Rosh Hashanah Pilgrimage Under Fire

Border smuggling, dancing, and prayer - What did Breslov Hasidim do when war made their annual trip to Uman a true matter of life and death?

The structure that once covered the grave of Rabbi Nahman of Uman. Seated in the doorway is the Hasid Rabbi Alter Teplicker who was murdered by an anti-Semitic mob during the Russian civil war in 1919. The photo was taken before 1910.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, some young Jewish men in Poland discovered the figure and writings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. All but unknown in Poland at that time, there were small circles of Breslov Hasidim living in a number of towns in Ukraine and in the Land of Israel, but they had little influence. The journey of these young Jewish men to Uman in Ukraine, where they participated in the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) prayers together with other Breslov adherents proved to be a constitutive event for them. On their return to Poland, the young men began to spread the word and induce others to join their “new” discovery; and so began the Polish Breslov movement. Breslov followers in Poland became famous for their annual pilgrimage to Uman, and in the press and on the street they were referred to as the “Uman Hasidim” and the “Dancing Hasidim traveling to Uman.”

The Uman pilgrimage focused around Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Nachman’s disciple, Rabbi Natan, who interpreted his teacher’s remark uttered at the end of his life, “my Rosh Hashanah,” to mean the period after his death, was responsible for instigating the gathering around Rabbi Nachman’s gravesite. “That people might then receive tikkunim [spiritual rectification], which all year long it was not possible for them to receive in any way […] the main thing is to be with me.”

Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Korman sitting in the sukkah. Courtesy of the Korman family

In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution swept through Russia, followed by a civil war. The “Red,” “White” and “Green” armies battled each other, but the Jews were often a target for all of them. This made the journey to Uman much more dangerous than usual.

In a Rosh Hashanah announcement from 1955 (courtesy of Rabbi Shmuel Tefilinski), Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Korman (one of the leaders of the Hasidim in Poland who immigrated to Mandatory Palestine in the mid-1930s and worked at the Schocken Institute in the late 1940s) recalls this period:

The many dangers of gathering on Rosh Hashanah at Uman began from then [1918] – even from Ukraine – because of the gangs of murderers (may their memories be erased). And our brethren [Breslov Hasidim] from Poland, out of longing for Uman, endangered themselves, but many were imprisoned and disappeared, God have mercy, and two were killed on the border near the town of Ostra, as is known. And since then the road had become very difficult and visitors from Poland stopped coming to Uman…

From Shomrei Mishpat, Lodz, 1934. National Library of Israel

Some of the movement’s leaders vociferously opposed the dangerous border smuggling. For example, Rabbi Yitzhak Breiter wrote in a 1923 letter to a young Hasid who was considering traveling from the Land of Israel to Uman:

“And our opinion is that it is unwarranted to travel to Uman at present, when [heavenly] protection shows it does not agree … Furthermore, he is not permitted this nonsense that might endanger himself along the way. And this folly might endanger him over days and rivers and borders and he does so out of fastidiousness, which our Master z”l [of blessed memory] was most emphatically against…”

[She’erit Yitzhak, pp. 42–43]

Instead, the movement’s leaders offered new prayers and rituals as a way to fill the void. With the cessation of visits to Uman, they decided to hold a “kibbutz” (gathering) in the city of Lublin, known as the “Jerusalem of Poland” on Rosh Hashanah. Beginning in 1930, they prayed at the Hakhmei Lublin Yeshiva, at the invitation and with the participation of the head of the Yeshiva, Rabbi Meir Shapira, who also famously initiated the “Daf Yomi” daily Talmud study regimen.

In addition to the hundreds of letters from among his broad correspondence with Breslov followers in Poland and Ukraine, Korman preserved several documents and leaflets of Polish Breslov Hasidim, which he left to the Shocken Institute, including: Kol Kore BaMidbar [A Voice in the Wildnerness] from 1932 (pictured below). According to the handwritten announcement, copied in stencil (for duplication and distribution to the public), when

“the path to Uman to prostrate on the tomb of the late Rabbi on the eve of Rosh Hashanah was blocked and to determine a place for the continuation of the Rebbe of blessed memory’s tikkunim [rectifications] in his synagogue there — then our brethren in Poland decided to gather and determine the place in the city of Lublin where our late Rebbe of blessed memory’s spiritual Rosh Hashanah rectifications [tikunei] could continue.”

