When was the last time a horse attended a Jewish funeral?
This question, weird as it may sound, does have a precise answer: Sunday April 29, 2018, at Warsaw’s Okopowa cemetery.
Polish military custom has it that cavalrymen’s funerals are attended by cavalry horses – and Lieutenant Abram Henryk Prajs of blessed memory had been a soldier in the 3rd Light Cavalry Regiment of the Polish Army. Therefore a horse – unsaddled and bedecked in black – accompanied him to his grave, as did an honors guard of the 3rd Light Cavalry with sabers drawn, but in reconstructed uniforms. For the 3rd Light Cavalry, with whom lieutenant Prajs had gone into battle, is no more: the battles it had fought in Poland’s doomed war against the German invasion in 1939, had been its last.
Prajs was 23 then: his squadron conducted a successive raid into Germany on September 3rd, wreaking havoc behind enemy lines, but then had to withdraw under continuous Luftwaffe bombardment. Ten days later in Olszewo they clashed with general Heintz Guderian’s armored army, losing over 30 officers and men.
There, on the battlefield, he was made commander of his squadron, which had lost its commanding officer. Prajs, wounded in battle, withdrew with his bloodied unit – only to be taken prisoner by the Soviets, who invaded Poland on September 17. He was 101 when he passed away at home in his native Góra Kalwarja – or Ger, as the Hassidim had called it in Yiddish.
Born in a poor and pious artisan family, Abram Chaim – he adopted the Polish second name Henryk only in the army – lost his father in a bandit attack when he was three.
The family gave him a strong Jewish identity – Prajs studied in cheder and joined the General Zionist youth movement, and in the army received weekly payments from the quartermaster to buy himself kosher food that the military did not provide – as well as a strong Polish patriotic one: his father had, on Poland’s declaration of independence in 1918, participated in the disarming of occupying German troops.
“I had been happy twice in my life – he used to say – when I joined the army in 1937, and when I heard that Israel had been proclaimed in 1948”. Between these two dates lies a history of despair.
Eventually liberated from Soviet captivity by having concealed his officer rank, Prajs returned to Góra Kalwaria in late 1939 and was rejoined with his family. But in January 1940 the Germans created a ghetto in Góra Kalwarja: in a testimony with the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, Prajs described, after the war, the atrocious conditions which prevailed there.
One year later, as the population of ghetto was being deported to the ghetto in Warsaw, Prajs, spurred on by his mother, fled. 36 members of his family died, either in the ghettoes, or eventually in Treblinka and Majdanek.
Prajs survived, hiding with Polish families: the Pokorskis, the Kurachs, the Majewskis, in the countryside. They are all recognized as Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem. Mrs Pokorska delivered one of the moving eulogies at his funeral.
When the war ended Prajs returned to Góra Kalwarja and spent his entire life there, marrying in 1949 a local Polish woman. He frequently attended, for as long as his health permitted, holiday services at Warsaw’s Nożyk shul, where he would read prayers in a beautiful, pre-war Polish Hebrew. He was overjoyed at the post-1989 rebirth of Polish Jewish life.
He is survived by his daughter, 6 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren. The family, friends, the Warsaw Jewish community and various dignitaries, including the Polish minister for veterans affairs, the mayor of Góra Kalwarja with the flag of the city, and representatives of the army, attended his funeral and eulogized him.
The honors guard of the 3rd Light Cavalry stood at attention, displayed his military decorations and gave him military honors. Not surprisingly: this unprepossessing Jewish man had, after all, been Poland’s last surviving cavalryman who had fought in the war of 1939.
Lieutenant Abram Henryk Prajs had been a soldier in the 3rd Light Cavalry Regiment of the Polish Army.