David Sachs retells the story of his October 2019 wedding in Kazimierz, the centuries-old Jewish quarter of Krakow, Poland’s second-largest city.
OK, it wasn’t that big, and it wasn’t that fat. But meaningful? Oy, vey!
My beautiful bride, Dr. Freda Lengel Arlow, a divorcee of 10 years, and I, a widower of 13 years, decided to exchange our wedding vows in a very special place.
We were wed in October 2019 in Kazimierz, the centuries-old Jewish quarter of Krakow, Poland’s second-largest city.
The choice of Poland for a destination wedding might seem “beyond the pale” — but the city called out to us for deep personal and spiritual reasons.
Before World War II, Freda’s family lived in Tarnow, about 50 miles east of Krakow. By war’s end, her father, Hillel Lengel, had survived Auschwitz, but the Germans had slain his wife and two young sons.
After liberation, Hillel married Anna, also of Tarnow, and in 1948, Freda was born in a displaced persons camp in Linz, Austria.
Freda’s mom, Anna, was one of 11 daughters of a well-to-do Jewish family. But of the 11 sisters, only two survived the Holocaust. During those horrendous years, Anna endured starvation and beatings in three slave labor camps.
Anna’s younger sister Lucia, however, was hidden by a heroic Catholic family despite threats of death to those who hid Jews. After the war, she married the family’s son, Bronik Zaczkiewicz, and remained in Poland. Bronik was later honored by the Yad Vashem Holocaust center in Israel for risking his life to smuggle food to Jews in the Tarnow ghetto and for saving Lucia’s life.
In 2019, and for each of the past 16 years, Freda had traveled to visit her widowed Aunt Lucia, now a feisty 100 years old and a Krakow resident. For Freda, whose mother died in 2001, the opportunity to be wed in front of her mother’s surviving sister and cousins Halina and Gosia had enormous meaning.
Freda and I also believed that having a Jewish wedding in Poland would be an act in defiance of the Nazis who sought to exterminate all Jewish life.
Our wedding took place in the late afternoon on the day after Yom Kippur, a very desirable day to marry according to Chasidic tradition. On the morning of the wedding, I was thrilled with anticipation, and Freda was as giddy and nervous as a youthful 70-year-old could be — getting married in the land of her family’s roots.
A GREAT HERITAGE
Jewish Krakow has a vast 600-year history, and several ancient synagogue buildings have been preserved. In 2008, a new Jewish Community Center was established to serve the few thousand Polish Jews and the contingent of American expats and Israelis who live or work there.
We decided on a wedding at the JCC officiated by American-born Orthodox Rabbi Avi Baumol with whom we studied during previous trips to Krakow. Baumol, whose mission since 2013 has been to revive Jewish life in the city, conducted our wedding ceremony in Hebrew, English and Polish.
“It’s a new life you’re starting,” he said as we stood together under the chuppah, “and where better to start a new life than in Krakow — a place that had such a flourishing Jewish community for hundreds of years? It was almost destroyed; but now, we are rebuilding Jewish life here.
“Your wedding in Krakow is a symbol of our people’s resilience and ability to start over and start fresh — and that’s something very special.”
Freda’s son, Dan Arlow of San Francisco, walked his mother to the chuppah just after Dan’s wife, June, escorted me there. All wedding arrangements were made by the very helpful JCC Krakow staff, including a heimish kosher dinner for 25 guests.
In the middle the wedding ceremony, Aunt Lucia left her seat and sauntered right up to the chuppah and playfully kibitzed with the rabbi in Polish. But at the end, when it came time for the symbolic breaking of the glass, the rabbi explained that even during joyful times, Jews must not forget the tragedies that have befallen them. Lucia was brought to tears during the singing of the mournful Hebrew psalm, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem.”
Lucia, however, who had experienced so much tragedy and hardship under Nazism and communism during her century of life, rebounded. She smiled gleefully as circular dancing and the singing of “Siman Tov u’Mazel Tov” broke out after the breaking of the glass.
Along with Lucia, Freda and I were overcome with joy.