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.