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[Page 51]

The Golden Thread

[Page 52]
The Great Synagogue of Piotrkow
The Great Synagogue of Piotrkow

[Page 53]

*     *

Nearly fifty years have passed since the divine command, “Remember what Amalek has done to you... do not forget!” has acquired a new meaning. There is no doubt in anyone's mind as to who the Amalek of our generation is.

One of the questions over which we have agonized is how to find a way to obey both parts of this sacred command – to remember, and not to forget. The monstrous fact that over 150(!) so-called “scientific” books have been published to date about the Holocaust, each claiming to be accurate in its assertion that this event never took place despite the fact that our generation still feels the horrors of that catastrophe and has Auschwitz numbers tattooed on its arm – is proof enough that we have not been sufficiently successful in passing on the legacy of the Shoah. Even among our own people the subject does not occupy its proper place.

One can offer many reasons for this; let me mention two.

First, we speak of the enormous number of six million. The human mind and heart cannot fathom such an astronomical number, and surely it is hard to identify or empathize with it. If we speak of one community, or one family, or one Anne Frank, we can feel empathy, we can relate personally to that person or persons. But we cannot relate to multitudes. To paraphrase the words of the Talmud, “You can only grasp a little bit at a time.”

Second, we have spoken and written about the death of six million, but we have not spoken much about their lives. One cannot grieve over the news of the death of an unknown person who did not speak to us or leave any imprint on our soul. Only when we appreciate a thing can we miss it and cry for it. The younger generation of Jews under fifty, as well as the Jews of Asia, Africa and America – and certainly non-Jews -- cannot feel the legacy of the catastrophe of European Jewry if they know nothing about the lives of those Jews, their communities and their history. One should retell the story of how Jews lived the life of sanctifying the divine name, not only how they died with that name on their lips.

The book of our beloved friend, Ben Giladi, who hails from our own native town of Piotrkow Trybunalski in Congress Poland, deals successfully with this awesome and glorious subject, and provides an answer to these two questions.

The book does not speak of millions, but rather deals with the history of a distinguished community, allowing us to relate to it personally. The book dwells not only on the destruction, but on the construction; describes not only the flames that engulfed the town at the end, but also the fire of enthusiasm displayed by its people during times of activity and creativity. Here is a story of a major Jewish community, its personalities and institutions, that became known throughout the Jewish world.

As the youngest son of the town's last rabbi, the scholarly Rabbi Moshe Haim Lau of righteous and sacred memory, and as the younger brother of Naftali Lau-Lavie, author of The Seven Fires of Hell, based on his personal experience during those years of darkness, I am deeply grateful to our dear Ben Giladi, who in this book has accomplished what was incumbent on all of us to do: the sacred mission – “Remember. . . do not forget!”

Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv
        The son of the last Rabbi of Piotrkow

[Page 54]

The Last Chapter

Jacob Birnbaum – Boston

If I forget thee...

To the blessed memory of my Parents and my sister Hannah

The month was August, 1963; the place Mount Zion, in Jerusalem. The hot rays of the sun swept through the assemblage of some 70 people who had gathered from near and far for this solemn occasion. From Tel Aviv and New York, from Montreal and Buenos Aires, from Paris and Boston, we had all come to pay our respects. The day was Tisha Ba'av, a day of mourning-a day in which Jews the world over recalled the twice-repeated catastrophe which has occupied so central a role in our people's history and religion: the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, first by the Babylonians and later by the Romans. On this day the prayer service at Martef Hashoa, atop Mount Zion, was to memorialize a third, more contemporary, destruction, one that many of the mourners themselves had witnessed, one that had annihilated their families and friends.

We stood there on Mt. Zion, blood relations... well, not really. Though Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob joined our origins as we gathered from the remoteness of our exile, the blood that bound us to this moment and this sacred site was of much more recent descent. We were the sons and the daughters of Piotrkow Trybunalski, her last Jewish sons and daughters. We were now waiting to witness the unveiling of a tombstone dedicated to the memory of the magnificent Jewish Community of learning that had graced that ancient Polish city.