The authors of the declaration understood the essence of the gathering in Uman was “to determine a place for the continuation of the Rosh Hashanah rectifications of the late Rebbe.” “Determining the place” worked to sanctify the place, and prepare it as a tool for the appearance of the “light of our late rabbi of blessed memory” in a barren world. Participation in the kibbutz — even just arriving to it and breaking through the obstacles and barriers involved in reaching it — leads to a noticeable spiritual renewal, and to the “longing for a true simple faith … which is the true tikkun olam [repair of the world].”

The rectification that happens in this gathering is not only for the Hasidim — and not only for the Jewish people — but for the whole world: “For his soul and for the whole world”; “And all the judgements shall be sweetened above us, for all Israel and for all of the world.”

Kol Koreh BaMidbar. Korman Collection, Shocken Institute for Jewish Research (KC-L-10)

Additional documents from the Korman Collection at the Schocken Institute shed light on Breslov “kibbutzim” in Poland during the Holocaust.

In a unique letter from the beginning of the war, in 1940, the Hasid Rabbi Zvi Lasker, a student of Breiter’s, writes to Korman, from Vilnius (where he fled, ahead of the city’s conquest by the Germans):

“Was there a Rosh Hashanah kibbutz this year?  Although there was a kibbutz in Warsaw, woe to the kibbutz that prays under a flood of bombs, shooting, fires and strange deaths from the ‘demons of the world’ [מזיקי עלמא]. Let me try to give you on cold paper — which can withstand everything — a brief summary of the battles of our Rebbe’s people.”

With great literary flair, Lasker describes the Rosh Hashanah prayers of Breslov followers during the German bombing of Warsaw, about two weeks after the outbreak of the war (the bombings had come after three days of quiet, which gave the city’s Jews hope that there would be a peaceful holiday, a hope which quickly proved false).

The Hasid Rabbi Beirech Rubensohn (Robinson), who lost his family in the Holocaust, survived Auschwitz and moved to America and later to Israel, wrote in 1947 to Korman about Rosh Hashanah in the middle of the war:

“And in the year 1941, on Rosh Hashanah with God’s help there was a gathering in the city of Apt (Opatów), where they [the Hasidim] prayed together, and also danced.”

I conclude with more recent history. On a trip around Rosh Hashanah (in the pre-Covid era), on a flight from Ukraine to the Czech Republic that was filled to brim with Hasidim and their guitars, I stood in the aisle at the back of the plane to do some yoga. A young Czech flight attendant approached me (perhaps the yoga made him feel like we could communicate), and shared with me his bewilderment at the unconventional pilgrims. He had heard of the pilgrimage (all of Eastern Europe is abuzz because of it), but he wanted to understand what it was all about.

I said to him:

“Buried in Uman is a man who said there is no reason at all for despair. The devotees believe that by traveling to his grave, they project encouragement and hope to all who are in need of it, to all the broken and depressed, all over the whole world, just by their being there.”

He was touched by this thought.

May “all the judgements of the Jewish people and of the world be sweetened,” Amen.

 

The Feminist Revival of Tu B’Av, the Jewish Festival of Love

Did an Orthodox girls' movement and its legendary founder revive an ancient and obscure holiday in the forests of Poland?

"...the holiday that belongs to us, to young Jewish women.” (Photo: The Yad Izhak Ben Zvi Archive, part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection)

Do a quick Google search on Tu B’Av, and two sorts of material will appear. The first describes a festival dating back to late antiquity, in which, according to Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8, “On these days [the 15th of Av] the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white garments in order not to shame anyone who had none…  The daughters of Jerusalem would come out and dance in the vineyard. What would they say? Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself…”

Girls dancing on Tu B’Av in Hadera, early 20th century. From the Khan Hadera Archive and Museum (Photo: Sonia Kolodany / Photo Sonia / CC BY 2.5)

Along with this ancient matchmaking festival, we might also learn of the revival of Tu B’Av in modern Israel, as a Jewish Valentine’s Day, or festival of love. The Orthodox world, in Israel and beyond, has also taken up this day as a “Global Day of Shidduchim,” in which great rabbis pray, without charge, for unmarried men and women to find their mates.

