Remember Not to Forget-Sentiments From A Journey Like No Other-Massa Poland

Twenty nine of us set forth, hailing from our various communities in Israel: Beit shemesh, Chashmonaim, Efrrat, Zichron Yaakov; Two hailing from Rochester NY, Another two from NY. We were couples, and singles, mothers & daughters, and sisters. Some of us knew each other and some did not. We were led by our outstanding guide Shifra Waxman; (affectionately known as Shiffy)-guide from Yad vashem, guide for Jroots Heritage Tours-leading us on a journey like no other. Assisting Shifra was our Polish guide Pavel who was superb in every way.

We went on the Massa to learn and grow, to experience and witness, to hear and explore, to listen and to report back- because, there once was a world.

We went to hear the stories of those who could tell them. We went to hear the stories of those who cried out to be heard, the stilled voices screaming to be heard. We will not let them be silenced. If I had to sum up a theme of sort it would be: לא אמות כי אחיה ואספר מעשה קה-I will not die until my story has been told.- says those who survived and those who wished to have survived. This theme echoes the thoughts of the survivor who will hold on for 120 years until their final story has been told, to as many as it can be told too. But additionally, this sentiment is absolutely echoed through all those who perished and the places that were destroyed and the monuments or bits of remains-that do remain. This sentiment screams out from the ground as Shiffy taught and showed us how these monuments and places and groves are bursting with history and stories to be told.

I do not have a family story from Poland- but I feel that I  am ever so connected as a member of Knesset Yisrael-of Am Yisrael -of  the Jewish People.

And so in 6 short days we traveled throughout various cities in Poland, to the famous and infamous sites.We explored those well known, lesser known and hardly known places- because, there once was a world and there was a story to be told and to be heard.

Throughout the excursions- there were stories that were told. As many in our group were children and relatives of survivors and so there they stood in those memorial places of their relatives-telling the rest of the group their story.

Yes, we did  get an overview of history, an emotional tugging, a heart wrenching and heart rendering encapsulation of this chain of the six million who perished, and some of the  survivors and their places. Because everybody in our group either had somebody, knew somebody or knows somebody who was there and experienced-first hand, the rich life of Poland before and the absolute atrocities during that fateful time period. 

And so we felt a sheer glimpse of the immensity of life lost, of those Kedoshim/holy ones-and emoted whatever pain felt of the lost life from all the places of the world that once was.

We went through the Warsaw Cemetery and caught glimpses of those who were famously beloved and those obviously hated. We learned from the headstones, the stories of those dedicated to religious life, those to art and theater,and those to the language of the past. And  we learned about those worlds. Our honorary group Kohen kept watch from afar-but hearing it all with the headsets and listening intently to those stories. We heard the history of our group’s member who found his great grandfather’s kever for the first time and shared his story.

We saw the greatness of literature and the Torah World. The decimated stones of collaborators from the Judenrein and Jewish Police- unloved societal members and their stories too were told to us all there. We passed the famous Janusz Korczak  Memorial and heard about the hero who chose to die with his orphanage’s children rather than to save just himself. Then Shiffy added similar stories of those unknown and not nearly as famous but certainly as heroic and on par for bravery. And so the stories echoed on as we  heard about the world that once was.

Strutting  to the Umschlagplatz-feeling very raw, we tried to even imagine what one could have felt as Polish Jews were rounded up waiting to be deported to their deaths away from their world. We felt  the pride of the resistance fighters from Mitla 18- Rappaport’s Memorial to those unsung heroes emanating such bravery until their last breath was taken from them, while fighting to the end. We saw the memorial and paid homage to the amazing Jan Karski-Polish non-Jew who made the Jewish cause his own, whereby considering himself a Catholic Jew feeling that a horrific sin has been committed by humanity. This sin will haunt humanity to the end of time. This sin has haunted the life of the world that once was.

Our guide like no other then guided us to the unknown places like Parczew- to feel the loss of the Shul that once stood and now stood only as only a factory- with the Jewish life gone without a trace, without  a mention , or even a small reminder. But we were reminded as Shiffy shared the photos- and told us the story of this smaller Jewish town making it known to us, those that were now invisible from their world that once was. Although the daylight had already ended, we then trekked on through the forest of Parczew by the small light of flashlight to feel a glimpse of what the partisans living daily in the raw forest may have felt. Only, on our March, we listened quietly to the music of the times crying out to be remembered.The cold, dark, terribly frightening forest gave us but a taste of a sensation of the thousands displaced there struggling to survive. Life-for them was  in shallow huts or small caves for months and years to hope to survive. Although a nice amount survived, many thousands of others were discovered and brutally murdered there and around. Perhaps a bone fragment might be under one of our shoes? We heard some accounts and we could hear more from the trees above who have been the witnesses to the countless stories of this world that once was.

Shuttling onward it was off to Lublin where we were privileged to see and experience a bit of time in the beautiful Yeshiva Chochmei Lublin. We heard the stories of admittance to the highest level of scholarship learning. This was  a place where Gedolim learned and taught, where we – continue some of its upheld traditions-from Daf Yomi to all Torah learning styles that were from the world that we then heard about and beamed from within the yeshiva walls.

