Seeing Spirits in Poland Part Five: The Mourner’s Prayer

Yitgadal, v’yitkadash, sh’mei raba…

I imagine the words rising as a human tower of grief, each syllable standing on the shoulders of the one below, clinging to the mass,  like the famous castellers in Spain.

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Enough voices chanting, enough height achieved, and someone might hear.

Krakow: August 11, 1945

Anti Semitic tension blooms and festers in the wake of WW2 and German occupation.  Some 6600 Jews have returned to Krakow, hoping to rebuild their lives in the Jewish Kazimierz quarter. This is a pale shadow of the community that was once home to 70,000-80,000 souls.  Amongst the residents, are Roza Berger and her adult daughter, survivors of the nearby camps at Auschwitz. 

Soviet leaders in charge of the district have been documenting incidents,  warning that tensions could boil over at any moment. Earlier in the summer,  a Jewish woman was accused of trying to steal a child. Vicious rumors of murdered Christian children, and blood rituals float in the air – toxic spores threatening to poison the community. 

“The Jews are trying to kill me!”

Around 2 pm in the afternoon a 13 year old boy throws stones at the Kupa Synagogue in Kleparski square. Some members of the community attempt to stop him. He runs away, shouting for help.

That’s all it takes.

The Krakow pogrom, a riot of hate, ripples throughout the quarter sending shockwaves. Uncorked rage and festering resentment take human form, pounding on doors, striking out indiscriminately. Boots kicking. Fists pounding. Canes cracking as they come into contact with human flesh. Thwacking, thumping, thuds.

In the streets residents are attacked and beaten to the ground. Not just Jews, some Poles are beaten too, mistaken for the enemy. 

Then flames. Pogroms always seem to culminate in flames. As if nature needs the release. The synagogue is ransacked and burnt.

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At the end of the terror there is one confirmed death – Roza Berger, age 56, shot and killed in her apartment.

Krakow: August 11, 2016

We returned from our late dinner near midnight, marching the clumsily hastened strides of the exhausted.  Tripping quickly up the stairs on throbbing feet, we raced to the day’s finish line.  Faster to walk, faster to bed.

But I had an article to file, and a quiet hour with a reliable wifi connection is not something to be squandered when you are a digital nomad.

I curled up on the wooden bench by the kitchen table, tap-tapping away in the blue laptop glow. Drunken laughter floated up from the street below. Krakow is a young city, with the majority of residents in the millennial age group. Students. For them, the night was still beginning.

In the bedroom off the kitchen, my older daughter was still awake, awash in her own ghostly glow. I could hear the nasal laughter and snide commentary from Snapchat, Buzzfeed videos, Kardashian snippets as she flicked through her distant online world.

1 am in Poland. But prime hours back home in the states.

“Go to sleep. Don’t stay up all night texting”

“I am-uh,  Gaaaa-d,”  she groaned, extending simple single syllable words into two for added emphasis.

If emoticons could float, she’d have had an eye roll emoji hovering above her head.  A whole bunch of eyeroll emojis, like a balloon bouquet. Special delivery for me. And then I would simply float away, leaving her in peace.

In the other bedrooms our roommates snored steadily. I was no longer making sense. My body was cramped and knotted, becoming one with the bench. It would only get harder to move. Time for me to crawl into bed. Large, horizontal, clean sheets, sleeping-alone bed.

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I stretched out and  jammed my earphones in my ears, picking up an Audible novel where I’d left off.

The last thing I recall was a woman crying loudly somewhere nearby. Maybe outside, or in the apartment below.  Not weeping gently. She was sobbing, wailing, grief unleashed in an ugly cry. I had the sense it was an older woman, and for some reason, that it concerned her daughter, a loss.  In my near sleep brain I  flipped a card I remembered from earlier,  matching pieces in a matching game I was too tired to play. The mother and child image of the Klimt painting lingered on my closed eyelids.

This was not my problem. Not tonight. I just couldn’t.  I turned up the volume and was asleep before the end of the chapter.

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Sunlight streamed into the silent apartment early the next morning and I immediately thought of the weeping woman. I went to check on my daughters. They were gone, but their empty shoes were there, right where they’d kicked them off in the kitchen.

The key to the apartment was hanging, untouched, on the hook by the door.

I made tea and debated waking up our friends.  Perhaps the girls had gone out to see the sunrise?  I looked out the window. Nothing.

Then my friend walked into the kitchen.

“The girls were scared last night. They ended up sleeping with me,” she gestured to her room at the back of the apartment.

The story came out slowly over breakfast, both girls taking turns to explain.

