A Visit to Poland, Revisited
In the summer of 2015, just as the ominous clouds of the Three Weeks began to cast their shadows over the glaring July sun, my husband and I journeyed to Poland with the Project Mesorah tour.
Just a few months earlier, I had written an article for Binah Magazine entitled “Going Back,” which explored the idea of returning to visit that very land, in which so much Jewish blood had been spilled.
As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I was no stranger to the controversy surrounding the topic ; in fact, I could hear the debate on whether to make the trip ringing in my ears even as I boarded the plane with our group.
“It is up to the rabbanim to decide if there is a purpose in going, but to me personally, the only reason to visit is to daven at kivrei avos,” Rebbetzin Jungreis, z”l, had said back when I’d interviewed her for the article. And what of the camps? “There are no kevarim there,” the Rebbetzin said. “The Nazi barbarians did not even grant them a grave….Moreover, the Polish government has made tourist attractions out of these places; they charge admission, so by visiting them we are supporting the Polish economy. When you consider it all, you must see the painful irony: Jews built up Poland and created a vibrant economy, only to see Poland become willing accomplices of the Nazis and invited them to build their infamous-hellish factories of death there. Certainly it is not a tourist attraction and yet people go there. Why? To see the factories of death where Jews by the millions were tortured and killed? Jews built the Polish economy in their life and now they keep it going in their death.”
When I’d raised the question to Rabbi Yisroel Lau, former Chief Rabbi of Israel and child Holocaust survivor, he had verified that he only visits Germany when publicly necessary, and that he is loath to spend the night there.
The case for making the trip, however, was strong.
Rabbi Meir Wunder, chairman of the Institute for the Commemoration of Galician Jewry, pointed out to me that Jewish Orthodox visitors comprise only half a percent of the total number of visitors to Auschwitz. “The benefits we reap from visits to the camps and kevarim far surpasses any damage done by our meager contribution to what are today already wealthy countries,” he told me.
Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Chief Rabbi of Poland, told me that he didn’t see any problem with visiting. “What is the issue,” he asked, “with supporting a government that protects and preserves the death camps and murder sites of our ancestors?”
Rabbi Yosef Walis, director of international kiruv organization Arachim, an organization which has brought many groups to Europe’s concentration camp sites, said that a visit to the camps by the second generation could facilitate communication, understanding, and respect between survivors and their children. He also felt that seeing firsthand the unspeakable conditions of the camps can lead to appreciation. “You realize that you should be thankful for the simple things in life: a bed, a slice of bread,” he said. “That realization leads you to diminish the importance of material objects in your life. Your spiritual needs become a higher priority in life once your focus shifts from materialistic pursuit.”
“You ask a lot of questions when you are there,” Rabbi Walis had said. “Why were the Jews singled out? Why didn’t the Germans differentiate between Jews of different backgrounds? It makes you think about your religion. You also see firsthand what they scarified for that same religion. You see the hand of G-d; the fact that there were survivors is a miracle.”
To further allay my concerns, Rabbi Gavriel Zinner, author of the Nitei Gavriel, had told me, “halachically there is no problem.”
And yet, despite the validity of these supportive arguments, the thought of a trip to Poland (which was not yet in the works for me when the article went to print) still made me decidedly uneasy.
So what made me go?
Unlike me, whose childhood was decidedly marked by the shadows of the Holocaust – despite the strongest efforts of my grandparents to shield me from knowledge of their pain – my husband was born to true-blue American parents. At least in my book (their great-grandparents were European). His grandparents’ lives were blessedly unmarred by the genocide that took place on the other side of the world.
I wanted him to see. To feel what I felt. To understand the magnitude of what we (yes, we – our nation, all of us) had survived. And I wanted to be there for that.
So I boarded that flight, albeit with mixed feelings and a pit in my stomach. What would Babi, my grandmother, say when she found out where I’d been? I hadn’t worked up the nerve to tell her about my trip prior to departing, but planned on doing so once I returned.
