From the Ashes

February 26, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: When I was a child, nothing represented America to me better than a Formica table. That restaurant table, littered with napkins and someone’s half- eaten meal, smudged by greasy fingers, can be cleared away– the past can be cleared away– with the waiter’s swipe.

There are places in the world, probably most places in the world, where the past is never so easily removed. The Balkans: Memory lords over the living. Northern Ireland: Memory festers. The Middle East: Memory kills.

For the boy, having to acknowledge the past was like having to kiss his grandmother’s lips when she was dying, her warm smell of death. Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor… oh, memory had its place in America, as a mark of grievance, or as the point from which to move. But the son of immigrants assured himself that the graveyard was less the point of America than the impudence of “Dennis the Menace,” or the defiance of tradition by Jackie Robinson, or astronauts flying into the future.

Now memory reasserts itself in America. I speak not of ground zero in lower Manhattan; I speak of the determination of this small Jewish congregation in Berkeley, California, to rebuild a wooden synagogue, lost half a world away, many tragedies ago, in the Polish village of Przedborz during World War II.

When I told a friend of mine, a non-observant Jew, about the wooden synagogue project, he was scornful in a characteristically American way. “You cannot,” he snarled, “you cannot in California of the 21st century, rebuild a synagogue that stood in Poland in 1940.”

Context is everything.

The grainy half-light of old photographs is our best guide to the beautiful wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe. They are nearly all vanished now. But once there were many such holy places; in Latvia, in the Ukraine, in Russia, in Poland. Exteriors of these wooden synagogues tended to be plain, to avoid the notice of anti-Semites. But the interiors, where belief chanted, were celebrations of the wood-carver’s art, with elaborate pulpits and vaulted ceilings as wonderful as the sky. Jews lived in Przedborz from the early 16th century.

Their synagogue– this wooden synagogue– was constructed in 1636, and remodeled in 1760. It was the center of the village’s Jewish life. When the Jews of Przedborz were rounded up in 1942 and sent by the Nazis to Treblinka, their synagogue was burned to the ground. But nothing is as durable as ashes.

For decades now, Congregation Beth Israel, these men and women, dreamed of rebuilding the synagogue of Przedborz. The wooden synagogue, as suggested in these architectural drawings and models, will not mimic the past, but will honor memory more subtly, letting the past shadow the present. For truly, memory is not the way we enter the past, but the way the past enters the present.

The past: Well before American soldiers were traipsing across ancient deserts, I heard growing impatience among friends of mine with the unending carnage in the Middle East, the bombs and the tanks. One day Jews mourn; the next day, Arabs. And with each new burial, memory festers, memory kills. But as Holocaust survivors have been reminding the world, forgetfulness kills, too.

To allow the past to be forgotten is to allow the mob a fatal victory.

Six decades later, Warsaw is a modern, smiling city. But while the Polish Pope in Rome apologizes for Roman Catholicism’s long sin of anti-Semitism, the historian Jan Gross recently had to remind Poland that it was not only Germans who murdered Jews in Poland, but neighbors.

The wooden synagogue project in Berkeley strikes me as an ideal use of memory. By restoring the lost synagogue of Przedborz to the world, members of Congregation Beth Israel assert the durability of faith. They also remind us that a place so beautiful and holy was vulnerable to the lips of hatred’s torch. A plan this audacious is no inexpensive matter.

It will take $7 million to rebuild the lost synagogue of Przedborz. Only $2 million have been collected thus far. But memory will triumph. And one day at this American intersection of Jefferson and Bancroft, the past will reassert itself. Many thousands of miles from Poland, and several generations later, fragile beauty will stand. Ashes will become wood.

I’m Richard Rodriguez.