“I was texting under the covers, around 2 am, and I heard you come into the room, I felt you there, you know how you can feel when someone is standing next to you, and I was trying to hide the phone, you know, so you wouldn’t see, and I told you I was going to sleep, but when I looked up…nobody was there,”  Marly said. “Then I heard the crying.”

“I was sleeping…” Ani said.

“So I face-timed my boyfriend Spencer,” Marly continued, “I didn’t want to be alone. I was really freaked out. While I was on the phone with him, Ani started chanting.”

“I don’t remember any of this.  I was actually sleeping really well,” Ani said

“You know Ani never talks in her sleep. So it was really weird. She wasn’t just talking and mumbling, she was singing and chanting. And not in English. I made Spencer watch and listen too. We were both so freaked out so we agreed that I should wake her up. So I ended the call, and woke her up and made her say her name, and tell me the year and stuff.”

“I was kind of annoyed when she woke me up. I mean, I was tired. But I agreed to stay up with her for a little while, because she was so scared,” Ani said, adding almost apologetically.  “And then I was a little freaked out too.”

“Then we both heard it again.” Marly interrupted. “There was a woman right there, right there by the doorway, and she was crying, loudly. But nobody was physically there. That’s when Ani started to convulse.”

Ani’s eyes grew wide as she spoke, “I swear my heart stopped for a minute. I was so cold. Like freezing cold. And I couldn’t stop shaking.”

“She was so white – she looked like she was going to pass out.  The room suddenly got really cold, freezing. And right before this the room had been so hot. I was sweating from being under the sheets.”

“I thought I was having a seizure…” Ani blushed, “I mean, nothing like this has ever happened to me. I don’t even know how to describe it. I didn’t know what was going on. I think… I think… like maybe I was possessed?”

“We yelled for you  and you didn’t hear us.” Marly said, a little accusatively, ” That’s when we called Daddy… He laughed at us, by the way,”

“And he told us to just get you, but we couldn’t. The woman was between us and your room. And you didn’t hear us calling you!” Ani admonished.

“That freaked me out even more. You’re usually such a light sleeper.” Marly said.

“I heard them and told the girls to come in with me.”  My friend finished, topping off  her coffee.

“What was she chanting? ” I asked.

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I wondered if the answer would match the image on the card already flipped in my mind. The human tower of grief, rising into a night sky.

Marly hummed a bit,  and imitated the chanting, pronouncing familiar syllables and a vaguely recognizable melody.

Ani shrugged.

I did a quick YouTube search for the Mourner’s Kaddish, specifically pulling up a recitation sung by Holocaust survivors – the Yiddish accent unique and unmistakable.

“Like this?” I played the clip.

Marly’s color drained and she began to shake, “Send that link to Spencer, Mom. Send it right now. I swear to G-d…”

Barely two minutes later the response came back, “Yeah, that’s definitely what your sister was singing last night. Why was she singing that? Does Ani speak Hebrew? Does she even know that prayer?”

“No,” Marly texted back, “she doesn’t.”

In the days that followed we thought a lot about why Ani, who doesn’t know the Mourner’s Kaddish, might have been chanting it fluently in her sleep.

We contacted the owner of the Air BNB apartment to ask if anyone else had experienced anything unusual in the apartment in the past.

He vehemently rejected the possibility.

We googled the address and searched for the history of the building. Nothing.

I even went so far as to stupidly take a photo of the water stains on the wall behind the curtain. It looked a little like a bear.

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Finally two weeks later, when it occurred to us, we googled the date, and things began to shift and make sense.

The anniversary of a tragic public event. The older woman. The mourner’s prayer.

Do the dead experience the grief of loss as keenly as the living?

We’d all had the distinct sense that the grief was related to the pain of loss – loss of a daughter. But on August 11 1945, Roza was was separated from her daughter by her own death, not by the death of her daughter.  Poor Roza Berger, who had clung to life and survived the Holocaust, only to be killed in a pogrom afterwards.

I did a little more research which revealed that Roza’s daughter was buried in New Jersey, not far from where I grew up, and where my grandparents lived. She must have emigrated at some point, after the pogrom. I wonder if she met my grandparents, if our familial paths intersected in Poland and in the United States as well.

But from there our trail went cold, no more clues to climb. We couldn’t determine any specific connection between the apartment, us and Roza,

We’ll never  know for sure if the ghost that shared her sorrow with us was her.

We don’t know if  there was anyone around to say Kaddish for Roza Berger on August 11th of 2016.  But we all felt so strongly, in that inexplicable way,  that the presence was her. We believe Roza wanted us to cling to our humanity, to raise our voices, and to remember her.

Bird Whistle purchased in Krakow

Click here to hear an incredible version of the Mourner’s Kaddish set to Adele’s “Hello”

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