Yet Tu B’Av, it turns out, may have been first revived in the modern period neither by modern Zionists celebrating romance nor by Orthodox organizations praying for “shidduchim.”

Bais Yaakov

Now generally associated with perhaps less-than-progressive ultra-Orthodox educations for girls, the Bais Yaakov movement was actually quite radical in its early years.

In 1917, a dressmaker with an eighth-grade education named Sarah Schenirer opened a girls’ school in Kraków, hoping to stem the tide of Orthodox girls who were abandoning tradition.

Sarah Schenirer. From Collected Writings, the National Library of Israel collection

By the 1930s, the movement had branches on three continents and dozens of schools, not to mention vocational training institutes, a chain of colonies and summer camps, three teachers’ seminaries, a monthly literary journal and other periodicals, its own publishing houses, a youth movement and much more. The character of the movement changed dramatically after the Holocaust, yet recently the Bais Yaakov Project was founded to preserve and share this fascinating early history.

 

The women’s holiday

Online as part of the Bais Yaakov Project archives, a 1926 issue of The Bais Yaakov Journal reports local celebrations of Tu B’Av throughout Poland that year. The newspaper describes the numerous correspondents who wrote in to the office of the Bnos (the youth movement associated with the Agudah and Bais Yaakov) to report on how they had celebrated the day and to express “the outpouring of joy awakened by the revival of this traditional historical women’s holiday.”

Beis Yaakov activities in Rabka (near Skawa), 1929. From Collected Writings, the National Library of Israel collection

The fact that this was not a one-time occurrence in 1926 but a regular feature of Bnos and Bais Yaakov life is evident from other writings, including by Sarah Schenirer, detailing how this old-new holiday might be celebrated, and clarifying its meaning for the Bais Yaakov movement. One participant in a Tu B’Av ritual led by Sarah Schenirer herself provided a rich description of the 1932 celebration in the woods of Skawa, a village thirty miles south of Krakow where the seminary students were spending the last summer before they left for their assigned teaching posts.

The celebration of Tu B’Av, in Hodo Movshowitz’s retelling, involved a moonlight hike in the woods, with 115 students and teachers walking hand-in-hand behind their leader and guide, Sarah Schenirer. After some difficulties, a bonfire is lit, and a student gives a talk, followed by Sarah Schenirer, and then the girls and women rapturously and prayerfully sing and dance, an experience of great mystical meaning.

Beis Yaakov activities near Skawa, 1929. From Collected Writings, the National Library of Israel collection

Tu B’Av was revived in Bais Yaakov as a “traditional historical women’s holiday”; the student who spoke to the group around the bonfire explained its meaning, according to the description, as “the holiday that belongs to us, to young Jewish women.”

The ecstatic dancing was done not before the eyes of prospective mates, as in the Mishnah, but rather, Movshowitz stresses, with no one watching. Tu B’Av was celebrated in Poland by Orthodox Jewish girls and women, alone in the woods with their God, their guide, and each other.

 

Tu B’Av 1932 in Skawa

Below is the full text of the article, which appeared in a 1932 issue of the Bais Yaakov Journal. It was originally written in Yiddish by Hoda Movshowitz, a teacher in Sokolov, and recently translated into English by Frieda Vizel.

Evening. The sun is about to set. It is already on the other side of the linden trees. (Yes, the trees of Skawa, you will remain in our memory for a long time!) And suddenly it occurs to me: why does the sun hide behind these giant trees every day before it sets? Does it hide behind these enormous trees to prevent people from seeing the last few moments of its day? Maybe it doesn’t want people to see the the misdeeds it has witnessed — is that why it reddens so with shame, and hides its face among the enormous trees?

But I can’t be lost in thought for long. The sound of some exalted mood reaches my ears and rouses me from my speculations.

All the seminary girls are standing in front of the villa, ready for our excursion. We count a hundred and fifteen, and I too am among them.

And so we set out.

