These images populated the Jewish world of Central and Eastern Europe in the decades after the Holocaust. The ruins wrought by the Nazis were slowly covered over by layers of dust, forcibly imposed by the Communists. This dust blanketed almost everything. It lay particularly heavy over education.
The regimes of the time knew that allowing a few old men to attend synagogue services would cause no great harm, and even served their cynical public relations needs. But those old men should not, and thus could not, teach bar and bat mitzvah kids. Schools and kindergartens could not be opened, books could not be printed, Hebrew could not be studied, and eventually, Judaism, this tradition of the Jews, this dangerously liberating heritage, would finally die out.
But we looked further, and under the dust we found something else. We found two young men studying Hebrew in a private flat in Prague. The year was 1988. They could not study Hebrew in a synagogue or community center, so they studied at home. They could not find a teacher to properly instruct them, so they taught each other. They started furtively going to synagogue, to meet those few old men, the ones who remembered who still knew.
Then there were those who stood in the streets outside the only synagogue of Moscow on the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, and those who secretly baked and delivered Matzah in Minsk and Kiev before Passover. We saw Jews gathering to celebrate Chanukah in Budapest and Warsaw, to meet and learn, to talk, to argue, to plan, to dream. They surely taught themselves a great deal, but they taught us even more—that the Jewish spirit is truly unbreakable.
So amidst a world of absence and loss, of dust and decay, we also found a world of yearning, of unfulfilled dreams, of hopes and prayers. When the walls fell and the regimes collapsed, we knew what we had to do.