Traveling to Poland with a group of students is not an easy job. It finds the teacher in a most unfamiliar role, unable to shed light, to clarify or to bring about some kind of order and logic to the endless questions raised by the students.
Questions lead one down a murky path that becomes increasingly incomprehensible with every step. Rather than establish some sort of order in the surrounding chaos, teachers find themselves walking beside their students in the darkness – groping blindly through the stone monuments of Treblinka, drowning in a sea of shoes in Majdanek and floundering through the hell of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
So why? Why do so many schools throughout Israel organize delegations to Poland? Why do we encourage our students to take part in this search for understanding which seems to yield greater turmoil and darkness?
I think there are three very good reasons for doing so.
First, just as we tell the story of Yetziyat Mitzrayim on Pesach from one generation to the next, we must not let the Holocaust be forgotten. We must not let it die with the generation of survivors. Elie Wiesel said, “Memory is the keyword. To remember is to create links between past and present, between past and future. To remember is to affirm man’s faith in humanity – in spite of itself – and to confer meaning to one’s fleeting endeavors.”
The journey to Poland – a journey into the past. A young girl, living in Herzliya. She has heard her grandfather’s stories. She has heard that he was sent to Birkenau. She has heard the horror stories of his existence, his day to day struggle for survival. But now she has walked on that same cursed ground. She has walked through the very same barrack where he slept. She has touched each wooden bunk. She has been there. She will never forget.
A security guard – he hardly spoke to anyone throughout the journey. His job was to watch – much the embodiment of the Israeli macho – strong and silent. Until the ceremony at Birkenau. Until he asked us to wait before we returned to the buses. Until he put on a kipa and took a wrinkled paper out of his pocket. Until he said Yizkor and began to read the long list of names of the members of his family who had been annihilated by the Nazis. Until the tears began to roll shamelessly down his face. He will never forget.
And these memories will be part of us – which brings me to the second reason which justifies a journey to Poland. We take the memories with us wherever we go. We take them with us when we return to Israel. And they will help us be better Israelis. They will help us understand why we must have a Homeland. They will remind us that Jews belong in Israel and that a country is not something that should be taken for granted.
I am reminded of my first trip to Poland. We had just completed the first of many ceremonies which the youngsters had prepared. At the end of the ceremony, we sang Hatikva, as is done after every school ceremony. There we were in Treblinka. The rain was pouring down heavily; a cold wind was lashing it into our faces. Treblinka offers no shelter. And then above the howling wind, above the voices of all the singers, Nir’s voice could be heard. It was not melodious. It was passionate. It thundered. We all joined him in his affirmation “Lhiot am hofshi bartzanu.. Eretz Zion, Yerushalaim.” I will never hear or sing Hatikva without hearing Nir.
And the third reason. Allow me to tell you something about how our nights were spent. After the days, which were long and exhausting – physically, mentally and emotionally came the nights –the soul-searching discussions. What we had seen, what we had felt. Doron was our guide and his door was always open. We sat in his room, filling every centimeter of floor, bed and table space. We tried to understand. We asked ourselves questions. The last night of our journey, we were asked what we wanted to take with us from this journey to Poland. It was Dor who said – ‘to try to be better’. And this was the sentiment that was echoed by so many of the youngsters. We saw what racism and hatred could do. We saw to what depths mankind could sink. We must be better. We must remember that the seeds of racism, of any kind, must be uprooted before their venomous fruit has a chance to poison mankind.
And though I wandered in the darkness with my students, I believe that through our journey, we will be better able to remember, if not understand, the Holocaust and pass it on to future generations. I believe that as Jewish Israelis we will be better people because of what we have seen. I know that I was privileged to share this journey with my students.