A trip to what was once a center of Jewish culture before being destroyed in the Holocaust brought members of the Cantors Assembly to Poland last summer for a series of concerts.
Highlights of that historic trip have been made into a musical documentary, 100 Voices: A Journey Home.
The film is being screened in a special showing on Tuesday, Sept. 21, in more than 500 movie theaters across the country. It will be preceded by a specially produced concert with cantors from the documentary performing 20th-century contemporary American music.
One participant on that memorable trip was Cantor Murray Simon, recently retired from The Jewish Center of Princeton and now chair of the New Jersey region of the Cantors Assembly, who termed the experience “life-altering.”
“The trip was cosponsored by the Polish government and the American government with the Cantors Assembly to try and rebuild bridges,” he said in an interview with NJJN. “There was a Jewish community who lived there 1,000 years until the Holocaust.”
The assembly, the largest body of cantors in the world, is affiliated with United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
The 100 cantors were accompanied by 300 congregants from their synagogues, including 21 members of the Jewish Center.
The visit included a performance at the site of the Warsaw Ghetto during the ceremony launching construction of the new Museum of the History of the Polish Jews. As part of the visit, the group paid tribute to over 1,300 cantors who died during the Holocaust. The cantors also gave a concert at Philharmonic Hall in Cracow; at the Nozyk Synagogue, the only Warsaw synagogue that survived World War II intact, and at the city’s National Opera House, backed by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra.
“It was the first time Jewish music was performed at the opera house,” said Simon. “The mayor of Warsaw was there as were a lot of Polish dignitaries.”
One of the most stirring moments for Simon was the closing-night appearance during the Yiddish Cultural Festival in Cracow, the largest such festival in the world, in what was once the Jewish section of the city. It drew 18,000 people, most of them non-Jews.
Another moving moment came at Auschwitz, where the cantors conducted a morning prayer service. “I was surprised to learn it was the first time a Torah scroll had ever been read at Auschwitz,” said Simon. “We unfurled the Torah scroll and invited all Holocaust survivors and children of Holocaust survivors to be enveloped in the scroll as we wrapped it around them and said a prayer.”
By chance the group ran into a contingent of IDF officers touring the camps and asked the Israelis to be their “honor guard” as they marched the Torah scroll through Birkenau.
“Everywhere we went we got a tremendous reception because Polish and Yiddish culture has been so intertwined for so many centuries,” said Simon. “This was an attempt to rebuild the relationship with Poland, which gets a bad rap for anti-Semitism. But we were told 80 percent of the righteous gentiles at Yad Vashem are also Polish. Poland was the only country in Europe not to expel the Jews at some point during the 1,000 years they were there. Yes, there were pogroms, but Poland had been good for the Jews until the Holocaust.”
The movie is presented by NCM Fathom, Mod Three Productions, and Machine Management in association with American Jewish Committee, Jewish Life Television, and the Milken Archive of Jewish Music.