Next sliding down from a heavenly kingly spot to the depths of drecks-lower than the brain can imagine, we spent several hours in the infamous Majdanek Death Camp where sadism and brutality were the recipes of daily fodder. This is one of those places where life’s property and belongings had been ripped away. It was cold and methodical seeing the stolen  property-the endless piles of shoes. No man can ever fill another man’s shoes. Every life is irreplaceable. We heard the invisible cries -learned their stories and saw the unimaginable mountain of ashes. We parted with a tekes/ceremony of hope and memory perpetuation. We stood opposite the humongous mountain of seemingly infinite human ash as we lit memorial candles  and added to the endless tears that continue to be shed.

We felt a bit more upbeat as we toured through Brama Grodzka which is the gate that links the Christian and Jewish parts of the city. It is a cultural center and theater which has recorded the history and achievements of Lublin’s Jews. The center runs a multitude of activities including  artistic activities, exhibitions, meetings, sessions, book and magazine promotions, concerts, an internet site, and publishes activities. Photographs and oral histories are all documented, constantly updated and saved. It was amazing to see that in Lublin there once was a world and its stories are being preserved and told by the fabulous staff- incredibly made up of almost entirely non-Jewish Poles.

It was then off to get a Hasidic experience from visiting some of the burial sites and hearing some of their stories to connect to their world which was a part of this world. We learned about the Noam Elimelech and other great Hasidic masters. To get an experiential feeling we simulated a Tish that enhanced what their world once was and gave us all literally a taste (including kugel and cake) and wonderful flavors to savor for all.

On to the The Lancut shul which was a very unique experience. It was  fascinating to see this vaulted structure with a tower Bima oh so ornate, with its walls covered in prayers.The caretaker himself fluently speaking Polish and incidentally a Non-Jew. This peaked our curiosity so-as his dedication to the Shul service and maintenance was exemplary. He shared the stories of the times about scholars and Tzadikim like the Chozeh M’Lublin that graced this place with their Torah and Tefillot from the world that once was. And the Shul there gave us a very spiritual high and filled us with the songs of Tefillot as we sang together the Matovu, Etz chaim and Vihee Sheamda.

Next on to Tarnow a city that was once home for the Jews as they comprised  40% of the city’s population. But tragically became a city so entrenched in bloody massacres. One of the toughest times for us was in the Zvilitovska Gura forest-mostly known as the ‘Children’s Forest’ where the innocents of the innocents were plucked away and so brutally murdered, while their corpses were  thrown in massive pits in this forest. And as we all shed there many tears and many more as letters from our loved ones were shared (as arranged by Shiffy) to give us more strength and fuel us at a time that was so badly needed. It was so hard to stay there and oh so hard to leave there. And as we quietly walked to begin our next destination, this hallowed spot couldn’t be left -without a special couple from our group eyeing one last time chillingly vocalizing for all within radius to hear ‘Am Yisrael Chai’. To those dear precious children your story was told and your stilled voices have not been silenced. We remember you and your world that once was.

We walked around several streets in the city square and went  into the ‘Old Synagogue’-where only the Bima remains. It is a powerful testimony of what the Nazis could never destroy. That Bima too had a story from the world that once was, a city laden with Jewish life.

On to Krackow with a quick peek at the famous Schindler factory-of a man who was greater than life and the cause of thousands of lives to be perpetuated until today. We heard his story and many of the victim’s and survivor’s  as well. We learned about the impossible brutal challenges of their world that once was.

Shabbat in Krakow was eye opening and incredible. This also included the wonderfully tasty food. While eating, we were captured and enraptured  by stories of more group members that were children of survivors. Each story was yet another world to be learned about. Davening in the old Issac Shul was a real experience. We heard from the Rav of Kracow about Jewish revivalism in Poland and the helping of lost souls by bringing them back to Judaism, to the world that once was. We saw the various Shuls and learned about the various architecture and styles that each one had from the Issac, to the Rema,from the Tempel and the Dietel. All those Shuls- so many Jews once filled the pews-all with their Tefillot and stories from their worlds that once were.

There were  Shuls which are no longer. Some now as we learned have been reused as other structures.While their walls became exposed as the original Shul walls and thought to be funky, were made to stay as part of the decor. So, that being the case, with the downtown Krackow cafe called ‘The Chevra’, we quietly passed through and saw those Shul walls looking out at us- telling us: “here we are now, as we have been plucked from our world that once was”.

On a Shabbat shbatzeer/walk, our group walked to find the old home of another member’s family who grew up there and had been deported. Although he survived. He has never been back to see the place again. You sensed that story shouting out from the bricks albeit it  sadly had been graffitied with some swastikas, thereby marking the story that once was.

