The first call to the first of the Jewish Patriarchs, Abram was “go forth form your land, from the place of your birth, the house of your fathers to a land that I will show you.” The Hebrew of this Biblical verse is far more complex: Lech Lecha, go forth, actually means, “go onto yourself.” Every pilgrimage outward is also a journey inward.
In the early summer of 2009 some 100 Cantors of the Cantors Assembly from various cities and towns in the United States and Canada set forth on a journey to Poland to give a series of concerts: one of Jewish Music in the Main Opera House in Warsaw, the largest such performance hall in Europe; a July 4th concert in the Krakow Opera House of American Music by Polish born, American-Jewish composers to celebrate the migration of Polish talent to the American musical stage, perhaps also to remind the Poles of what they had lost; and another performance as participants in the Krakow Jewish Festivals, which culminates in a musical happening on the main square in Kazimierz, the former Jewish quarter on Krakow, which for one week a year is revived to celebrate Jewish art forms with lectures, concerts, exhibitions, films, and prayer making it more fun to be Jewish in Poland that one week than in the thousand years that Jewish dwelled in the land.
Between 15,000 and 20,000 Poles fill the open square on the final night, dancing, singing, celebrating and masking and perhaps confronting Poland’s Jewish problem: “the presence of absence and the absence of presence.”
Readers should know that each year for the past decade, I am on the faculty during the early summer of Jagellonian University in Krakow where I teach Polish teachers the history and methodology of teaching the Holocaust and attend the Krakow Jewish Festival so I was present at the concerts and also at the Temple in Krakow where these cantors led Friday evening and Shabbat morning services. They filled the Temple to capacity and the room with music in the Polish Cantorial tradition.
These Cantors went forth to Poland, the place of origin for perhaps three in four of America’s Jews. Naturally, no historically minded Jew can go to Poland without visiting the Nazi death camps that were situated on Polish soil during German occupation. So these men and women journeyed forth and among the most moving moments of the film is the morning service held on the grounds of Auschwitz I, where the services were chanted and the Torah was read. They decided to envelop the survivors in the Torah, the embrace them with the sacred words.
But this was also a journey inwards. As Jews of a certain generation: some were children on Holocaust survivors, some were even born in displaced persons camps and as they journeyed outward, the also confronted their own past, rediscovered their own roots. A visit to Poland was a journey at their homeland, the place where the Jewish traditions they know so well were first shaped – and then so brutally shattered. Cantor Alberto Mizrahi cantor is the son of one of the last of the Sonderkommando, those Jewish prisoners who worked in the vicinity of the death camps, stoking the flames of the fires, bringing the dead in for cremation. He recited the memorial prayer for the dead at the ruins of the very same crematoria. Charles Fox, a prominent Hollywood composer was the first of his father’s descendants to return to the town from which his father had emigrated in 1920, the first but not the last. He was walking in his father’s shadow with pride, not with fear. Two sons of a former Warsaw Cantor Ivor Lichterman and his brother Joel prayed in the Nozick Synagogue, the lone Warsaw synagogue to survive the war more than three score years after their father had led the very same prayers at the very same place. A father Cantor David Propos and his daughter – cantors both – son and granddaughter of survivors did a duet “Let our eyes see Your return to Zion.” Those who were present, so acutely sensed the presence of those who was absent.
The documentary touches on the art of cantorial music, on the mystery of prayer, the joy of music, the exhilaration of performance and the spirituality of the men and women who lead their congregation in prayer. It touches but does not dwell on the Holocaust. But most powerfully it documents how a journey forth is also a journey inward and we, the audience, are priviledged to share both parts of that journey.