Pilzno, Poland
  Alternatenames: Pilzne, Pilsno 4958' 2118'

VISITS OF FAMILY OF RABBI JOSEF SINGER TO PILZNO 1996 and 1998

Testament of Living History

 by: Toby Schwarzman

On Thursday August 23,1995, at 3:00 p.m., we arrived in Pilzno, Poland, for what was in effect the reason why our whole trip had been planned: the groundbreaking ceremony for the gate which is being built around the Jewish cemetery in the town. My grandfather, Rabbi Joseph Singer, who was born in Pilzno, commissioned a gate to be built around the cemetery where his grandparents, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Gershon Adler (who was Rav in Pilzno before World War 1) are buried. After having spent the morning touring the Auschwitz Birkenau concentration camp, we arrived late for our meeting with the mayor of Pilzno who was scheduled to be joining us for the ceremony. Though the mayor was unable to attend, due to the funeral of a local member of the Catholic church, the ceremony was carried out with our twenty four family members, the mayor's secretary, the architect of the gate, Mr. Bartosz (the curator of a museum in Tarnow, Poland, who is helping my uncle, Mr. David Singer, to restore the Jewish cemetery in Pilzno), and his nineteen year old daughter.

 As we moved along the border of the overgrown cemetery devoid of tombstones, accompanied by the family who owned the farm adjacent to the cemetery, a strange calm settled over our group. With each stake that we nailed into the ground as a ceremonial corner stone of our gate, something was nailed into our hearts. I felt the presence of the cemetery's souls... they smiled, as we trudged along through the overgrown weeds, discovering the foundations of the old fence. Their cries of triumph joined in with the howl of the winds as we moved along, encircling the sanctified ground of the cemetery. Each spade full of earth moved aside in order to make place for border marking stakes, contained remnants of a nation... remnants of a history. It is this that we attempt to protect, as we build a fence around the sanctified land of our ancestor's graves... land which has since been given over to graze land for the local animals.

 As we walked back towards the town, and our waiting bus, the sky showered us with its blessing, and the parched earth received much needed rain. We drove off accompanied by the friendly farewell of the family from whom we took back the land which is rightfully ours... as they too felt the presence and the blessing showered upon us by the souls buried in the desolate, yet sanctified cemetery down a deserted dirt road in a small Polish town called Pilzno.



Adam Bartosz works at a Jewish museum in Tarnow, Poland.  He visited the family of Rabbi Josef Singer in Brooklyn, in 1998, and later that year met Rabbi Singer’s family in Poland to escort them on a trip to Pilzno.   Bartosz wrote his impressions in the journal:
POLIN: Studies in Polish Jewry, vol. 11, 1998, published by the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization.  The article is entitled: “A Pilgrimage from Bobowa to Bobowa”
                                                     by Adam Bartosz

A few weeks before the Singer family’s departure from New York, those who had confirmed their participation in this family pilgrimage had received an itinerary of their European journey and practical instructions and advice. >From JFK airport in New York they were to fly to Warsaw: 'Please be at the airport three hours before departure and do not forget your valid passport.' >From Warsaw they would go in hired buses through Lublin, Majdanek, Lezajsk, Sieniawa, and Lancut to Tarnow. Tarnow and its surroundings was the group's first main destination. 'As you know, the highlight of our trip is the unveiling of the fence around the cemetery in Pilzno which, through the untiring efforts of our parents, Rabbi and Rebetzin Joseph Singer, has now been completed, standing in its full glory, lest we forget, for generations to see, witness, and remember for years to come,' wrote David Singer (the rabbi’s son) in the introduction to his invitation cum instruction sheet.
When the Singers had visited Galicia the previous summer, Rabbi Joseph Singer, who had been born and raised in Pilzno, had decided to commission the tidying up and fencing of the ruined cemetery of his home town, and had asked that I, in Poland, should help him in this task. The pilgrims' other destinations were in Slovakia, Hungary, and Transylvania all part of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was in this direction that the hasidic movement, born in Galicia, had developed and spread; on this territory of the former monarchy that the fate of David's and his wife's ancestors had unfolded.