Frau Schenirer at the head. One hundred and fifteen of us go step by step, hand in hand, along the path, Frau Schenirer first among us, our guide. Our hearts beating with extraordinary joy, we follow in the steps of our leader and flag-bearer.

The sun is already completely gone. A star-speckled sky is above us. The glow of the moon illuminates our path.

And we walk and walk, but to where? Our great leader is before us, and we follow her lead.

Finally, we reach a forest. It’s pitch dark all around. The trees obstruct even the bright glow of the moon.

Suddenly, the center of our group lights up. “Campfire!” we pass the word from ear to ear. A flash of light, and then it’s pitch dark again. Something over there doesn’t want to burn. The bonfire doesn’t want to start. Our teachers busy themselves with it, to no avail. Some of us despair, but not those in charge of lighting fire, who keep on working with their bundle of twigs. They work with all their energy, lying flat on the ground with their faces close to the spot where a tiny spark still flickers. There they add a bit of their own life force and, finally, they’re successful and the fire catches.

Soon a large fire is burning in the center of our circle, almost like the Jewish fire which we kept burning for so long, deep in our hearts.

It’s quiet. No one dares to speak out loud, to break the silence, to interfere with what we are all feeling. Who? Every one of us! Because we are all experiencing something tremendous—you can see it in our eyes. . .

And then someone does break the silence. Who speaks? One of the students, who begins to give a talk. She speaks and each of her words rings out and is echoed back by the trees.

She speaks of the meaning of the fifteenth day of the month of Av, about the holiday that belongs to us, to young Jewish women. The mood is serious, even sad, as she finishes.

Again a silence lasts for a long time. From time to time we hear the crackle of the burning twigs. And suddenly we hear the voice of Frau Schenirer. All eyes are now focused in one direction, and with great anticipation we listen to the words of our great leader.

Her eyes and the features of her face are sunken in the firelight, but her voice rings out: “And the fire upon the altar shall be kept burning thereby, it shall not go out; and the priest shall kindle wood on it every morning; and he shall lay the burnt-offering in order upon it, and shall make smoke thereon the fat of the peace-offerings” [Leviticus, 6: 5]. And she draws a picture to help us understand what this means. In the desert among the camps of Israel, the tribe of the Levites, and in their midst the tabernacle and the altar on which a fire burns that may never go out. This fire was sent by God himself to the altar. So was this divine fire not all that was needed to burn the sacrifices? But no, every morning the priest would add some wood. The divine fire can only burn for us when we have such divine priests who guard it, who feed the fire without cease, who add firewood without tiring of it. Only then can we be sure that the fire will always burn on our altar. And then, no power in the world can extinguish it.

And after a short silence her voice rings out again. “Many waters cannot extinguish love” [Song of Songs, 8: 7]. Every person has within herself an altar. The heart of each person is a temple, and the fire that burns of its altar is the “Fear of God” and “Love of God”. God starts off this fire on our altar. But we have to guard this spark, to blow on it again and again, without tiring.

And again there is silence. All eyes are turned to the fire. Meanwhile it burns; dry twigs flame out on the ground. Our eyes are burning, too, and maybe something else as well, something invisible, in a secret place, a small and hidden flickering flame. No question about it — each and every one of us knows this about herself, without the slightest doubt.

And suddenly we hear again the familiar voice; “Let the children sing!”

And so we sing. Suddenly we are so overcome with the urge to sing that no power in the world can stop us.

“There is none like our God!”

We sing. Quietly at first, and then louder and louder and from the middle of that song, the tune of a deep prayer rings out:

“Cleanse our hearts so we can serve you in truth!” And ever more beautiful and stronger grows the song, until we are no longer singing — this is a fervent prayer!

And it continues for another minute or two, until some extraordinary longing overcomes our soul, and out of our hearts tear the words “Next year in Jerusalem!”

The tune grows stronger, more emotional, more prayerful. The fire in our eyes grows brighter, more radiant. We add wood to the fire and the flames leap up. We can no longer sit still, we rise. Everyone wants to dance.

And so we dance.

Alongside us dances our leader, Frau Schenirer. Hand in hand with us, together. We dance, we can no longer see anything before our eyes. Our eyes close, our souls pine for something, everything around us disappears. It is so good… Our feet dance of their own accord. And so we dance, strong, stronger, even stronger still.

