As an educator, I was always intrigued with the trip on which my high school students would embark in their junior or senior year. The “March of the Living” allows a student to experience in a small way the immense tragedy our people endured during the Holocaust.
Students travel from Warsaw to Lublin to Auschwitz, visiting the concentration camps of Treblinka, Maidanek and Auschwitz/Birkenau; the itinerary may also include the Belzec death camp. By the time the trip is concluded they have a newfound knowledge of – and an emotional connection to – the unspeakable evil that befell our people.
My father, Rabbi Dr. Moshe Weiss, though not a survivor of the camps, lived in his formative years in Ushpizin (which later became Auschwitz) and returned to Poland several times after the war. He wrote an inspirational book describing his travels titled From Oswiecim to Auschwitz. Often, as a columnist for The Jewish Press, he would quote from his book when relating the history of Polish Jewry.
It was against this backdrop that members of my family toyed with the idea of arranging a trip to Poland accompanied by my father, who would narrate the history of his birthplace and share with us the great tragedy of Polish Jewry.
At first the trip was only a dream, but the more we spoke about it, the more determined we were to see it through, especially when my father said he would accompany us. On Saturday evening June 23, ten members of my family residing in Israel and the United States joined together to begin a trip that would become an experience of a lifetime.
The ten members of the group spanned four generations as children (me), grandchildren (my sons Yitzie, Ari, Akiva and Shimmy and my niece, Dena Levy), and great-granddaughter Ariella Levy converged on the city of Warsaw.
We were fortunate to have with us as guides my father, who presented his personal experiences from his youth, and my son-in-law, Rabbi Levi Cooper, who has led thousands of students through Poland and was able to convey to us the richness of pre-war Polish Jewry.
Before visiting a town, we would read from my father’s book and receive a beautiful background of the Jewish presence of that particular city before the war.
Warsaw before the war had 360,000 Jews with hundreds of shuls. My father writes: “Once a bustling, throbbing city, without its Jews Warsaw today seems gray and lifeless. Streams of people walk along the avenues, in and out of shops…. But where are the Jews?”
Today there is only one shul in Warsaw. There is no daily minyan. A community that was once the center of Jewish existence, utterly destroyed.
In Lublin we visited the site of Reb Meir Shapiro’s famous Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin. There are attempts being made to refurbish it and use it for various Jewish programs, but there are few Jews to be found. A once-thriving yeshiva, led by the man who introduced the Daf Yomi, now sits desolate.
In many of the cities we visited we witnessed the deteriorated condition of Jewish cemeteries, with head stones strewn in every direction and grass and weeds growing everywhere.
We visited many of the former concentration camps, and towns such as Bobov and Vielitchka. In Bobov, once the center of the Bobover chassidic movement, we went to the old shul there. As a young boy I often would hum the melodies of Bobov, and when our group sat at the table in that shul and began singing those beautiful songs, I closed my eyes and felt as though the rebbe and all his chassidim were singing with us.
Perhaps the most meaningful part of the trip was our visit to the city of Ushpizin, the town where my father grew up. He showed us his old street and the house he’d lived in. When he saw it, he gasped. Most of it was demolished. His eyes lit up as he showed us the park he played in as a youngster and tried to describe to us his beautiful town.
My father writes in his book:
It was in Oswiecim that I spent my youth. In those days, it was a town bursting with Jewish life and activities. I was six months old when my family moved to Oswiecim. This is where I grew up, studied at Cheder and at Yeshivot. This is where I became involved in the religious Zionist movement as a member of the Hashomer Hadati youth group. When I came to the United States in my mid teens with my parents, we left behind one of my brothers, and some of my sisters, many dear friends, neighbors, and relatives. The Jews of Oswiecim comprised a close-knit community, almost like a large family.