clean; the hate words were covered. All the kids actually applauded when it was done. We felt triumphant even if it only lasted until we turned the corner of the building and saw two swastikas in another place on the wall.
The elderly gentleman gave me his word that they too would be painted over the next day. I believed him.
That afternoon is one that will be with me forever. So many things happened. There was the graffiti I didn't want to see. There were the painters. There was my request to Gideon that he listened to and acted on. There were our students feeling good. There was I, not understanding again why it happened the way that it did. Was it fate or someone or something that intervened? Now I will send an account of this occurrence to the writer Allan Nadler of the YIVO Institute. I hope he feels good that someone came along and did something about the vandalism. I think we need to think about this some more. Maybe Gideon is right. We covered the hate up, but it is still out there. We have to face it and negate it. Somehow I wish there were a better way.
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