It was cold and dreary when we landed in Warsaw. I was nervous and didn’t know what to expect. Would I really be able to survive six full days of an intense physically and emotionally draining program, I wondered. The week was long and hard. Each day felt like eternity, going from site to site learning about the rich life that had flourished in Poland before the Holocaust and then seeing places where there had been mass destruction, murder, and torture. We were constantly trying to comprehend the gravity of the tragedy.
Walking through Auschwitz, aware of the brutality that had occurred there just a few generations earlier; standing in Treblinka, knowing that I would get a chance to walk out alive, and walking through the streets of Warsaw without tripping over dead bodies left me angry and perplexed. Why them and not me? That was one of the questions that kept nagging at me. Why was it the fate of these six million Jews to die in the Holocaust? How did I merit being born into a generation that came after the establishment of the State of Israel? I was struck by guilt when I had a hard time functioning because I was so cold, despite wearing layer upon layer of winter apparel. How could I complain of being cold when the Jews in the Holocaust were practically undressed, in much harsher weather?
One of the most emotionally draining sites we visited was a mass grave in Zbilitovska Gora, a place where 800 innocent children were brutally murdered just for being Jews. Murdering young children for their race is one of the most unjust and incomprehensible phenomena of the Holocaust. When we got there, our historian had us each take some time to ourselves and write a letter to a child in the grave. She wanted to personalize the experience for us. The two pairs of winter gloves I had on weren’t enough to defrost my frozen fingers as I began to write my feelings. Next, a few of us volunteered to read our letters aloud. After reading mine, I was showered with compliments for a job well done. I had written a poem to a child, and my teachers and peers praised my writing skills. The flattering compliments I received felt undeserved.
I’m disgusting! I come to a mass grave where children were brutally murdered and all I can focus on is how good I am at writing poems? Instead of making this a moment to commemorate 800 children, I took this chance to stand out and flaunt my talents. How could I? I am so selfish, I’m so conceited. I wrote about my self-loathing in my diary.
Upon my return to Israel, life slowly went back to normal. Whenever I thought back to my experience in Poland all the guilt returned, all the hard feelings, and all the questions.
Then something ironic happened. The following year I got to go back to Poland, this time as a staff member. I had two main jobs on the trip. I was the technical and logistics coordinator, responsible for ensuring that all flights, hotels, buses, and other logistics worked smoothly. My other job, which was more rewarding for me, was to be the madricha for the Midreshet Nishmat group.
As I dealt with my own anxieties leading up to this trip, I had a lot more on my plate than I did the last time. I had to make sure that the girls for whom I was responsible would have a meaningful experience. I was the person to whom they would turn with questions and concerns, and for a shoulder to cry on. How would I be able to handle that? I have so many questions of my own, I’m young and inexperienced.
I prepared the Nishmat students and myself by getting together before the trip to discuss pre-Poland anxieties and to watch a movie focusing on the question of where God was during the Holocaust. The movie only confused us but it achieved the goal of getting us all to start thinking and questioning.
I didn’t know what to expect from my return to Poland. Would it be the same as the year before? Would I have the same feelings of guilt? Would I be a good mentor?
I wasn’t so hard on myself this trip. In addition to being baffled by the death and destruction that occurred, I gained a new appreciation and sense of amazement for the survival. When I was freezing cold, trying to comprehend how people survived in colder climate with less clothing, I was overwhelmed by a sense of awe.
How was it possible that anyone survived the Holocaust? I suddenly gained a new perspective on the wonder of the human body and mind. How did people sustain hope when they had no guarantees? Watching loved ones being brutally massacred and still trying to make it seemed heroic and miraculous. Survival wasn’t a given; instead, it was going against all odds physically and psychologically. How did a single person make it out alive?
I wouldn’t have.
Saturday night, at the end of an overwhelming week filled with song and tears, questions, and new insights, we made the dreadful trip back to Zbilitovska Gora. As we arrived it began to snow and I envisioned happy children, excited to play in the snow, build a snowman, and throw snowballs. Kids should be running around playing and having fun. No child deserves the fate of these 800 children.
As a staff member on the trip, I was responsible for some of the programming. Feeling a little guilty, I pulled out the poem I had written a year earlier and read it to the students, hoping that it would affect their experience and help them feel the intensity of this place.
Your dolls, lined up neatly on your bed near your pillow are smiling.
I ask them why.
You’re not there anymore to cradle them, you haven’t combed their hair or had a tea party with them in what seems like forever.
Yet they’re smiling. When I ask why they turn to each other and grin. They giggle the way you used to giggle when you had a secret you didn’t want to share.
“Why the happy faces?” I ask angrily.
They finally offer a response, “It’s the butterflies she sends every day to come protect us and play with us. She’s up there where they come from, she’s the butterfly queen – pink with purple sparkles.”
What more could a little girl want?
I look at the dolls and smile knowing you’re in a better place.
But I shed a tear.
I shed a tear for the butterfly who I haven’t had the opportunity to meet and when I think of how far you could have soared on this earth.
When I finished reading the poem, sensing that it was well received, I sat down with my thoughts. Was I really a horrible person for feeling good about my talents, which I was expressing at this mass children’s grave? I imagined that the souls of the children in the grave probably were looking down at me and smiling. I thought that if they could speak they’d tell me that they are proud of me.
My feelings on my first trip to Poland were focused on guilt. I felt that taking lessons or inspiration from the murder of others was wrong, selfish, and evil. This time around I realized that all of those who died in the Holocaust had one dream — to live on — for the continuation of their families and of the Jewish nation. Instead of worrying that my experience of Poland resulting in personal growth was an offense to those who died, I realized that I am bringing their dreams to fruition. A young Jewish girl saddened by the tragedies that occurred and through that trying to inspire herself and others to live a meaningful life, to commemorate those who couldn’t, in essence is actualizing their dreams that Hitler’s plan should fail and the nation of Israel would continue to flourish.
It’s amazing how the same experience can be so different when coming at it from a different perspective.
Adapted from a previous publication of this story in the Jewish Standard