By the time I started this blog, Elie was 19, almost 20 years old and about to enter the army. By the time I really introduced Shmulik, he was close to entering the army as well. Somehow, with the lull between Shmulik leaving and Davidi entering, I have more time to share who Davidi is, long before he will enter the army.
He turned 18 this past week (though his English birthday is actually next week), full of school and wanting to start driving lessons and one other major milestone that will change who he is. He is going to Poland in a few weeks. If you’ve never been there, you can’t imagine the impact standing in a gas chamber will have on you. You just can’t imagine seeing ashes and ashes, ovens that were used to burn the remains, cemetery after cemetery, and so much more. To go as a Jew to Poland is to focus, for a time, not on those who walk the earth today, but those who are buried beneath it (if they were lucky enough to be buried).
Right before Amira was going into her last year of high school, she told me she wanted to go to Poland. Her school has a policy not to take students out of Israel and so they don’t organize a trip to Poland. It was something, this pilgrimage, that was very important to my oldest daughter but she was afraid it would be too much for her and so she asked me to come along, told me she needed me.
What could I do? I went. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done…for many reasons. I left in Israel, tiny Aliza – only 2 and a half years old. Amira’s son is now 2 and a half years old and I think Amira now realizes how hard it was for me. I missed the others terribly, but somehow, my arms ached to hold Aliza most of all. My husband was amazingly supportive. I wish, sometimes, I had gone with him. I felt bad crying in front of Amira and had I gone with Lazer, we would have cried together. But his parents were Holocaust survivors; he has no interest in going back to the places where they lost so much.
I dreaded the trip that would take me out of Israel, away from the others.Once I landed in Poland, I realized that it would be impossible for me not to see, not to feel. I had thought I was going to support Amira and yet, in many ways, she supported me. It was a brutal trip, agonizing in so many ways.
As I sat this week, listening to the itinerary of where Davidi will go, my eyes filled with tears. I know the route they will take, the places they will see, and the agonies he will feel. He is supposed to tell them if we had relatives in one of the cities where they will visit. My great-grandmother lived in Cracow with my grandfather’s two sisters. They will spend Shabbat there; walk on roads my grandfather once walked. I know only the names but not where they lived. My mother has copies of letters that her grandfather wrote to her father. I’ll have to ask her if she has copies of the envelopes…if she has an address. Do I want my Davidi to go there?
When my mother-in-law and father-in-law went back to the small village where my father-in-law had grown up as a child – many years after the war had ended – he was greeted with a knife by the woman who had moved into his father’s home. It seems Lazer’s father, had lent her some money and she thought his son had come to call in the loan. When my father-in-law explained he only wanted to show his wife and daughter the home in which he had grown up, the woman allowed him to enter.
And they want Davidi to come with the names of relatives who died in the Holocaust…it’s such a long list. It will break his heart to read them – name after name after name. He would have to say the names of both his brothers…because they carry the names of uncles who died in the Holocaust. He’ll have to say the names of his aunts and uncles as well.
I’ll have to make him a list…so many names to include and I have to find the strength to tell him about each one…what little I know, so that they won’t only be names.
Binyamin Elimelech – Elie carries his name…he was newly married with the Germans came to their village just after the Passover holiday and took him away. He and his young wife never returned. An uncle he would never know was lost to my husband. And now, Elie’s daughter carries the name Gavriella – who was Binyamin Elimelech’s sister – she was murdered in Auschwitz by the Nazis – an aunt my husband would never have a chance to meet. She was only 12 years old when they killed her.
And my great grandmother, Raizel…my sister carries her name. She sent her son, my grandfather, to America so that he wouldn’t end up in the Polish army…and saved him from the German army as well.
And Shmuel…who fell in the forest and told his cousin to go on without him…my Shmulik carries his name.
And Shaye, my husband’s grandfather, who sold shoes and kept a Gemara, part of the Talmud, under the counter so that when there were no customers, he could take out the book and learn.The Germans murdered Shaye…and today, there is one in Canada, several in Israel and in New York including Davidi’s uncle, my husband’s brother. And on and on it goes…so many names.
Eighteen is such a strange age. He’s so tall, my Davidi, so beautiful. He has the most amazing blue eyes – like Elie. He is the tallest of my boys. I know that what he will see in Poland will cripple him, change him, and ultimately make him stronger. “You won’t recognize your son,” said the principal of his school as he explained more about the upcoming trip.
It’s right that he goes to Poland because when he returns, he will know the great secret of Israel – we have fought for our survival across battlefields and ghettos. We rose from the gas chambers; walked across deserts to get here. Here in the land no one will take us from; here in the place God intended us to be.
To fight for Israel is to understand our history and our destiny. Our connection to this land, our right to be here, didn’t start with the Holocaust – that is just one of many absurd claims that the Palestinians make. But the need to be here and nowhere else crystallized post-Holocaust. If they can do that there…than we cannot live there…and there can be defined as all of Europe, the Arab lands where the Jews were driven out in 1948 and the early 1950s. And it can include America too.
The army is a journey, a life-altering experience. But Davidi is about to embark on another journey. Compared to Poland, the army is, in many ways, easy. It makes sense; it is tangible, and for a young man, it is physical as much, if not more, than emotional. Poland is all emotion – there is no one left to save; no one to bring home. No matter how strong you are, the past cannot be changed. You can’t run faster, fight harder. For all the times Israelis have flown around the world to save others, we couldn’t save our own. That is the ultimate truth of the Holocaust.
I’ve written about breaking points – we all have a point that breaks us, a moment where we just don’t think we can go on. Some are more real than others; some take you closer to the edge. I had two in Poland.
