Praying at the Holocaust Wall
In Jewish religious culture, it is not uncommon to leave prayer notes––kvitlech in Yiddish––at the graves of Jewish sages, or, most famously, in the cracks of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Sometimes these notes address god directly, and sometimes they address the intermediary spirit of the wise person, and they range in their purposes from petition to supplication to meditation to thanksgiving. Commonly they are left in place indefinitely, until the forces of nature disintegrate them.
Recently in Kazimierz Dolny, Poland, my friend Asya and I happened upon kvitlech in the town’s new Jewish cemetery, opened at the end of the eighteenth century. Specifically, we found them in the massive lapidarium that fronts the cemetery, a structure built of recovered pieces of the cemetery’s tombstones. Like most Jewish cemeteries across eastern Europe, Kazimierz Dolny’s Jewish burial ground was almost completely destroyed during and after the Holocaust, its tombstones extracted and repurposed as building material. The memorial wall was constructed in the 1980s based on a design by Tadeusz Augustynka.
From sheer curiosity, and with some shame, we began to read them. To our surprise, the notes were in Polish, and were left quite obviously by Poles, not by Jews. The prayers had nothing to do with the genocide.
"A nice girl for the evening, and that the night should be great."
"Damian P. I would like to get a medal at the tournament."
"To go out with Martyna."
"So that I don't have a kid until I'm 21. So that I should finish school and have a good job!"
"Thank you God for the happiness of my family. I am asking for more of the same."
"I ask for the fulfillment of my most secret dreams."
The phenomenon of non-Jews mimicking Jewish religious practice by leaving notes at Jewish graves is not widespread, but also not entirely unheard of. I have heard about it anecdotally, sometimes in combination with prewar stories of non-Jews visiting famous rabbis like the Chozeh of Lublin, seeking blessings or advice. But what to make of non-Jewish kvitlech in this case specifically? Do local Poles fail to realize that what they see as a place of Jewish spiritual power is a Holocaust wall, a physical remnant of the destruction of European Jewry? Would they leave prayers of this kind at any Holocaust memorial––at Auschwitz, for example? Or are local Poles who come to the wall to pray making something new, creating a place of spiritual power from the material leavings of genocide? And what to say if both are true, if their prayers are ignorant and earnest in equal measure?
Lublin, June 14, 2017