David had spent some months drawing up the list of the members of his community teenagers as well as adults who would come on this pilgrimage, and arranging their journey. It is not easy for a religious hasid to travel:

 “Please bring along your own food. Bring non perishable items that you like to eat.
Examples are as follows ... Your cutlery, paper plates, cups, napkins are your own
responsibility. Should you wish to bring along a hot pot or coffee maker, please
remember it has to be 220 Volts ... Please do not schlep more than you need. Traveling
with too much baggage restricts our ability to check in and out of hotels quickly ...
All medication which you may need on this trip is to be brought along in carry on luggage. Medications, whether over the counter or prescription, cannot easily be obtained in Europe. Please pack with care. There will be no stops at Shop Rite or Rite Aid. Do not count on others to have what you need! ... Don't forget to bring along candles, matches, and  pre written kvitlech [notes with petitions] and tehilimlech [books of psalms].”

When I first met them in Tarnow David introduced me to the members of the group: 'When Mr Bartosz met with the rebbe [in Brooklyn] they conversed in Polish and nobody understood them. And when we asked the rebbe what they talked about, he declared that it was a secret! We were very intrigued. They talked for a quarter of an hour.' The motif of that conversation in Brooklyn was to be repeated over and over again, and in each retelling the length and magnitude of the event were to grow.

On Wednesday evening we left Tarnow to go south to Bobowa, where the synagogue is still standing. For years after the war, it had housed part of a technical school; successive classes of young people had learned how to weave on looms set up there. But several years ago the school moved out, leaving behind an empty, neglected interior. Miraculously, the decoration of the eastern wall, into which the aron kodesh had been built to conceal the sacred Torah scrolls, was almost undamaged. The colourful, folk baroque ornamentation sported garlands of flowers, grapes, pilasters, and finials. Not even the black hole left where the hallowed cupboard had stood, nor the cold, musty walls, damaged floor, or smelly vestibule, could diminish the radiance of the rich embellishment. The group wanted to begin their day with morning prayers in that synagogue.
 
 Upon entering the empty hall, the group looked around curiously, photographing each other against the backdrop of the decorated ruin and asking about the history of the building. They asked me if anyone was planning to renovate it, and who took care of it. The carefree, even easygoing, mood slowly transformed into one of reflection as the men began preparing for prayer. Concentrating with respect, they each placed the black cube of a phylactery on their forehead, wrapped the leather strap with the second black cube around their left arm, and covered their head with the tales. The sound of prayer, led by David's son Shlomo, reverberated through the empty space. Shlomo stood right by the eastern wall; placing his prayer book on a radiator, he rocked back and forth as he prayed, as did the others, who chimed in with him or walked around, engrossed in individual prayer. The women, gathered by the back wall, prayed separately. The older, married women covered their bewigged heads with scarves for the duration of the prayers, and in many cases covered their faces with the pages of the prayerbooks. The young women too sometimes covered their faces with their open prayer book; with their eyes closed, they concentrated on their prayers. The praying, interrupted at times by song, lasted for nearly an hour.
 
 Later we walked along the path that leads between the fields to the cemetery, some distance from the centre of the town David commented:  'For our children this is a very important pilgrimage. They know that our roots, the beginnings of our hasidic religion, are to be found in Galicia. Here are the graves of famous tsadikim; here are the graves of our forefathers. This pilgrimage will help them better understand their history and religion.'  When they entered the ohel, with its plaque announcing that there lay Solomon and Nathan, tsadikim and ancestors of the Bobower rebbe, their spiritual leader in Brooklyn, the pilgrims were deeply moved. Rabbi Joseph Singer leaned against the matsevah inscribed with the name of Solomon, son of Nathan; he whispered a prayer. David's cousin Steve Garrin, a lawyer, with whom I had visited this place for the first time five years before, steeped himself in deep supplication, hidden behind the headstone. David pulled out pieces of paper handwritten in Hebrew. 'Before we left, we visited the tsadik. The Bobower rebbe gave us kvitlech so that we could leave them here on the grave of his grandfather and great-grandfather. His wife is in poor health lately, so we have special cards with prayers on her behalf. We also have prayers from other people in our family who could not come here personally.' A few more minutes of prayer, touching foreheads to the headstones, a few bows and photographs, and the spiritually strengthened hasidim began the walk downhill.

The afternoon was set aside for Pilzno. When we arrived at the Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of town, Rabbi Joseph Singer was evidently touched and delighted to see the fence that now surrounded the cemetery, the beautiful gate between white posts, and the marble matsevah like upright stone with the names of local Jews who had been murdered by the Germans. Approaching the gates, he asked why I had not followed his request to put up an explanatory text in Polish as well as in Hebrew. I replied that I could not act in accordance with his wishes because I could not agree to the phrase with which he had concluded since I did not feel I deserved to be described as one of the 'righteous among Gentiles'. I was embarrassed when the rabbi insisted that such was his will and deepest conviction, and I promised to think about it.