The origins of Piotrkow Trybunalski dated back to the reign of the Polish King Boleslaw 111, in the years 1102-1138. There is no known specific date for the settling of the first Jews in the town; however, early chronicles indicate that, in the year 1487, a law was passed in Piotrkow which put severe restrictions on Jewish merchants which forbade them to engage in any kind of commerce. Piotrkow was at that time the site where the High Tribunal met regularly to issue legislation governing all of Poland, hence the name “Piotrkow Trybunalski” (the Tribunal). In the year 1557, the “Piotrkow Constitution” was adopted; it put many restrictions on the behavior of Jews and permitted them to settle only in designated districts.

During the five centuries of its existence, the Jewish community of Poland enjoyed periods of relative tranquility, though interrupted from time to time with outbursts of vicious anti-Semitism usually attributed to the infamous “blood libel.” However, despite all the anti-Semitic restrictions and persecutions emanating from the government, as well as from the church, Jews were able to develop self-government and create institutions of learning which produced some of the great scholars of the time.

Shortly before the outbreak of World War 11, the Jewish community of Piotrkow showed great progress in its communal development. In addition to its renowned religious institutions, which provided high levels of Jewish culture and education, the community also supported a Hebrew Gymnasium (equivalent to eight years of high school and junior college) and a well equipped ORT trade school. Jewish Piotrkow also maintained a sports club named “Maccabi” which was housed in its own modern building; a Jewish hospital which was well equipped and manned by trained and dedicated personnel; a large orphanage in the center of the town; beautiful gardens and playgrounds; and several libraries which contained Yiddish and Hebrew books and offered spacious reading rooms where the youth of the town congregated. There was a Jewish amateur theater, three weekly Yiddish newspapers, and a Jewish musical association called “HaZamir,” with Bensman, a composer renowned throughout the Jewish musical world, as its musical director.

Little now remained to bear testimony. The buildings, even if extant, had been stripped of their Jewish identity – one could be sure of that. Most of the people were no longer alive, victims of Hitler's gas chambers and crematoria. All that remained were memories – memories strong enough to make me lose for a moment the exhilaration of being a Jew in Jerusalem. Instead, I was standing in Jerusalem Street in pre-war Piotrkow, Poland, in the city of my birth and childhood, where I went to school and dreamed about the future. Scenes of a distant past and a distant land came rushing to my mind, creating an inner feeling touched with nostalgia and pain .

. . . It is the middle of a late springtime Sabbath morning in the Jewish quarter. The cobblestone streets seem deserted and silent. The stores and businesses, so bustling with activity the day before, are now padlocked and covered with heavy iron shutters. Not even the ever-present “Droshkas” (horse-driven taxis) dare disturb the stillness of the Sabbath atmosphere. Soon the service in the Great Synagogue and the Beth HaMidrash will be over, and from the children running in front of their elders will echo the sounds of laughter and chatter. At home, preparations are being made for the festive Sabbath meal, which is sure to include, besides the delicious food, a constant interspersion of singing and talking. After dinner we will walk to the park, meet with friends, play some ball, and then treat ourselves to a visit to the Botanical Garden to immerse ourselves in the beauty of that park in bloom, so fitting for a relaxed Sabbath afternoon. As darkness approaches, we will all rush home for the Havdalah service, which brings this wonderful day to a spectacular end.

Soon it will be Lag B'Omer, one of Jewish Piotrkow's most festive days. Preparations for the Lag B'Omer parade had been under way for weeks. Finally, on that festive day, the various youth organizations will congregate, each before its own headquarters, proudly displaying their colorful uniforms. The youngsters from HaShomer HaTzair will be in green khaki blouses and blue ties, the Gordonia and HaNoar HaZioni all clad in their own distinctive colors. And then, somewhat separate from the rest, there will be the militant BeTar in their brown uniforms with matching caps. As the starting hour of the parade approaches, all of the youth groups, with their flags proudly waving in the early morning breeze, will line up behind the Maccabi sports troupe, who will be dressed completely in white and headed by the marching band. As the parade marches through the cobblestoned streets of the town, the multitude of people who jam the sidewalks will loudly cheer the marching assembly. The marchers will proceed towards the outskirts of the town, heading for the Rakov Forest. There, after the encampment, the traditional soccer game between the two rival teams – HaKoach and Maccabi – will take place. It will be a day of happiness long remembered by all. Meanwhile, back home in front of the Great Synagogue, another celebration will take place, this one organized by the religious leaders of the town. Hundreds of students from the many religious schools will celebrate the religious aspect of the day by listening to the inspiring speeches of their respected mentors. Lag B'Omer is the spring classic, an unforgettable yearly event in the town of Piotrkow.

