In the sleepy fug of an early September morning (think 6:30 a.m.), I stood in a slight daze at the entrance to London Stansted airport trying to work out exactly how to get to security. As I sorrowfully concluded that there was no option but to join the shuffling line of sleep deprived travelers, my phone began to vibrate.
Before I looked at the screen, I knew who it would be: my mother. Checking that I had a) got there; b) got there safely; c) remembered to buy Polish zloty and d) remembered to have something to eat at the airport. To my astonishment, it was in fact Gabriel asking where I was. Gabriel, it transpired, was also accompanying me and 16 others on a trip to Poland organised by UK social welfare charity, Jewish Care. We were to spend Shabbat in Krakow and visit Auschwitz and Birkenau with a Holocaust survivor, Renee Salt, an inspiration.
Having never set foot on Eastern European soil, I had no idea what to expect. Days before the trip, people kept saying “well I won’t say have a good time, but…have a meaningful experience”. I murmured thanks and understanding.
We took off in grey clouds and landed in none. Surely it should be the other way round? The elegant grandeur of Wawel Castle was bathed in sunshine as we arrived in Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter, which was to be our home for the next two nights.
Walking around the main square, we felt the surprising vibrancy of Jewish life: some synagogues had been restored; others were museums. We saw the graves of eminent rabbis, heard the voices of the past and enjoyed the Jewish life of the present. At the architecturally resplendent Isaak Synagogue, whose faded Hebrew frescoes on its walls bore witness to Nazi vandalism, we sang a passionate, uplifting Friday night service.
Of course, one of the key reasons for my participation on the trip was to have the privilege of going with a Holocaust survivor. And on Shabbat, after lunch, we heard Renee’s story. You can look it up online. Or I could write a little about it. But it would not capture the horror, the agony, the grief, the suffering that Renee and millions like her underwent, simply because they were Jews.
With an unease and dread, Sunday arrived and after visiting Oskar Schindler’s Factory and museum, we made the journey, seemingly inexorably, to Auschwitz.
And there we stood. In Birkenau, a cloudless blue sky as our backdrop. We stood in that vast space, acres of land which had soaked up oceans of blood. It was a place of generations unborn, dreams unfulfilled, of lives cut short, with swiftness and with violence.
Our focus was a vast memorial structure at the far end of the entrance to the camp. There were plaques paying solemn tribute to the dead. In a shady corner of the memorial, Renee, a survivor of Auschwitz, of Birkenau and the Lodz Ghetto lit four candles in memory of her family who had perished.
After that, we said Kaddish in unison, for an elevation of the souls of the pure, of the holy, of Renee’s family, that they might find peace in Heaven, that she might be comforted in the knowledge that we heard, we saw and we will retell.
Just as Jews are a people of the Book, so too are we a religion of memory. None of us will ever forget. The sight of Renee reliving the most horrific of memories, of mourning for her family, for her country, for her people, will stay with me forever. And that is what we must cling onto: with experience comes understanding and with understanding comes the power of speech. That is what Jewish Care set out to achieve.
A disparate band of young Jews forged a special bond together. A bond of memory and a bond of hope: despite the unspeakable horrors, there we were. As Abraham said to G-d, “hineni”, so too do each of us, together with Renee and all the survivors, say to Him, in a strong voice “Hineni”: Here I am.