A week- seven days. That’s how long I spent in the dustbin of Jewish History that is Poland. I went there to learn about, and to see first hand, the country that housed the absolute horrors of the Holocaust, but I also went to see the places that had once housed such rich Jewish life. As such the trip focused, in my opinion, on three aspects of Jewish life in Poland: pre-war, the Holocaust years and then post-war.
Yes, there is Jewish life in Poland today – for the most part centered in Warsaw. The only shul still in use there has a small minyan, somewhere between 15 and 20 men, nothing compared to what it once held. Even though it was a little sad to look at this gorgeous shul being used by a fraction of the population it once served, there was something overwhelmingly beautiful about the shul and the people who davened there.
Since there is such a small religious Jewish community there is only one minyan. This is very different from what I’m used to living in Flatbush where everyone has the shul he davens in and the shul he doesn’t daven in. In Warsaw, not everyone participating in the minyan looked exactly the same, but they were all overjoyed to have the opportunity to daven together. The way that I saw it, the unity that they had was worth way more than being able to boast about large numbers.
We also went to visit the Jewish school in Warsaw. When the principal spoke to us, I gained such an appreciation for having grown up in a place where it is a no-brainer that I would get some sort of Jewish education. He explained that the school hasn’t been around for long and before it was established Jews living in Poland just didn’t get a Jewish education. He himself had left Poland to learn more about Judaism and eventually received smicha from Yeshiva University. He chose to return to Poland and give back to the community.
It made me think about how much I took, and continue to take, my Jewish education for granted. I never thought about what a bracha it is that I grew up with so much Torah knowledge there for my taking. Until I went to Eretz Yisrael for seminary, I never had to leave home to further my education. Now, the school there does not yet have a high school, but there is hope that as kids and adults learn more about Yiddishkeit, they will want to continue learning and seek out more of a Jewish education or at least have a Jewish foundation that will be with them for the rest of their lives.
Like the shul, the school was filled with all sorts of Jews. Unlike the shul, the school also caters to the non-Jewish community. In some cases the families of the “non-Jewish” children are actually Jews who have been keeping that fact a secret for the past 70 years, while in other cases parents send their children there because it has a good education. We visited the younger classes and even sang some Shabbos songs with them. Though we came from two different worlds the spirit of Shabbos and our Jewish roots bound us together.
It was amazing to see these youngsters who will, im yirtzeh Hashem, be the continuation of the Jewish people – in Poland of all places. Their very existence and the fact that they learn Torah is an incredible act of revenge against Hitler and the Nazis.
For obvious reasons a major part of our trip focused on the terrible years of the Holocaust. We literally traveled the country and saw monument after monument marking places where atrocities occurred. Understandably, this part of the trip was the most emotionally draining, however, it didn’t make the trip depressing. As one of the rabbanim who came with us on the trip said, the reason we go to the camps and into cattle cars and gas chambers is not to depress us, but rather to gain a proper understanding and to awaken our senses. The experience is supposed to well up our rachmanus.
I found this is be completely true. I don’t even remember the first time I was spoken to about the Holocaust, but until I saw the reality of what had been with my won eyes, it didn’t fully sink in. As I stood in the cattle car left as a memorial in Lodz, I understood how dark a menacing the cattle cars were. I finally got why people say you were lucky if you were near the window or a crack in the wall – those were the only sources of light and fresh air. I only got a taste of how cramped it must have been when our entire group piled in. During the Holocaust the same car would hold twice as many people as we were. When we sang the Ani Maamin that was composed in cattle car just like the one we were in, I got a glimpse of just how sincere the tefillah of those kedoshim were. At that moment it was so obviously clear that only Hashem could save them.
Of course, the same holds true for those who sang on their way into the gas chambers. The first camp we went to was Treblinka. The entire camp had been destroyed so there was absolutely nothing to see. This made it hard to connect with what happened there. The only thing there is a small museum with information on how the camp worked – oh and stones. There were stones everywhere, marking where the borders of the camp were and where the train platform was. A huge monument marked the spot were the gas chamber once stood. The rest of the vast clearing was barren. Well, not quite barren- there were 17,000 other stone monuments. Yes, 17,000 stones, each one commemorating a town or shtetel where people had come from.
We had come to Treblinka at night, but as far as my flashlight shined stone monuments surrounded me. It was sickening to think about Nazis sitting nearby drinking coffee or looking at the animals in the zoo on the grounds, while citizens of entire towns were being killed out a few yards away. There is no way explain the feelings that whirls inside when you know that you are standing in the place where 1 million people died simply because they were Jewish.
Visiting Auschwitz and Majdanek was bit different simply because they still looked like concentration camps. Auschwitz I had been turned into a museum. The biggest thing I got from the museum was a bit more of an appreciation for the number 6,000,000,000. One of the barracks was filled with piles of things behind glass – anything that was taken from the prisoners: brushes, talleisim, prosthetics, makeup, cooking utensils, suitcases, and what seemed like endless amount of shoes.
