October 2009: Houston Chronicle features Taube-sponsored Cantors Tour to Poland

U.S. Jews see old horrors, new hope in Poland

By RACHEL POMERANCE Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
Oct. 30, 2009, 11:10AM
Rachel Pomerance For the Chronicle

David Propis and his daughter Dena sang the Retzei at the Poland National Opera this summer. Propis, president of the American Cantors Assembly, led 70 colleagues on a tour of Poland and Israel.

As a child, David Propis, the Jewish liturgical singer of Houston's Congregation Beth Yushurun, adored singing prayers with his father, Dov Propis, at his congregations in the Northeast.

His favorite was their first duet, a piece called the Retzei that asks God to accept one's prayers. And Propis still recalls the Sabbath performance when his father wrapped his prayer shawl around him, and with it a “feeling of protection.”

The prayer was made famous by Gershon Sirota, who sang at Warsaw's Tlomatzka Synagogue and was killed, along with his family, in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

So when Propis, the new president of the Cantors Assembly, the world's largest body of professional cantors, helped lead about 70 of his colleagues and hundreds of congregants on a two-week tour through Poland and Israel recently, he once again performed the Retzei. This time, it was with his daughter, about 100 yards from where the Tlomatzka Synagogue once stood.

Their duet was part of the Cantors Assembly concert with the Polish National Opera, a symbolic evening that honored the life of Irena Sendler, a Pole who rescued 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto.

The group traveled to Poland to commemorate the Holocaust, but also in spite of it. They wanted to honor Poland's significant number of “Righteous Gentiles,” the non-Jewish Poles who risked their lives and those of their families to save Jews, said Propis, the child of Lithuanian Jews whose families were murdered in the Holocaust. And they also went to learn about the Jewish heritage of Poland, the center of European Jewish life and home to 3.5 million Jews before the war.

In that spirit, the cantors' tour, which marked the largest assembly of cantors in Poland since before WWII, reflected a message of gratitude and a quest for healing, reconciliation and their own heritage.

The Poland portion of the trip was sponsored in large part by the San Francisco-based Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture, which aims to reconnect Jews with their vibrant history in Poland, where Jews lived for 1,000 years. Some 75 percent of American Jews trace their roots to “Polish lands,” according to the foundation, an area that extends to parts of Ukraine, Austria and Hungary.

Meanwhile, Poland, in the wake of 20 years of democracy since the fall of communism, is seeking to reclaim its own Jewish heritage by way of preservation and cultural activities. The renewed interest in Jewish culture has helped spawn an emerging Jewish community as Poles uncover their own Jewish roots. But in most cases, Jewish activities appear to be organized by non-Jews, supported by government agencies and enthusiastically received.

Perhaps the most shining example was Krakow's 19th Jewish Culture Festival, a nine-day panoply of Jewish culture. The program featured hundreds of Jewish classes and concerts including a prayer service by the Cantors Assembly before a nighttime throng of thousands.

At its concert with the National Opera, sponsored by the Office of the Prime Minister of Poland, the Cantors Assembly received a standing ovation from a crowd of 2,000.

That kind of reception helped undo some of the stereotypes held by those on the tour.

“They welcomed us as cultural and musical ambassadors,” Propis said, describing the Polish appreciation “like a hunger.”

Propis said he initially felt uncomfortable about visiting Poland.

As a child of survivors, “many of us harbor difficult feelings,” he said. Propis' mother, who was sent to a forced-labor camp, was the only member of her family to survive; his father escaped with two brothers.

However, “it was important that basically a new narrative be created,” he said. “We know the harshness and the horrors that have happened, but I think not enough is being said about the goodness in Poland,” he said. “I think this trip kind of cleared the clouds away.”

Still, the group's visit to the camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau marked a seminal moment on the tour.

At Auschwitz, the cantors held a prayer service and unfurled the Torah scroll around Holocaust survivors and their children. And at Birkenau, the group's visit coincided with a tour by hundreds of Israeli soldiers, who marched down the rail tracks.

“It's very hard to put in words,” said Steve Lee, reflecting on the trip.

These ceremonies, combined with the religious singing, strengthened his Jewish identity, said Lee, a member of Congregation Beth Yeshurun, whose paternal grandparents emigrated from Poland. At the same time, Lee says the tour “changed my entire view of Poland,” explaining that he began to see Poles also as Nazi victims and not only as Nazi collaborators.

Some 3 million Poles were killed during World War II.

For his part, Propis also came to new realizations. He marveled at the extent of Poland's Jewish and cantorial heritage and its current friendship with Israel, along with the Polish interest in Jewish culture and the stories of “Righteous Gentiles.”

And the National Opera, of course, provided him with his own kind of homecoming.

“I had a dream come true,” Propis says of performing the Retzei with his daughter, Dena, a junior at Northwestern University who sings at a Chicago synagogue.

It “just came full circle.”