The Presence of Narrative and the Poland Trip

Deep within the quiet back rows of the Okopowa Street Cemetery in Warsaw stands a dignified monument to members of the Bund, a Jewish secular socialist movement, who died in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943.[i] The relief inside the stone shows a robust amateur soldier, a rifle in one hand, a grenade in the other. The monument seems anachronistic in this particular neighborhood of the graveyard, standing slightly taller than the tombs of learned sages and religious community members and bearing only Yiddish and Polish engravings, without any Hebrew.

However, of all the graves that I visited that cold April day in Warsaw’s cemetery—perhaps in the whole of Poland—it was the Bund memorial that I remember most vividly. I believe it is seared into my memory not because it represents the only significant rebellion against the Nazis, but because it somehow captures the polyphonic voice—the sheer diversity—of Polish and, for that matter, European Jewry. The monument made me acutely aware that the narrative of European Jewry did not begin in the courts of famous rabbis, nor did it end in the final minyan in a Warsaw Ghetto cellar. It also made me cognizant of the presence—and limitations—of narrative.

In the spring of 2010, I boarded a Lot Airlines plane for a trip that has now become a lachrymose rite of passage for Jewish youth around the world. We arrived in Poland late at night, removed the sweaters from our bags, and embarked on a nighttime ride to a remote village deep in Poland’s interior. The following eight days were a blur of bus rides, motels, films, forests, graves, memorials, museums, and concentration camps. We crisscrossed—or rather encircled—the country on a schedule familiar to many. Krakow, Katowice, Auschwitz. Lodz, Warsaw, Treblinka. Lublin, Lvov, Majdanek. The final stop was the Western Wall.

What united those locations was a centralized narrative told to me by my veteran tour guide. He weaved together stories, documents, confessions, and facts into a coherent arc. Narrative was essential; it gave the trip a backbone, it grounded me within an ever more familiar set of characters, of locations, and of events. The vignettes would lead us through the distress of witnessing the “unwitnessable” and speaking of the “unspeakable,” to borrow the words of Hent De Vries.[ii]

In the case of our trip, the narrative was decidedly focused on the rise and fall of Polish Orthodox Jewry. We visited the great yeshivah of Lublin, placed a stone on the grave of R. Moshe Isserles, and read stories of halakhic observance in the camps. We visited the great Orthodox synagogues of Krakow and read prayers in the open fields upon which kohanim could not walk. The narrative the trip adopted of course dovetailed to our particular religious milieu. We memorialize by chanting the Kel Male prayer. We visit the vestiges of Poland’s rabbinic seminaries because they contain the seeds of our religious movement. The trip’s itinerary and guidance seemed natural, even unquestionable.

However, sewn into our program were visits to the graves of the great Hasidic masters—R. Elimelekh of Lizhensk, R. Simhah Bunim of Peshischa, to name a few. At their graves, members of the group danced and sang, wrote small notes and gave tsedakah, prayed and had a shot of vodka. Visiting their graves struck me as incongruous. We were not Hasidim, we did not study the Zohar or believe in the saintly powers of these men to bring about good health or fortune. We were deeply rooted in Lithuanian rationalism, in the temporality of Halakhah and not the enchantment of mysticism. This was not part of our story, or was it?

By assimilating Hasidic history into our itinerary and discussions, the trip leaders were—intentionally or not—expanding the limited purview of our narrative. Now, the trip was not just about visiting important sites for Orthodox Jewry. It was about gaining a larger picture of Europe’s heterogeneous religious Jewry: Hasidic, Mitnagdic, rational, mystical. Yet something seemed missing. Polish Jewish life was not just comprised of a dialectic of two Jewish practices. Rather, it included a potpourri of voices—Jewish religious communists, Jewish socialist atheists, Jewish anti-Zionist Yiddishists, Jewish religious reformers, Labor Zionists… the list goes on.

However, the historical presence of these groups went virtually undetected throughout my trip in particular and, based on many discussions with friends and peers, in most yeshivah and seminary trips in general. We stopped to admire the radiant sanctuary of the Krakow Reform Temple, yet spoke little about the significance of the changes that began there and transformed the face of Judaism. We paused momentarily at the Bundist memorial on our way to yet another grave of a Hasidic rabbi. The narrative of my trip portrayed Polish Jewish life as harmonious, religious, and united, not diverse, opinionated, and often divided. Our trip’s storyline was not only historically imprecise, but it skewed and romanticized history toward one particular story. It omitted certain anecdotes and emphasized others. It told certain stories to the exclusion of others.

I imagine that a group of Reform rabbis visiting Eastern Europe would also choose a particular narrative, one that perhaps emphasizes the Haskalah, visits Warsaw’s burgeoning Reform congregations, and largely ignores Orthodox and Hasidic movements. I can also envision the itinerary of a Hasidic trip, with pilgrimages to the villages of famous courts—Kotzk, Belz, Lubin, and Bobowa—and not, say, Vilna. These trips, however, surely miss out on the larger picture of Eastern European Jewry in all its political and religious heterogeneity—a diversity that became magnified and intensified in the ghettos and camps.

Yes, we need to tell our particular denomination’s story. Yes, we should highlight certain stories over others. We should not, however, speak of the Bundists simply because their eye-catching memorial stood on the way to a grave of an Orthodox sage, nor visit the Reform Synagogue in Krakow simply for its aesthetic beauty.

We should recognize that among the 200,000 marked graves of the Okopowa Street Cemetery sit the graves of Solomon Anski, a prominent socialist and author of “The Dybbuk,” Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, rosh yeshivah of the venerated Volozhin Yeshiva, Hayyim Soloveitchik, founder of the rabbinic dynasty and the Brisker method, and Jozef Rozanski, one of the most brutal interrogators for the Soviet Secret Police. They all reside among the cemetery’s forested rows. The variety of these tombstones reflects the diversity of Jewish life in Poland.  These figures are all part of a larger story- a story we must tell.


Gavriel Brown is a junior in YC majoring in English, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.


[i] The Bund was founded in 1897 as a union of Jewish socialist groups across the Pale of Lithuania, Poland, and Russia. In Poland, they were unapologetic secularists, ardent combatants of antisemitism, and supporters of diasporism, believing that the future lay not with Jabotinsky and Palestine, but with their fellow Poles in Poland. They enjoyed widespread support among urban Jews, winning over sixty percent of the votes cast for Jewish parties in Warsaw’s 1938 municipal elections. By 1943, members of the Bund founded the Jewish Fighting Organization that precipitated the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

[ii] Hent De Vries and Lawrence Eugene Sullivan, Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2006), 558.