A year previously, on a scorching summer afternoon, we had marked out with pegs the borders of the cemetery that time had worn away over the years. Today a ceremony of reconsecration was to take place.

The Kaczka family, whose house was adjacent to the cemetery and had watched over it for many years, were gathered outside the cemetery. The rabbi talked to them, kissing the babes in arms, and asked the neighbours for garlic: it transpired that peeled cloves of garlic were one of the props of the ceremony. We moved as one group along the length of the fencing. David was at the head of the group with the prayer book. His father, led by his son in law and grandson, tossed pieces of garlic through the fencing every few steps. He explained to me: 'This is holy ground, but over the years bad spirits could have come to live here. The ground has been desecrated. By prayer, garlic, and circling the cemetery seven times, we chase away the evil powers and return this ground to sanctity.’
It was difficult to encircle the cemetery because of the adjacent sown field, nearby buildings, and thick shrubbery, so the second time we walked along the inside of the enclosure. A sudden rainstorm created difficulty for even this part of the ceremony, so each subsequent circling was done by a single one of the chosen, protecting himself with an umbrella as he tramped through the wet grass. The rest gathered around a newly erected matsevah in order to say the appropriate prayers.
I handed David the shofar which he had given me to hold. After a short prayer, he put it to his lips and played to the four corners of the world. I guessed that it was the same blast that is sounded in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. Now the one armed Zvi intoned a moving incantation El male rahamim. Some began to cry; he himself had to stop when tears did not allow him to continue. Later David and Steven sang; and finally, with a weak and old voice, Rabbi Joseph sang: his parents had been murdered on this land, and in their memory he had ordered a symbolic stone to be set there. Now the women, who up to that point had been standing outside the fence, entered the cemetery. They prayed standing behind the men, just as they had done in the synagogue.

Shortly afterwards the prayers finished and David poured a shot of vodka for everyone. ('But only Lezajski kosher', he had said over the phone.) We drank to good fortune, to life lehayim. Evening was drawing near and so it was time for prayers. They lasted only a short time. As always, those praying turned in the direction of Jerusalem. The day of pilgrimage was coming to an end.
The old rabbi was tired; not too long ago he had recovered from a paralysis of one side of his body, while his wife had just had a cast taken off a broken arm. In spite of that, they were pleased that they had not succumbed to suggestions that they should cancel their trip: they were happy to have seen the cemetery in such good condition. Setting up the stone in their parents' memory, and reconsecrating the cemetery were perceived as having great religious and mystical significance. They thanked the Kaczkas and everyone who had helped in the project. In demonstration of ownership and responsibility for the place, they then took the key to the cemetery from its padlock, to take it back to America with them.

David's family were to spend the following day in Krakow, where in honour of the new moon, they had to pray in a synagogue. When it turned out that the Remuh synagogue was closed for services that day, that there was therefore no access to the Torah there, and that the only way to visit the cemetery next to the synagogue with the graves of the holy Remuh and other tsadikim was to climb over the wall, they were devastated. The rabbi was near to tears; so he was overjoyed with the news that I had a Torah in the museum in Tarnow. We returned to Tarnow, and in the museum hall they unrolled the Torah scroll quickly pulled out of storage. The depth of emotion this whole episode generated showed how difficult it is to be a hasid traveling through a foreign country.

The next afternoon we reached Nowy Sacz, where the great Hayim Halberstam is buried. In thanking me for everything, David once more told his family about my meeting with the tsadik in America. As usual, he finished: 'They talked for a long time and nobody understood them!' I began to understand that the meeting had as deep a meaning for David and his co believers as it had for me: it was beginning to become yet another tale from the life of the tsadik.

As we parted, Rabbi Singer reminded me that I should not forget about the Polish text of the plaque on the cemetery gate: 'It is my will. It is important to us.' A few weeks after that farewell, I collected my daughter Magda at Warsaw airport on her return from New York. Immediately after greeting me, she said: 'David and the rabbi have asked me to tell you that they went to the tsadik to get advice about that inscription on the gate. They referred to your long conversation with the Bobower rebbe, and it is his ruling that the plaque should read just as Rabbi Singer requested. They ask you to treat this as the will of the Bobower rebbe.'

David will soon visit Galicia again, and will go to visit the cemetery in Pilzno. So before that I must make sure that the will of the Bobower rebbe is carried out.-- Translated by Annamaria Orla Bukowska