The dancing lasts for a long, long time, and still dancing we return from the woods. And still we dance. We dance as we accompany Frau Schenirer home, and only later do we ourselves go to sleep.

***

That was the fifteenth of Av, 1932, in Skawa. A year has already passed since then. We have dispersed, each to her own way. But did the bonds we forged then slacken? No, a thousand times no!

We hold each other by the hand, united in one organization, united just as we were then, as we danced out of the woods with no one seeing us. We are each and every one of us deeply connected with the rest, even as each of us works in our own circle.

A version of this article was previously published as part of The Bais Yaakov Project. It appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

The Temple Menorah in Kabbalistic Manuscripts

Kabbalistic literature looked for ancient symbols through which it could express its daring innovations. It found such a symbol in the Menorah...

The Sefirot, Temple implements and Jacob’s ladder, 14th c. Russian State Library, (Ms. Guenzburg 82)

Are the branches of the menorah a symbol of the ten Sefirot (divine emanations) in the Kabbalah? This, at least, is what some kabbalists thought.

Like all Jewish innovators before them, in order to convey their bold new ideas, the kabbalists adopted Judaism’s oldest symbols, in this case—the Menorah. Dozens of illustrated examples in manuscripts and in print offer proof.

A pinkas of blessings and prayers, Fürth, 1738, the National Library of Israel, (Ms. Yah. Heb. 143)

How did these kabbalists view the Menorah? In his article “Wisdom, the Eighth Emanation: The Menorah in Kabbalah,” [Hebrew] Moshe Idel discusses two heavenly interpretations of the Menorah. One, developed by the Castilian kabbalist Rabbi Joseph ben Abrhamam Gikatilla, sees the artifact as a symbol of the seven planets. Gikatilla writes, “Just as the entire Menorah is pure radiance and indeed the candles are intended to illuminate just as the seven planets are intended to illuminate, so the seven candles are analogous to the seven planets.”

The Menorah’s seven branches represented the seven planets according to Gikatilla. The materials from which the Temple menorah was fashioned — gold, silver and copper – in turn hint at the three realms—the upper, middle and lower: “Behold, the secret of the lamp is explained” (Sefer Ginat Egoz, Jerusalem, 1988/89, p. 269).

Sha’arei Orah, Josef ben Abraham Gikatilla, 1485-90, Spain, Bibliothèque National de France (Ms. Oratoire 71)

A more common interpretation sees the Menorah as a symbol of the higher powers, the attributes of God – the Sefirot. Rabbi Asher Ben-David, a kabbalist who lived in the first half of the 13th century in Provence, suggested that the Menorah’s candles “hint at the seven edges,” referring to the seven lower Sefirot.

The seven branches of the menorah were interpreted as the seven lower divine emanations, divided into two groups of three. At their center is the Sefirah of Tiferet (glory), that is the shamash, the middle branch that divides the two halves. Whereas Gikatilla focused on the materials from which the Menorah is made, the kabbalists who interpreted the Menorah as a symbol of the Sefirot focused on the material that lights it—the oil.  The oil and the light of the Menorah provided a solution to the great question of the Kabbalah: How do we reconcile the existence of the one God with the ten Sefirot of the kabbalists?

Asis Rimonim, Shemuʼel Galiḳo, 16 & 17th centuries, the Russian State Library, (M.s Guenzburg 170)

In ancient times, the Menorah was a sign and a symbol of the divine presence—the Shekhinah that rests over the Temple, and over all of Israel. The Kabbalistic theory separates the hidden God—the infinite—from His attributes and powers revealed in the world—the ten Sefirot that emanate from the infinite.  The oil poured into the seven branches and the light that is lit from them are, as Idel writes, “the abundance which comes from infinity, which is absorbed by the mid-line, which divides them among the six Sefirot, or edges.”