And to think, people packed only the most important things. Each person came with only a tiny suitcase. These piles showed a tiny fraction of what was collected from millions of Jews who passed through the camps. The piles of ordinary everyday stuff helped to make the point that these prisoners were people; every one of the six million killed was an individual. At one point during our trip a friend retold something that really brought this point home. She had once heard someone refer to the six million who died as six million and one. The person answered the quizzical looks by explaining that once you say six million and one everyone starts thinking about that one- the person who made it six million and ONE. Was it a man or woman? Was he young or old? Was he a doctor, lawyer, grocer? Did he leave behind a family, children? What was he thinking as he took his last breath? We need to think of each of the six million kedoshim in this manner.
The last thing that we saw in Auschwitz I was the small gas chamber. Again, there is absolutely no way to describe what that was like. The room was completely empty except for a tiny monument, some flowers, and the pipes that carried the gas lining through the walls. At first, all I could think about was the people who died with the words of Shema on their lips in the very place I stood. In most cases they had no clue what was coming, they were completely unsuspecting. And as we as a group declared the yechidus of Hashem by saying Shema the words were said with tears and a newfound understanding of what they mean. As we made our way out, I felt such an appreciation for my life. All those who passed through the doorway during the Holocaust were not as lucky – they had already passed on to olam haemes.
The room right next door to the gas chamber was the crematorium. The long brick ovens sickened me. Strangely enough what I thought about when I saw the ovens was the poor souls who were forced to dispose of their brethren in such a horrific manner.
From there we made our way back out of the camp. We walked in silence. As we made our way to the buses, I saw everything through completely different eyes. The walk back to the bus seemed miles long – miles lined with the horrors of millions of people’s lives.
In direct contrast to Treblinka, Majdanek had been left exactly as it was – so much so that it is said that it can be up and running in two hours. What really shocked me is that there are people who live next door to the camp. Their backyards are directly against the fence. I don’t understand how they live that way. We went into the gas chamber there as well and had a chance to see the depths of the deception the Germans used. The sign on the gas chamber read bath and disinfection. From the outside there was absolutely no indication of what really happened inside. As we left the chamber we met a survivor who was there with another group. At first, I was surprised to find a survivor at a concentration camp, but once I heard him speak I understood what he was doing there. He wanted so badly to share his story with us – one of the most important things for him now is to speak about what he went through. He told us how he survived the war and immediately went to Israel to join the army. Someone asked him what it was that got him through the war. Without taking a second to think, he said it was the emunah and bitachon in Hashem his parents had instilled in him. He explained that without it he would not have survived the war and would definitely not be a religious Jew today.
The most shocking thing we saw was the pile of ashes. Pile isn’t really the correct word to use. A better way to describe it would be a huge hill. Even now my stomach tightens just remembering. After the initial shock of seeing the ashes of so many kedoshim wears off, the anger sets in. Not only did the Nazis kill these poor people in the least humane way possible, but they couldn’t even give them a proper burial. They simply threw their ashes in a pile. Standing near the ashes one of our rabbeim spoke about korbanot and Akeidat Yitzchak. He said that’s what the kedoshim were, like Yitzchak on the akeidah.
As I stood by the ashes I thought once again about the number six million and how each person was an individual with a life before the war. This brought me back to everything we saw on our trip having to do with pre-war Poland. Before the war Poland was filled with a rich and vibrant Jewish life. We saw the beautifully ornate shuls that had once been filled with men coming to daven and learn. As a survivor said, they had it right – their homes were plain and simple. All their money was given to making the shuls beautiful. The walls were covered in tefillot, pesukim and gorgeously painted scenes from Tanach. The building of Yeshivas Chochmei Lublin, a powerhouse of Torah learning, is tremendous and beautiful. It gives you a small glimpse of what it must have been like in its heyday. We went to the building in Cracow where Sara Schenirer started the Bais Yaakov movement. Seeing as we were a large group of girls who owe our Jewish education to the strength of this woman, it was a very moving experience. Whenever we came to a shul or yeshiva we sang and it seemed as if the walks themselves came to life.
Another part of visiting Poland was going to the kvoros of the tzaddikim who had lived there. Through visiting those old broken cemeteries, some in the middle of nowhere, we saw just how great the wealth of Torah and mitzvos there once was there. Wherever we went there was some sort of remnant of the community where the tzaddik or tzaddikim buried there had lived.
At one point in Treblinka, I noticed a few twinkles of light near the monument marking were the gas chamber stood. As I moved closer I saw that it was tea lights lit in the shape of the letters ches and yud – chai. Right next to it was a monument I hadn’t noticed before. All it said was “Never Again” in a number of languages. Together, they make a very strong statement. The Jewish people are still standing and our very existence shows that Hitler didn’t succeed. But that fact that we are still alive means more than that. It means that we have to carry on what the “never again” stands for. It is our responsibility to pass on to the next generation what the survivors and those who did not survive experienced. It is our responsibility to make sure that the “never again’ is fulfilled.
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