The first was near the ruins of the crematoria in Auschwitz. I had brought a picture from Israel – of Shmulik’s bar mitzvah celebration at the Western Wall, the Kotel. I pressed it into the ruins of the crematoria – a gift to my great-grandmother and to Lazer’s four grandparents, uncles, aunts and more who died there. And then, when I saw it there, I broke inside.
The second was in a place I never expected. I knew the minute the bus turned into this tiny village that it was going to be bad. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon, and the bus had to back up a few times to make the turns on the tiny streets. And the harder it was, the more I knew they would only be bringing us here to see something really bad.
What I saw was a wall surrounding a large area, and in the center a small monument. Fields behind and to the side. And I listened to what 1,600 Polish villagers did to their 1,500 Jewish neighbors…they rounded them up, herded them into the synagogue, and set fire to the building and watched them die…here on that spot where we stood…once there had been a synagogue and 1,500 people, men, women, and children had died here. I looked at the ground and felt I was standing on their blood and I felt sick. But if the sin of the murder was not enough, for the next 60 years, they lied and refused to admit it.
At the end of the war, Jedwabne said their Jews were murdered by the Nazis…though not a single German was in the small village in August 1941 when the Jews died. Jedwabne is about betrayal and murder and represents the ugliest of what is in man. I listened to how in 2001, on the 60th anniversary of the massacre, Poland admitted that it was Poles and not Germans who murdered the Jews of Jedwabne.
As I stood near the monument with the Jewish star and the Israeli flag, and heard about how the villagers made noise and tried to disrupt the ceremony and how, to this day, the monument that stands there only refers to the “1,500 Jews who were murdered.”
It was a huge improvement over the one that had stood for 60 years with the lie, “For the 1,500 Poles who were murdered by the Hitlerites.” Only it wasn’t the Nazis who murdered them and they weren’t murdered because they were Poles. It was Poles that murdered them, and it was because they were Jews. There were no Russians, no Germans in Jedwabne on the day the townspeople murdered their Jewish neighbors.
I listened. I saw the monument, and I just broke inside. I told the tour organizers and Amira that I was done…right there in that village…and couldn’t take anymore. I wanted to take a cab to the airport and wait for the rest of the group. I told Amira to stay with the group but I had to go. We were leaving Poland that night, but I couldn’t wait. They wouldn’t let me go. I told them I was an adult, though I probably wasn’t acting like one. Ultimately, I somehow found the strength to stay with the group, to go to yet another concentration camp – Treblinka…but all I could do was wait for the wheels of the plane to leave Poland. And when they did, I took my first real breath and prayed the flight would go quickly. All I wanted was to put my feet down on Israeli soil, to touch the ground, to be home.
I think the hardest thing for a parent to handle is the knowledge that their child is somewhere in pain – physical or emotional. It is impossible to go to Poland and visit the concentration camps, what remains of the ghettos, the abandoned synagogues and endless mass graves…and not cry, not break. The tears that come in Poland come from the depths of such agony.
When Amira and I went, we had the most amazing guide – an Israeli who had been to Poland 60 times…whose parents and grandparents came from Poland. He took us to his grandfather’s grave, one of 85,000 in a huge field of mostly unmarked graves…a few years before our visit, the guide had used German records to find where his grandfather was buried so at least his grandfather had a headstone, unlike those all around him.
Moments before we were about to walk into the gas chamber for the first time, in Maidanek, Chaim said to us, “I’m going to take you in there, and I’m going to take you out.” To this day, those words bring tears to my eyes. I’m going to take you out…that’s what Israel couldn’t do in the 1940s…because there was no Israel, and that is what Israel has been doing for the last 65 years. We took the Jews out of Yemen, out of Ethiopia, out of Iran and beyond. We took hurt people out of the rubble in Indonesia, Kenya, Haiti and beyond.
I wish I could be there for Davidi, to promise him that I would take him out. He’s 18 years old. He will survive the trip to Poland – they go with Israeli guards and the power and protection of the State of Israel. And still my heart breaks because while Israel can protect him physically, no power on earth can protect his heart, his soul from the devastation he will see. Even 70 years later, it is crippling. He’ll come back stronger…he’ll come back changed…but in these weeks before he goes, I can only think about what I saw, what I know he will see…
There are ashes that remain in the ovens, ashes piled into a mountain in Maidanek – it is called the Mountain of Ashes…I thought it was a symbolic use of the word, but it’s not, it’s very real…
The cemeteries are being destroyed. Unlike the Polish cemeteries that are so neat and often have beautiful flowers, the Jewish cemeteries are overgrown, abandoned, desolate. Many of the headstones have been desecrated.
The bunkers at Auschwitz, the suitcases, piles of glasses, and human hair that remain decades after later.
We went in the summer. Saba Moshe, grandfather Moshe, went with us. He looked at Auschwitz and said, “it’s all wrong…all wrong.” He was looking at the grass-covered feels. “There was no grass here. If there was, we would have eaten it.” When Davidi goes, there will be no grass. The cold will be incredible, especially for a child born and raised in Israel.
All this and more, he will see, he will experience – and I keep thinking to myself…he’s only 18. Amira was the same age, but I was with her…I wasn’t there for Shmulik when he went and he came back stronger and better for having gone. I won’t be there for Davidi…I have to believe he’ll come back stronger and better as well. For now, I just want it to be over.
Visit A Soldier’s Mother.Paula Stern
About the Author: Paula R. Stern is CEO of WritePoint Ltd., a leading technical writing company in Israel. Her personal blog, A Soldier's Mother, has been running since 2007. She lives in Maale Adumim with her husband and children, a dog, too many birds, and a desire to write.The author's opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Jewish Press.
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