I looked around me, a little shocked at the vividness of my recollection. Many of the mourners assembled at Mount Zion had taken part in the Lag B'Omer celebration. I wondered how many still recalled those joyous days in the detail that I did.

The memorial service was about to begin, or so I expected from the sudden hushed silence. But I stood for one more moment, unable to remove my eyes from the cold, white marble structure representing the once vibrant Jewish community of 20,000 souls. Up from my memory came the beloved image of another structure.

The Great Synagogue played a central role in the lives of generations of Piotrkow Jews. In addition to Sabbath and Holiday Services, all major events in the life of the Jewish community were observed within the massive, exquisitely decorated walls. Happy events were commemorated there, observed within its massive, exquisitely decorated walls, as were tragic occurrences. The lives of many Rabbis and outstanding scholars were eulogized there. The synagogue was also the meeting place for the community when in imminent danger of pogroms of other calamities. On only two occasions in its 150 years of existence were there no prayer services on Friday evening. The first of these happened in the year 1861, when the Czarist Russian military occupying authority closed the Synagogue after it served as the site of a memorial service for five murdered Polish Freedom Fighters. The second such time was in August, 1914, shortly after the outbreak of World War I, when Russian soldiers and their local supporters entered the Synagogue and ripped apart its furnishings with the lame excuse that they were looking for a secret telephone connection to the German Headquarters.

The Jews of Piotrkow were rightfully proud of their Great Synagogue. It was a magnificent structure built in the Moorish style. Like a fortress, it was built on the grounds where a 17th century Synagogue had previously been destroyed by Jesuit students during an anti-Semitic outburst in 1740. This Great Synagogue of Piotrkow, which was known throughout Poland for its beautiful interior, was built in the years 1791-1793. It was a massive building with exterior walls measuring one and one-half meters in thickness. Upon entering the synagogue, one first experienced subdued lighting until the eyes inevitably were struck by the breathtaking sight of the magnificent gilded artwork on the eastern wall. The carvings, which were executed by the famous artist David Friedlander, depicted the Ten Commandments, replicas of the musical instruments which were used by the Levites in the Temple in Jerusalem and a carving of a golden crown held by two lions, used by the Levites in the Temple in Jerusalem, and a carving of a golden crown held by two lions, one on the right, the other on the left. Over the crown soared a black eagle with fully extended wings. With its beak directed to the south, the eagle faced the beautifully decorated ark containing the holy Torahs which it symbolically protected. Across from the ark stood the golden menorah with flickering lights and two cherubim on either side. Supported by four columns, and exquisitely decorated by murals depicting the holy places in Jerusalem, stood the first and second balconies, where the women prayed. Perhaps the most admirable of the synagogue's artwork was that which adorned the ceiling. Painted in Rococo style, using a rainbow of colors, was a tapestry of heavenly bodies and astrological signs which appeared to be moving through the firmament. Hanging from the ceilings were elegantly designed, immense, brass chandeliers, which were illuminated on various holidays. In the middle of the synagogue was a large, raised platform where the Torah was read. The cantor's pulpit was next to the ark against the eastern wall, and next to it was an enormous, handsomely carved chair of honor for the Rabbi of Piotrkow. The last man to occupy this chair was Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau, a martyr of blessed memory. Before him our Chief Rabbi had been Meir Shapiro, founder of the world renowned Lublin Yeshiva.

