For the first time, and hopefully the last, in my life, I said mourners kaddish over a mound of human ash at Majdanek. Human ash that stuck to my clothing and drifted off towards the remains of barracks and a crematoria. I lit a Yarzheit candle in front of a mass grave for babies who were loaded onto a truck, poured onto the ground, and shot as the local Poles watched. I walked on the selection platform in Auschwitz-Birkenau where Doctor Josef Mengele made the decision of life or death for millions. Left or right. I stood on Mila 18, the nerve center of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and felt proud that my people, the Jewish people, had fought back. I cried in the Lupochowa Forest over the mass grave for the 2,000 murdered Jews of the shtetl of Tykocin, who never had anyone to cry for them. I lead shacharit, the morning prayers, in the remains of the Great Synagogue of Tarnow, which consists only of its bimah.
Today, the concentration camps are silent. They know longer ring with the agonized screams of their inmates. Being in this hells on earth makes one think. What if the Holocaust was just God saying “dammit! I rejected you millennia ago. When will you get it? You’re done. You may be my chosen people, but not chosen in the way you think. Instead, you are chosen to perish and be persecuted. “
I was in Poland from March 25 to March 30 with a Ramah semester in Jerusalem program, Tichon Ramah Yerushalim (TRY).
One of the most meaningful experiences for me was in the Lupachowa Forest, the mass grave for all 2,000 of the Jews of the shtetl of Tykocin. Walking into the forest, there were sticks assembled on the ground. I did not know what it was or what it meant because I was just passing by, so I took a picture and decided that I would figure it out later.
We went to the memorial, a large square marked off by a blue fence, billowing Israeli flags tied to it, and surrounded by marks of mourning and remembrance. It was hard to fathom that underneath a layer of earth lay the 2,000 bodies of the Jews of Tykocin. It was the first sign of genocide that I had seen in Poland, and I was shocked. Afterward, in the forest, we had our own reflection time, and I got thinking. How could one human hate another so much and to the point that they could look someone else in the eye and shoot the? It scared me for a moment – what if something is wrong with the Jews and I just cannot see it because I am a Jew myself? Then another thought hit me – the Nazis did not only dehumanize the Jews, but they also dehumanized themselves. They turned themselves into monsters.
On the way out of the forest, I looked at the stick arraignment on the grund again. This time I understood what it said and meant: Am Yisroel Chai, and through my tears, I swelled with pride. The Jews are still here today.
After Poland, we returned back to Israel just in time for Passover. My family visited from America, and we met up with some family in Tel Aviv. While we were walking on the beachfront, I told my cousin about the Poland trip. When I spoke about Tykocin, she turned and looked at me, asking me to repeat what I had just said. I repeated the shtetl’s name. She was shocked, and explained to me that that is where some of our family is from. I had not only stood by a mass grave, but by a mass grave where my family laid.
It is a shame that I did not know that I had family that had died in the Lupochowa Forest while I was there. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust, and all six million need to be remembered and honored. Their legacy cannot be forgotten.