I saw them. I saw them in the shameful Majdanek gas chambers as I stared in disbelief at the finger marks on the wall, imagining a person struggling to gulp in final breaths of air; I saw them in the Majdanek crematorium as lifeless bodies were shoveled into ovens, transforming into residue of flesh.
I saw them under the ground in mass graves within a lifeless forest as I let my eyes transcend the leaves and dirt, picturing them piled together in a blatant lack of respect for the dead. I saw them in a mountain of ashes under a Russian-built monument. A number of Jews too great to be uttered was transformed into a black powdery hill from which if I were to take a handful of, I would be holding a brother or sister or mother or father.
And then I saw the handful of ash rising from my hand and gradually developing into a child, dressed in an overall, high white socks, and a cap on his head. He was ready to go to school for an enjoyable and peaceful day, to live his life, to grow and flourish; to talk to his friends, to learn about the world. But he acted as our generational scapegoat. The emotions were unbearable, and I felt in a state of total dejection.
And I saw in Treblinka countless stones standing as monuments for the murdered. As I observed the area in the 15 minutes allotted to roam around, I found the inscription of a Jewish-European name on a rather large stone; I imagined a father coming home from work to meet his family in time for dinner, to read to his children, to discuss the day with his wife. Arms and legs began to form, a head emerged from the top, and I suddenly found myself staring at an unshaven, worn out man. He said, “Go live your life. Go make a Kiddush Hashem. Show the world what it means to be a Jew. We will never perish.” Then he reverted to stone form, and I found myself smiling ever so slightly, now with a more hopeful perspective on the tragedy.
The Yeshivat HaKotel Poland experience yielded a type of emotion that not only let me view the Holocaust with an expected somber and dispirited perception, but also with a more hopeful, confident attitude. It forced my attention towards the Jewish nation as it is now versus how it was then; where we are now versus where we were then; what we are now versus what we were then.
It was quite interesting to be in Europe for the first time, and perhaps Poland was not quite the best representation. It seemed to be in a perpetually melancholy and remorseful state. I found there to be a lack of energy and little activity, even in the larger cities of Warsaw and Kraków, throughout the course of the trip. It was as if the tragedy was on everyone’s mind every day. At the camps and by the forests where the mass graves were located, I would look up at the sky in its cloudy, gloomy state. It was as if it had felt guilty — nearly 80 years later — for what had transpired below it. And that is how the sky seemed to feel at virtually every point throughout Shana Aleph‘s time in Poland.
And then I saw them. I glanced at my peers around me, and I saw a miracle — I saw the Jewish people. I looked around as we would sing songs of hope, songs of prayer, songs of unconditional commitment to God, songs of redemption; it felt like the European Jews of each respective place rose and sang with us.
We sang “Nekadesh Et Shimcha” in the Majdanek gas chambers, taking it upon ourselves in continuing to sanctify God’s name in the world, and “Ani Ma’amin B’Emunah Sheleima” in the crematorium, pronouncing our unimpaired belief in the Redeemer; we cried in middle of a forest in Józefów a song in which we declared our everlasting commitment to God in spite of the fact that we were slaughtered like sheep. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, we looked upon the barracks from a notorious road on which people walked to their deaths, and recited the words “Vehi Sh’Amdah La’aVoteinu V’Lanu,” affirming that we still exist because God repeatedly protected us throughout history and continues to do so. When we finished going through Auschwitz-Birkenau, we called out the words “V’Lyerushalayim Ircha B’Rachamim Tashuv“, as we danced down the path in the center of the camp. We were on our way home. And those who perished were were with us the entire time, singing and rejoicing in our continuance.
Perhaps the most symbolic point was when we stood in front of the ashes of countless Jews, where we began to sing “Am Yisrael Chai,” gradually increasing in volume and rhythm. As we collectively turned around, we danced away, arm in arm, continuing to sing as we formed a circle around an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor, Mr. Siggy Weiser. He donned an Israeli flag and held the Torah, reciting the words “Am Yisrael Chay“. And as I danced in front of an ecstatic Mr. Weiser, I sang the words with the utmost triumph, happiness, and gratitude to God.
And I knew it was true: the Jews of Europe were with us the entire time. They sang with us; they rejoiced in our existence. They were in disbelief — that such a nation with such a religion and land had come about from the valley of death. But we forced them to believe that it was true; we sang our hearts out, with consolation and reassurance. We ensured them that we will live on forever in our land with our Torah, culminating with, God willing, the ultimate geulah.