The lights go on for European Jewry 56 years after Auschwitz

January 28, 2001|By Edward Serotta

VIENNA -- A light snow dusted the cobbled alleys of the Latvian capital of Riga on Christmas Eve. Farmers sold fresh geese outside the city market and eager shoppers grabbed up Sony Play Stations, cell phones and computers on the main street.

Another enthusiastic crowd had gathered on Skolas Street. From grandparents with walking canes to toddlers bundled against the cold, hundreds of people filed into Riga's Jewish community center. By 5 p.m., Rabbi Natan Barkan had lit the candles for Hanukkah. For the next two hours, about 75 children put on skits, sang, danced and were blinded by camera flashes from beaming parents.

About 600 people attended that night, filling the auditorium, spilling into the hallways, lining the stairs.

Not bad, considering there was no Jewish community in Riga for more than 40 years of the Soviet era. Even more remarkable, considering the vast majority of Riga's Jews were massacred in the Holocaust and, since then, the world had written off this Jewish community.

You can travel anywhere between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, from the Urals to the Rhine, and you will not find the Jewish communities described by Joseph Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer or Sholom Aleichem. Jan. 20 was the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1945, the symbol of all of the Nazi death camps that sealed the fate of Jewish life in central and Eastern Europe

You can, of course, still find a Hasid and his children strolling through Vienna's Second District, you can eat in a kosher restaurant in Budapest and you can pray in an Orthodox synagogue in St Petersburg, Russia; Kiev, Ukraine; and Vilnius, Lithuania. But the Jewish world that lived before the Holocaust is no more. The Nazis saw to it, and the Communists made sure nothing grew on the same ground.

Still, they both failed.

Even though the West has deemed these Jewish communities to be shadows of their former selves (and they are indeed greatly shrunken), since the fall of communism Jews here have been casting off the mantle of remnant like a garment that no longer fits. Remnants don't slam-dunk basketballs, go to summer camps and set up Web sites.

But Jews in this part of the world do all those things and demand to be accepted on their own terms, not as part of a bygone world they did not inhabit. Many have emigrated to Israel, but even more have chosen to stay home and rebuild Jewish life.

Most of the money to support these communities -- millions of dollars annually -- comes from America (the Joint Distribution Committee along with such Baltimore-based organizations as the Jewish Federation and the Weinberg and Meyerhoff foundations).

When Sarajevo was besieged between 1992 and 1995, its tiny Jewish community opened its doors to Muslims, Croats and Serbs, doling out food and medicine and running rescue convoys. They did the heavy lifting, but they called on friends in America to help them prove that their community was still viable and a good neighbor.

When NATO bombed Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1999, Aca Singer, 77, an Auschwitz survivor and president of the Serbian Jewish community, telephoned Gustav Zoltai, a survivor of the Budapest ghetto and president of the Hungarian Jewish community.

"Guszti, I need you," said Mr. Singer. The following morning, when three buses filled with Serb Jews and their non-Jewish friends crossed the Hungarian border, Mr. Zoltai was waiting for them. So were hotel rooms, hot meals and special schools.

No one seemed to notice that, for the first time since the Holocaust, a Jewish community in central Europe had immediately, and quietly, come to the aid of another Jewish community. It would have been impossible a dozen years ago because central European Jews did not have that kind of confidence in themselves or the infrastructure to make it work. They do now.

On the night Riga's Jewish community center overflowed with people, I looked on the bulletin board's calendar for Jan. 20. The seniors club planned to hold its Yiddish choir practice at 10 a.m., its soup kitchen would be open for lunch, a book club would meet at 3 p.m. and there would be dance practice for small children, a meeting for high school students and a board meeting of the Jewish hospital at 7 p.m. No other events were planned for that day -- not even a commemoration of the liberation.

It may be that a Jewish community building filled with life is the best kind of commemoration for the liberation of Auschwitz.

Edward Serotta is a writer and photographer specializing in Jewish life in Europe. He lives in Vienna.

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