On Monday, January 23rd, I along with 44 fellow students and two rabbis from Yeshivat Orayta, touched down in a very cold and cloudy Warsaw, Poland. The weather outside set the tone for the journey we were to embark on as we traveled throughout Poland. Over a week there, we visited various ghettos, cemeteries, centers of Jewish life, forests, and both concentration and death camps. It wasn’t until we were leaving Auschwitz-Birkenau on our last day that we actually saw the sun setting. The coldness and darkness were representative of the intense feelings of sadness, anger, and disbelief that we experienced, while the sunset on the last day was a reminder of the optimism and positive messages I came out of the journey with and that there is hope and light even in the darkest of times.
Holocaust Denial and the Need for Greater Education
Every time I learn about the Holocaust, I find it difficult to comprehend that people could have perpetrated this against fellow humans. More than 6 million of my fellow Jews were brutally murdered in five years in Europe. The visits to the locations where so many Jews lost their lives reinforced my feeling of anger towards Holocaust deniers. How could one be so cruel as to deny the stories of survivors and the deaths of so many?
At Auschwitz specifically, I was able to better understand that Jews were treated inhumanely and robbed of their dignity. I saw the piles of suitcases, silverware, tallises (prayer shawls), shoes, and many other items that were taken from them when they arrived at the camp. I stood in the same spot where the Jews had to remove their clothing. I saw the piles of hair which were still left from when the Nazis shaved their heads. I visited the building where dozens of Jews had to sit together on concrete toilets. I walked through the chambers where the Nazis used gas to murder thousands in a short manner of time. And finally, I stood next to the crematorium, the last place Jews were robbed of their dignity.
Thankfully, Holocaust deniers do not represent a significant percentage of the world’s population. But, unfortunately, studies have shown Holocaust knowledge in the United States to be very limited, and I don’t believe it’s much better elsewhere. When reflecting on the trip, some of my peers said the trip filled in large gaps in their understanding of the Holocaust. While I have been privileged to have a very robust Holocaust education, and I have spoken to several survivors, I too learned a lot from this trip.
If Jewish students with substantial holocaust education require a trip like this one to broaden their understanding then there is a clear need for American students, who may not have the opportunity to travel to Poland, to have a comprehensive Holocaust education. There is an urgency since the unfortunate reality is that we are the last generation who can speak directly with survivors. And with antisemitism on the rise, people need to have a good understanding of what happens when the hatred and persecution of Jews or others go unchecked.
Humans Making Choices
The Holocaust is often discussed as evil animals perpetrating horrific acts against the Jews and other minorities. However, an aspect of the Holocaust that our tour guide, Rav Yitzchak, emphasized was that behind the inhumanity were humans, and, likewise, behind the cases of heroism, were regular people, who decided to perform heroic actions. As described by Rav Yitzchak, the Holocaust is made up of regular people making choices. This idea is one of great importance as a lesson from the Holocaust. Everyone can commit awful acts or do something good, and it is our responsibility to ensure that the majority of people are in the category of people doing great things rather than doing atrocious things.
Final Thoughts Before Death
We visited many places where Jews stood moments before being gunned down or gassed. I wondered what were the last thoughts of these children, mothers, fathers, and grandparents. For the mothers, it could have been a frantic thought of how to save their children and one last display of affection and care. For the fathers, it may have been about how they could provide for their families and possibly save them. For the children, the group I most identify with, it could have been the hopes and dreams they had for the future, which they would never be able to achieve. In the village of Zbylitowska Góra, just outside of Tarnow, there are the mass graves of over 800 children. The horrific thought of these children caused me to think of myself in this situation. If I had been alive at that it very well could have been me. Rav Yitzchak read a letter that a child wrote reflecting on their life right before their tragic death. Standing in that patch of forest, where hundreds of Jewish children once stood moments before their deaths, reminded me of the importance of cherishing each moment in life.
The Multiple Forms of Resistance that Jews Engaged In
Disproving the notion that Jews went to their deaths without pushback, there were numerous instances of Jews showing their resistance in a manner of fashions. At the Warsaw ghetto, a young man just a few years older than myself, Mordechai Anielweicz, led an uprising that resulted in the deaths of many Nazi soldiers. The uprising at Warsaw was a turning point for Jewish resistance in the Holocaust as it inspired Jews elsewhere in Europe to also rise up physically. There were also forms of religious and spiritual resistance. In Poland, we heard multiple stories of Jews engaging in religious practices such as praying, learning Torah, doing a brit milah, wearing tefillin, keeping the laws of Pesach, and many other actions. Continuing these religious practices in the ghettos or camps put their lives at risk, yet they did it anyway.
I found the story of the Piaseczna Rebbe, or Aish Kodesh (Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira), very moving. From the beginning of the Holocaust, when he was in the Warsaw ghetto, until his murder in the Trawniki concentration camp, he taught Torah in weekly sermons despite the risk. In a sermon he gave at the concentration camp, he delivered the message that one of the important things in life is to always do a favor for others. If someone in as bad of a situation as Aish Kodesh and his followers were able to adhere to this message, then surely we can too.
The Light Emerging from the Darkness
Interspersed with the dense and depressing encounters of our trip were moments of meaning and optimism. I had the chance to lead Tefilot (prayers) and read the Torah in places of great significance. I led Tefilot at the airport shortly after we had landed. I subsequently read Torah at Treblinka, which was potentially the first time Torah was ever read at that dreadful spot. Later in the week, I had the chance to read Torah at Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin (Academy of the Sages of Lublin), which was formerly the center of Jewish learning in Poland and still impacts Jewish learning today, after having learned Torah there the previous night. On Friday night, I led Kabbalat Shabbat, helping to welcome in Shabbat filled with song in a place once a bastion of Jewish faith and culture. These experiences contributed to a feeling of returning holiness and Judaism to places brutally robbed of their Jewish heritage and culture.
At various points during the Journey, there were also moments of celebration. A couple of the students marked the completion of their learning of Mishna with a siyum followed by some singing and dancing. The two siyums, in addition to our other moments of learning Torah and singing, brought optimism about our opportunity to live proud Jewish lives and the bright future that was robbed of my fellow Jews.
As Rav Yitzchak profoundly said, “They tried to bury us, they did not realize we were seeds”. Antisemites and others will continuously persecute us, but we will always outlast them and continue to grow and flourish. We should be like beautiful flowers blooming. We should continue to spread light outshining those trying to cover the world in darkness.
I would be remiss not to thank our trip organizer, Jroots, our tour guide Rav Yitzchak Rubenstein, my rabbis from Orayta, Rav Binny Freedman, and Rav Moish Kornblum, and all the other students and others who contributed to making our Journey through Poland the meaningful Journey it was.