The shape of the Menorah according to Psalm 67, 1558, University of Frankfurt Library, Germany (Ms. Oct. 203)]

 

These Rediscovered Melodies Survived the Holocaust. Now They’re Online

Tunes from his childhood accompanied Yitzchak Freilich through the camps and on to his new life in America. Recorded by his son, they are now online as part of the National Library of Israel collection

"The rituals of Shabbes and holidays and the lively Hasidic niggunim as well as their soulful prayer marked the happiest and deepest memories of my father’s prewar life." [Image from the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, The Folklore Research Center at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection]

My father Yitzchak Freilich’s stories of survival during the Holocaust were laced with liturgical references. In recounting his first Shabbes (Sabbath) as a prisoner in the Pustkow camp in southeastern Poland early in the war – forced for the first time to violate the Sabbath by performing hard labor – he returned to his barracks exhausted and despondent and fell into a deep sleep.

Dreaming that he was at home with his family for Seudah Shlishit, the afternoon Sabbath meal, he woke himself up singing zmirot, songs traditionally sung around the table.

His long and harrowing tale ended on a similar note: five camps and years later, as his Russian liberators approached Theresienstadt, my father and some of the other prisoners spontaneously burst out singing “Avinu Malkeinu“, the hallowed prayer of the High Holidays. By then, he was the only survivor of his immediate family.

This sort of musical bracketing of his wartime experiences is not surprising given my father’s upbringing. The fourth of five children born to a Hasidic family in 1922 in Radomyszl Wielki, a tiny Polish shtetl, his father, Asher Freilich, was a traveling Ba’al T’filah, an itinerant prayer leader.

Asher Freilich (Courtesy: Toby Perl Freilich)

My grandfather’s route was guided by a quest for Hasidic davening (prayer) that dug deep into his soul, and he was frequently accompanied by my father and my uncle Naftuli, my father’s older brother. Occasionally my grandfather or others in the shtetl hosted visiting Hasidic dignitaries, such as the Dembitzer or Zabner rebbes, who might leave behind a little known but striking tune, known as a “niggun” (pl. “niggunim“), that was then incorporated into the family’s repertoire.

The rituals of Shabbes and holidays and the lively Hasidic niggunim as well as their soulful prayer marked the happiest and deepest memories of my father’s prewar life. The household was poor, but my father’s memories were invariably warm, loving and inextricably linked to the music he had heard at home when his family had been intact.

In the late 1990s, with my father’s health failing and his depression deepening, my brother, Mel Freilich, had the brilliant inspiration to sit my father down over the course of a number of Shabbes and holiday eves to videotape him singing the t’fillot (prayers), piyyutim (liturgical poems), zmirot, and other songs that had formed the soundtrack of his childhood.

Yitzchak Freilich (lower left) and his family before the war (Courtesy: Toby Perl Freilich)

Mel also asked him to recall the rituals surrounding the holidays and the origin of the niggunim, insisting that my father speak in Yiddish – an astute directorial prompt, as it allowed my father to vividly channel his boyhood memories including the folkways of the town’s Jews.

On Fridays, his mother prepared a lunch of farfel and tzikker arbis (lima beans), a modest meal to ensure that they came to the main meal that night with a keen appetite. On Purim, the matzos were baked in a communal oven and hung from the attic rafters until Pesach to keep the mice at bay.

On the morning of Lag Ba’Omer, the rebbe of the kheder (children’s religious school) took them to the woods; they carried hard-boiled eggs and bagels and crude bows and arrows (“a feil und boigen“), made of two sticks and a string. They would merrily shoot into the air, vaguely in the direction of the birds so that it was never a surprise when they failed to capture any quarry. He recounts the precise order of t’fillot and niggunim on Friday night: what was recited after the fish; which zmirot were sung at Seudah Shlishit.

My father passed away in 2002, and only my brother – the keeper of the family’s flame – watched the videos in toto, my sister and I not having the heart.

Mel Freilich, keeper of the family’s flame (Courtesy: Mel Freilich)

A few years ago, my sister’s husband died and suddenly the mortality of our generation became all too real, as was the anxiety that these memories would pass along with us if we didn’t ensure their preservation.

I became an Israeli citizen a couple of months ago, joining my sister, who made Aliyah in 1968 and lives on Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi. My parents are buried on the kibbutz, and most of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren either live in Israel or think of it as a second home, so it made sense for our father’s tapes to find a home here as well. I reached out to my friend, Naomi Schacter, who heads International Relations at the National Library of Israel, and she put me in touch with Dr. Gila Flam, the Head of the Music and Sound Archives, Collections and Reading Room, who welcomed our precious legacy to the NLI’s ethnographic collection.

