Walking toward the recently rededicated synagogue in Oświęcim, Poland, you turn right through an alley. If you happen to look up you would see a small, rectangular, dark-blue metal sign worn by age. Its Hebrew letters announce that this was the site of a Bobover beit midrash, a chasidic study hall and synagogue.
Surprised? Most people don’t know that there were as many as 12,000 Jews in this Polish railroad town before it became better known as Auschwitz. They cannot quite associate Auschwitz with living Judaism or live Jews.
They are so surprised that they totally miss what is behind them on the other side of the alley: It is a willow bush.
There, in this Polish alley, across from an abandoned study hall, grows a perfect specimen of the willow, called “aravot” in Hebrew, which is tucked in beside the lulav on Sukkot, and used on Hoshana Rabbah to pray for water.
Imagine, aravot growing in Auschwitz today … still growing from before the war!
To see the sign for the beit midrash is to hear ghost echoes of the study and song that took place so long ago in that two-story building. To discover the aravot bush is to become better aware of the lives Jews lived before the war, and to see an anonymous, living memorial to life and a lesson in survival.
Our sages teach that each component of the lulav is to remind us of a different body part through which we can serve God. (The lulav is comprised of a palm frond held together with myrtle and willow leaves.) The aravah, with leaves shaped like a mouth, can remind us of the power of speech and of prayer, and the value of telling our people’s stories.
What does this particular mouth-shaped aravah plant say to us? Would a bush from Auschwitz tell the sad stories of the millions killed only a few miles away, how smoky the nearby crematoria made the air it breathed, or what the Polish neighbors really said to each other as Jews were massacred in their midst?
Not necessarily. This plant has the strength and the need to tell us different stories. It has proven itself a sturdy plant, surviving for decades in this desolate spot nourished only by the gift of rain from God’s heavens. It has watched many seasons come and go — and many people, too. It is a willow that can do more than just weep.
So, I imagine its stories would incorporate lessons from the mitzvot of Sukkot in which it plays pivotal roles — mitzvot of reaching out and of bringing together, of repentance and of optimism.
The bush could not tell only sad tales, because we are instructed to be “ach sameach,” to be especially joyous, during Sukkot. It might weave a tale from its neighboring chasidic beit midrash that creates a tension of emotions, and of theme and place. It would challenge us to plumb the chasidic saying, “Mitzvah gedolah l’hiyot b’simchah,” that it is a great mitzvah to be in a state of joy — especially in the most adverse of conditions and even in this most terrible of places.
I would hope the bush would tell us about the person who planted it so many years ago. In my mind, it is the shammash, caretaker, of that beit midrash. (Is anyone still alive who knows this sexton’s name or whether he really existed?)
Through word pictures, the bush would help us see him take leftover willow branches, and nurse them so they would grow roots. We would accompany him as he stooped down to plant the branches in the dirt across the alley, as he would check on the bush regularly, and when necessary, water it. (Did his knees hurt when he bent over to plant the branches? Did he smile — even thank God — when he saw that some had taken firm root?)
We would learn from the story that the shammash planted the bush to assure that there would always be aravot for Sukkot and Hoshana Rabbah for those who prayed in the beit midrash; how it was both his professional obligation and livelihood to do so; and how he needed the money he would make by selling them on Hoshana Rabbah to support his family.
The simple, personalized narrative would subtly remind us that everyday mundane challenges have their own special meaning, especially when they are transformed into higher, joyous, and spiritual acts. And that a bush doesn’t have to burn to be holy. It simply has to grow.
And if the bush really told the story honestly and completely, we would hear people across the alley grumble among themselves for having to pay the shammash a few cents for the wrapped branches. The story, like life, must be real to be effective.
Imagining the willow’s possible story transported me back to my father’s sukkah in Miami Beach, where I would watch him, also a gabbai/shammash of a synagogue, as he would sit every year binding together wet aravot into hoshanot for the members of his shul. He took special delight in wrapping each one just right with a piece of a palm frond, and not the quick way with a rubber band. The imagined story also took me to the shul where I could again hear the grumbling voices of the shul members.
So last year on Hoshana Rabbah in New Jersey, when I thought of Auschwitz — and smiled — it was not perverse. Time seemed to have come full circle, modifying and elevating meaning. Forgotten life lessons were re-learned. Miami Beach and a different kind of Auschwitz merged to generate a different kind of simcha, but a true simcha just the same.
Chaim Lauer, who lives in West Orange, is a consultant to Jewish communal agencies and private businesses. He can be contacted at email@example.com.