In Poland, I saw Am Yisrael Met (The people of Israel dead).
You will forgive me for the blunt opening statement, but I would like to share with you, in a short article, my experiences from a long week in Poland, a week in which I joined my youngest son’s senior high school class on their Massa Polin (Poland journey).
Normally I like to write drashot, essays with a beginning and an end and a very specific point — a halachic point, a moral point. In stark contrast, herein I seek not to prove any point but only to share an experience which, in the end, I hope you find no less meaningful.
Perhaps a reference to art will help put us in the right frame of mind. My usual drash can be said to be something like a self-portrait of Van Gogh where every brush stroke works with the next to express a very specific mood and convey a precise emotion. But my experiences in Poland were more like a Jackson Pollack with splashes of color, and full of black streaks, with no beginning and with no end. So you will forgive me if I meander and things seem disconnected because …
In Poland, I saw Am Yisrael Met.
And if we are speaking of death, perhaps the best place to start is from the midst of the trip. As we walked through the various killing forests and death camps, hearing about all the unspeakable things that one nevertheless does speak of in these and only these places, I realized that the Germans were not only guilty for simply killing us, but for utterly abusing us. Part of the abuse was by design, part of the abuse was simply the result of a system that allowed, nay, encouraged, inhumanity to reveal itself in every possible form of evil conceivable. Personally, I believe it was better to die quickly than suffer what can only be described as hell. Sheer. Hell.
And that brings us to the beginning of my story. Every time that my kids had brought up the subject of going to Poland on their class’ Massa Polin and asked what I thought, I told them, in all honesty: one does not choose to go to hell. I counseled each and every one of my kids not to go. My oldest daughter ignored me, and the next year she told her younger sister to do the same. They in turn told my son who then told his younger brother who then told my youngest son that he must go. Each time the subject of Massa Polin came up my wife told me to go and I simply said: one does not choose to go to hell. But this year, with our youngest child going, this was my last chance to do it. My wife said I needed to complete the education I was missing. So with that, I went.
Having gone, I must report that it was an incredible trip and one that I would strongly recommend for anyone and everyone. No matter how much you have read and heard and watched, there is so much more to see and hear and think about. For months following the trip there wasn’t a day that I didn’t think about the trip. Indeed, today, half a year later, I am still processing.
And this brings us to the end. I mentioned the black streaks that ran throughout our experience, the death camps, the killing pits, the horrendous stories of sufferings. But there were also wonderful splotches of color — the shuls, the graves of tzadikim and the stories that went with them. But the most vibrant and most beautiful colors of the trip were the kids, these high school kids who chose to make this heart wrenching journey. Without their crying and their laughing, their singing and their questioning — the trip would have been a morbid trek through the valley of the shadow of death. To see them struggle one minute and march with pride the next; to hear their discussions of deep issues at night and their joking and laughter in the morning – was to see Yisrael struggle with God and Man and overcome.
In Poland, I saw Am Yisrael Chai.