Dressed in skirts of pink tulle, with rose garlands adorning their hair, the little girls resembled a bouquet of young ballet dancers about to perform a recital. Could their small legs plie, pirouette, jump? Or if not dancers, were they a cluster of flower girls ready to toss petals down the aisle? No. In fact, they were sisters celebrating Rosh Hashanah at the Isaak Synagogue in Krakow, Poland. Unlike me and a smattering of other tourists visiting for the High Holidays, the little girls were at ease in the compact women’s prayer area of the historic 17th century synagogue. Their giggles interrupted the pious quiet of bearded men in tall Cossack hats and dark silk robes passing through to reach the Ark. The youngest toddled, trying to keep up with the others who were skipping to their seats in shiny black patent slippers.
Elsewhere in the Isaak Synagogue a father handed his meandering adolescent son a prayer book; women murmured Hebrew blessings as they lit candles; a baby cried. The rabbi motioned for the congregation to stand. This could have been a scene in any synagogue around the world that night, as Jews were gathering to embrace the New Year, 5778. But we were not in just any synagogue. We were Jews praying in a synagogue that had been raided by the Gestapo over 75 years ago. We were Jews gathering in a synagogue where the Nazis had shot and killed a man for refusing to burn the Torah scrolls. We were Jews celebrating Rosh Hashanah just 90 miles from Auschwitz.
My husband and I had visited the concentration camp the previous day. We wandered by walls of barbed wire; plodded through barren barracks; filed passed mug shots of prisoners in striped garb: name, date of deportation, date of death chronicled beside. The dampness penetrated. The silence weighed. Everywhere were exhibits of personal belongings taken from the over one million men, women and children who had died there: suitcases; hair brushes; eyeglasses; pocket watches. Items of life now testimonials of death. Thousands of shoes were arranged in random heaps or strewn along the floor. Some would have fit only little girls.