It took the Jews of Piotrkow thirty years to collect the funds needed for the construction of the Great Synagogue. Many famous artists took part in its completion. In the 150 years of its existence, many of Europe's great men entered its gates and admired its beauty. Among them were the Russian Tsar Alexander the First, who visited the Synagogue on his way to the peace conference in Erfurt. Eight years before that, it was visited by the Commanding General of the French Expeditionary Army, while in retreat from Moscow; and, according to legend, the Great Synagogue of Piotrkow was visited by Napoleon Bonaparte himself.

Praying in the Great Synagogue and listening to the magnificent voice of the great Cantor Apter, accompanied by a boys' choir, still lingers in my memory. Actually, I did not worship there regularly. My maternal grandfather was a follower of the Chassidic Rabbi of Rospsha, so our entire family worshipped with the Rospsha congregation two blocks away from the Great Synagogue. On many occasions, however, we stopped over on our way home to sit for a while in this beautiful setting and listen to the cantor.

Suddenly, my thoughts were interrupted as the mournful, familiar words of “El Moleh Rachamim” began the Memorial Service: “Merciful G-d. . . spread thy heavenly rest upon the pure souls of the Martyrs of Piotrkow who perished for Thy name . . . .” My thoughts went back to my last visit to the Great Synagogue of Piotrkow.

The time was shortly before my immediate family and I left Piotrkow to settle in Dombrova, a town in the southwestern industrial region of Poland. I was a teenager with no thought of war or Holocaust. Yet, the message that I heard on that day made an indelible impression-one which stayed with me throughout the years. The words were those of the last Rabbi of Piotrkow, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau, whose Shabbath Shuva sermon on that day dealt with the topic of “Kiddush HaShem” – Martyrdom. At that point in time, the subject seemed so remote, more applicable to a historic time, to the ages of the Crusades or Inquisition. However, Rabbi Lau, who was in the process of writing a book about the very subject of his sermon, poignantly noted that the happenings in Germany, including the rise of anti-Semitism in general and Hitlerism in particular, forecast a terrible future for Jews, a future when the issue of “Kiddush HaShem” would be most relevant to every Jew in Europe.

Several years later, Rabbi Lau was to deliver the last of his sermons to the remaining Martyrs of Piotrkow. He did so as he led them to their final march to the train which was to transport them to Treblinka. A witness from that scene later related that he spoke with a fervor and enthusiasm no less in intensity then that which he used to convey from the pulpit of the Synagogue. “Better a living death than a dead life,” said Rabbi Lau, “and to be killed as a Jew is to die as a saint.” He called upon the Jews “to fulfill the will of G-d with joy” and to continue to sing and praise the Almighty. Rabbi Lau succeeded in elevating the spirits of his people, although each and every one of them knew of the imminence of the inevitable fate. As the former Rabbi of Preshow, in Slovakia, he was begged by his students and friends to return to Preshow, where arrangements had been made to accommodate him, to save him from the “Action” (mass murder). Rabbi Lau, however, refused to acquiesce to their wishes, and insisted on remaining with his people to the very end. During the gradual deportations, he inspired the Piotrkow Jews to resist; to resist physically and mentally, to resist the Nazi enemy, and to resist the Judenrat which attempted to force Jews to collaborate in the destruction of their Brethren. I thought of that last sermon I had heard and how Rabbi Lau had lived up to those hard standards he had set. I wondered whether or not he had ever finished his book, Kiddush HaShem, and if his work has survived the war.

The service ended with the recitation of the Kaddish by the entire assembly, and then the people began to leave. Somber faces, tearful eyes, some sobbing. Twenty years after the tragedy and the wounds were still fresh. Not a word was spoken-no words had to be spoken. And the survivors left with an ever stronger commitment: To live in defiance of all odds, and, as the few remaining eyewitnesses, to tell the story of the destruction of their community.

Piotrkow During the First World War

The Breadline
The “Breadline” before a bakery on the corner of Jerozolimska and Bykowska Streets.
(Bykowska was renamed Pilsudskiego)

Children waiting for their food provided by the charitable Linas Hatzedek in 1917
Children waiting for their food provided by the charitable Linas Hatzedek in 1917

The religious school Yesodei Hatorah in 1934
The religious school “Yesodei Hatorah” in 1934

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