The videos are now preserved and available online for all to see.

Click to view two clips of Yitzchak Freilich singing various songs and niggunim, including some traditionally sung on Purim, Passover and the High Holidays, now part of the National Library of Israel collection
Click to view two clips of Yitzchak Freilich singing Shabbes and Shavuos songs from his childhood, now part of the National Library of Israel collection

Once the videos were online, I began to watch them more assiduously, finding new connections between the origin stories of these niggunim and my father’s Holocaust stories. For example, my father sang an outstanding and exceedingly rare rendition of “Yah Ribon Olam“, the popular table hymn sung on Shabbat. It was not until I listened to my brother’s recording that I heard the source of this niggun, which my father attributes to the “Melitzer rebbe,” Reb Yitzchokele Horowitz. “Melitz” rang a bell and I realized it was the Yiddishized reference to the town of Mielić, where my father had been imprisoned as a slave laborer in the city’s aircraft factory, which had been appropriated by the Nazis and turned into a camp. It was also where he had received his distinctive tattoo – a large KL on his right wrist, an acronym for Konzentrationslager Lager (concentration camp). But when asked, my father would declare that KL stood for “koidesh l’Hashem” – Holy to God.

My mother, Chana Perl Freilich, also a survivor from a Hasidic shtetl in Poland, punctuates the videos with a few well-timed and powerful cameo appearances. The Yom Kippur eve recording is particularly difficult to watch as my father repeatedly breaks down. Following his third or fourth failed attempt (before finally rallying), my mother comes into frame, kisses him on his head and says in Yiddish, “You know what? Today is Yom Kippur eve… And I don’t think you have so much to repent – you haven’t sinned very much.”

Anna and Yitzchak Freilich, 1947 (Courtesy: Toby Perl Freilich)

Implicit in her comments is the grudge many observant survivors bore toward God for the unwarranted catastrophe visited upon pious Jews. My mother would frequently wave a rhetorical fist at the heavens, saying “Ikh hub a din v’khesbon mit dem Riboineh Shel Oilem” – “I have an accounting with God”.

It was at once an expression of unquestioning faith yet resentment toward God, testifying to a longstanding and weary, yet intimate relationship.

Yom Kippur was a loaded day for my mother as well as my father, a day heavy with memory and fate. There’s a particularly chilling story related to Yom Kippur and my mother’s shtetl, Szydłowiec. The Jews of her ghetto were rounded-up and transported to the camps two days after Yom Kippur, on September 23, 1942. A surviving eyewitness recounts that as they were gathered in the central square before being deported to Treblinka, the rabbi of the shtetl, Chaim Yekusiel Rabinowitz, said, “Yidden, we will not even have anybody left to say Kaddish for us, so we are obligated to say Kaddish for ourselves.”

Jewish cemetery in Szydłowiec (Photo: Jerzy Budziszewski). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

All of the assembled began to wail and chant Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer: “Yisgadal v’yiskaddash shemei rabba.”

A day earlier, my mother along with a married cousin and her husband, Gitele and Yossel Friedenson, had been fortunate to escape to the nearby town of Starachowice, having secured forged work papers for the labor camp. They barely survived the brutal conditions and were transported to Auschwitz on Tisha B’Av, July 30, 1944.

On the Shabbes tape, my father says that it was the custom among the Hasidim in his region

to begin the Friday davening with a “kapitl Tehilim” – “a little bit of Psalms”, and he begins to chant the customary Psalm 107, reaching the following words:

Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind,
for he satisfies the thirsty
and fills the hungry with good things.
Some sat in darkness, in utter darkness,
prisoners suffering in iron chains,
because they rebelled against God’s commands
and despised the plans of the Most High.
So he subjected them to bitter labor;
they stumbled, and there was no one to help.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress.

He finishes midway through the Psalm and says, “You see, I didn’t want to end on hunger, thirst, and bondage.”

And so, I will stop where he chose to end:

He brought them out of darkness, the utter darkness,
and broke away their chains.

 

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.