A Polish Bar Mitzvah

They tell the story of Jacob Zigowski and his son, Adam, who returned to their Polish village in early 1946 - the only survivors of a family of mama and papa and six children. In fact, the only Jews of Riegle still alive.

One day, as Adam and his father sat over a supper of cheese, boiled cabbage and dark bread, the boy uncharacteristically began the suppertime conversation.

“In six months, on June 14th, I’ll be 13. Should we not start my Bar Mitzvah training. Shouldn’t we hire the tutor, Shimon Mendel from Warsaw - if he’s still alive - to come and teach me to chant the Torah and Haftorah?”

His father laid down his knife and fork. His jaws ceased their chewing. He smiled at his son, but only to gain time to order his thoughts - shocked by the idea of a bar mitzvah. A Bar Mitzvah, he thought? A Bar Mitzvah here in this lawless land; in this godless time where the Supreme Judge, himself, had apparently broken his vows with his people Israel? A 24-hour repetition of the Kaddish would be more appropriate, followed by a funeral march around the town square. That would make sense, thought Jacob. But a Bar Mitzvah celebration? A tribute to the forgotten covenant? How stupid.

To the boy, he said, “Adam, I think the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has forgotten us. Eat your cheese”.

“Maybe he needs reminding,” softly suggested the boy.

Over the following two weeks his persistence continued. Jacob had never heard such eloquence and passion from this child who had lost most of his childhood. So, finally he agreed. Yes, they’d bring Shimon, or some substitute if Shimon had fed the Nazi appetite for Jewish flesh. Yes, he’d come twice a week and Adam, like whole tribes of boys before him, would recite prayers of praise to G-d for illuminating us with the light of Torah. And he would read the dusty, tattered village Torah Scroll. It had survived the war in a peasant’s barn, a far-sighted peasant who knew the Jews would pay well for it, if any of them remained.

Only a few weeks before the event did it occur to the Zigowski family - father and son - that their’s might be the first Bar Mitzvah without spectators. Except for one, of course, who would stare down in astonishment. “If G-d lived here, our remaining Polish Jews would throw stones at his house,” Jacob often said during those months. “That is assuming that any Jewish stone throwers survived,” he usually added. Besides Adam and Jacob, the few remaining survivors in the district had scurried as far as possible from the fields and towns of sorrowful memories.

“So, who’s going to come?” said the papa to the Bar Mitzvah boy. “Ghosts? Well, at least we’ll save a bundle on the kiddush. How much herring and cheese can they eat?”

“If we do it, they’ll come. There’s the Abramowitz family in Posen, they’ll come. And Dahlia here in our own town, she’s got a Jewish grandmother.”

“Great, we’ll fill six seats in a 500-seat sanctuary. There’ll be a bigger crowd watching the ice melt on the river.”

“You forgot someone, Father,” added the boy.

“Yeah, OK, he’ll, maybe, be there, too,” replied Jacob. “Maybe the reading of His Book will remind him of his obligations.”

The Bar Mitzvah day dawned as fresh as the first day of creation. It was Spring and the cornflowers in the meadows of Riegle celebrated with vivid blues and purples and pinks. The Bar Mitzvah boy, his father, and the tutor walked the few blocks from their house to the old wooden synagogue, unfrequented for years. Jacob took the key from his jacket pocket. It turned easily in its lock. With a loud click, the weathered door swung open.

As they stepped in, a hum - a buzz - of expectation flooded over them. The pews were full. Not one empty seat. It was a crowd befitting a Bar Mitzvah of long ago, not the Bar Mitzvah of the only Jewish boy in Riegle in June of 1946.

The chandelier in the old shul blazed with an uncanny brilliance that could have lit the world in its blackest midnight. Down the center aisle, their cheeks shining with tears, walked Adam and his father. They waved exuberantly. They threw kisses. The Jewish community of Riegle and the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob awaited the Bar Mitzvah of Adam Zigowski.