The trip started out with a tour of the famous Nozyk Shul in Warsaw, then the Warsaw Cemetery, and the Ger Beis Midrash.
So far, so good. Bittersweet (well, bitter, actually), but manageable, particularly with Rabbi Shlomo Cynamon’s on-point narration and Paysach Krohn’s spectacular brand of inspiration.
The trip continued: Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, the kevarim of the Maharshal, the Chozeh of Lublin. And then Majdanek, where I donned sunglasses to shield myself upon our approach and did not remove them as we sang Ani Maamin at the opening of the gas chamber and listened to my husband’s wrenching Kel Malei in front of the ovens.
I was silent as we continued on to Lizensk to the kever of the Noam Elimelech. (In fact, even as I write this now, I find that words elude me. There are simply no words. And it is hard as well to describe the emotion we all felt at the holy kever as we listened to words of inspiration, davened, and danced with a group of Israeli tourists in a poignant display of we are here! )
But it was the next day, after visiting the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayos shul and Museum of Ushpitzin, that I felt that I had made a mistake by joining the tour.
In fact, as our tour bus made its way in and out of Auschwitz, where we wore headphones and toured silently the piles of shoes and suitcases and grim, unspeakable buildings, and then followed the tracks to Birkenau, I was sure that I did not belong on the trip.
When the bus stopped at that dreaded destination, I told my husband I was not getting off.
And then something caught my eye.
There, at the entrance of Birkenau, where my grandmother had seven decades ago disembarked from a hellish journey in a cattle car, was a group of proud students, singing Am Yisrael Chai while waving the Israeli flag.
I got off the bus.
I followed our group past a lone cattle car, a remnant of the unspeakable past, down a dirt path.
And there I stood, at the end of the Earth.
Somewhere amid the rubble of the bombed gas chamber were the steps that my great-grandparents and my great-aunts and uncles and their children descended all those years ago. Somewhere amid the rubble was the lingering vapor that had snuffed out their lives.
Did they know as they undressed that this was the end? Did they know as that door was shut that they would not walk out?
I stood there, at the end of the Earth, and I knew: this was where it all ended.
This was where my grandmother had come as a teenage girl and lost everything.
This was where my grandfather’s father had held the hand of his youngest son and whispered to him – as per the eyewitness account of my great-aunt who’d survived – “Come, come with me, don’t cry. We are going to greet Mashiach!”
This was the place for which there are not – and can never be – any words.
Why was I here?
It was through a haze of tears that I walked in and out of the latrine and past bunkers and into a gift shop where my husband wanted to buy me water that I refused to purchase once I saw the souvenir magnets in the display case (a modern-day atrocity).
That Shabbos, which we spent in Krakow, Rabbi Krohn retold a story he had shared with me for the Binah article.
I reprint it here as it was published: He was a survivor, but he didn’t seem particularly emotional as he led the group of Israeli visitors on their tour of the concentration camp. He walked them through the camp, pointing out the barracks, the latrine, the appelplatz. He was methodical and somewhat detached…until they reached the crematorium. There he instructed the adults to move to one side, while he assembled the children in front of the ovens in which his family members had been reduced to ashes. “Mammeh! Tatteh!” he cried. “I came to visit you. Maybe you want to know why I came back to this gehinnom. I came to show you these children. These children learn Torah every day! They have not forgotten you. This is the future of Klal Yisrael!”
This was why I had come on the trip.
I am here, Babi. You are here. We are still here. We will always be here.
I will never, ever forget that trip.
I will never forget what it felt like to stand there, at the end of the Earth.
And each summer, as those ominous clouds overshadow the blinding sun, I am simultaneously chilled and comforted.
We will never forget.
We will never go away.
We will always be here.
It has taken me three years to write about my trip, because each time I close my eyes and recall that visit, my standing at the hellhole of Birkenau, I am without words. In fact, at this moment, having put myself back there, I am shaken once again in a way I find hard to express.
But I compose this because I want you to look up at those clouds and remember. And know. And never forget.