Shabbat afternoon was programmed with a righteous gentile Miroslawa Gruszczynska telling her story and the story of the Jewish girl Miri Amir, whose life she so bravely and heroically saved. At the age of  91, Miroslawa still tells her story -as we were her third time in that 2 hour period that she did so. Our fabulous Polish Guide Pavel translated it all. When They finished, Miroslawa received a standing ovation from the 300 people present- which included several Jroots groups comprised of  many Post high school students from all over the world. Everyone there was flawed with complete disbelief of the heroism displayed.

After Shabbat , we had a special night tour of the Krakow Ghetto and momentous spots. We heard more stories of brave souls from pharmacists to ethicists who made harrowing life altering decisions which all carried stories of the world that once was.

Trekking up to the  Plaszow Death Camp to a very emotional Havdalah ceremony separating from the Kodesh of shabbat to the mundane of the week- from the abyss of the camp below to the etches of sketches in stones of lives that once were. And as we sang, we could hear back the echoes, and bear testimony to this world that once was and to bear it into our souls, that sheer wickedness of man to his fellow man.

Shavua Tov- almost oxymoronic as we  spent half the day delving into the miserable depths of wretchedness in Auschwitz/Birkenau, where cruelty, hatred, torture, murder and barbarism were the tools put to use. Looking at the rooms of stolen personalized property, wondering, perhaps a familiar name? Checking out the execution gallows trying to comprehend a possible crime that a barefoot, nearly naked, severely malnourished, virus infected, exhausted, man, woman or child could possibly commit? We trekked the path from the railroad tracks that took so many millions to their deaths. Again with the perfect music accompaniment piped into our headsets from Shiffy’s perfectly suited playlist. Somberly we walked and heard the souls crying out to be heard among the structures still standing and the ruins of the sadism that once was in this world-from the worlds of old yonder. 

We listened, we saw, we heard-the testimonies and the stories, the statistics and the reports. Mostly in silence draped in our  Israeli flags waving in the wind, taking in all the data from the worlds that were and walking through Birkenau to almost feel the reenactment of the world that was. Blaring at the roles of holes that were used for this demented privilege of demoralizing bathroom usage. One couldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt at our own plethora of bathroom usage just this day alone. It was inconceivable, the shuttering, terrifying, gaping, sickly, petrifying, unbelievable world where human life was sanctimonious to  to human excrement and moldy crusts of breads, where stories were told- diaries written, passive actions recorded as this seemed to be the worst horror feature of all. And as we passed through the extermination facilities which rid the world of millions of innocent lives, we felt shaken and broken and felt that we then,had burned holes in our souls where we will forever have the scar tissue on the world that once was. Hearing the stories of our friends’ fathers and so many with them, young and old, male and female, cast a wondering spell on us as we wondered about this world that was no more.

Another of our members told an exhilarating story which happened at a certain block and bunker, and as someone who is now dedicated to bringing new Olim to Israel, she left the mark of the Degel Yisrael as we made a tekes/ceremony -right at that bunker. The Israeli flag was tied for perpetuity and in memorial for the sparks of hope that our future does hold.

And our Auschwitz guide left us with parting words that no matter color of skin, race, religion, all humans should have freedom. The hatred begins with a word. We must protect that word….

From there we went to Chestokowa- and went through a 2 room room sewer like basement alcove where 27 family members were hidden for several months. Most of us had a hard time bearing the half hour in the tiny cramped 2 half rooms amidst the pipes, very low ceiling and curved space. To imagine 27 people living there in hiding was among the abysmal memories and stories of that world that is no longer.

Our last night was spent in Lodz. The usual predawn arising to get out as early as possible to hear one member’s family incredible accounting in Raidgest.  Then we climbed the attic in Dabei to an old building that once was a Shul and the walls were uncovered and once more we heard the story of a member’s family who survived only because she was baptized and ultimately made her way to continue her life as a Jew in our beloved Jewish homeland.

This inspiring story and others from a world that was no more, charged our batteries one last time, but not nearly enough for our ending explorations. 

From there we journeyed to the Lodz train station and made the  rounds, entered a cattle car- heard the stories of that world and had some time to only imagine what it would have been like. The inconceivable hours spent in these cattle cars- packed into standing room only without air, water, or bathrooms. And we sang the Ani Maamin with thoughts of this sacred song whose notes had been thrown  from a high speeding cattle car’s train window, and survived with one of those incredible souls who survived with it as well. After much trial and effort the song made it to the Hassidic Rebbe to reach and teach and spread for eternity and posterity. And as we somberly sang in unison, thoughts wandering and wondering what would ‘WE’ have packed in one suitcase for the final journey in life?

The Chelmno death camps, and burial ground pits was a revolting, repulsive, reality to the continuation of the brutality and bestiality of the Nazism that was. Testimonies and stories lined areas of the camp. Possessions of those murdered who came with Keys in tow without a clue as to what would be happening, actually thinking that they would be returning home. So many items displayed for all to see. So many of us today use that same brand of Nivea Eye Cream that was in the display case-ripped away from that beautiful soul. We looked around  and stared disbelievingly at the miles and miles of area where innocent Jews were  gassed and burned and thrown into pits, but only after the murderers removed any possible valuables from a crevice in the body. And we sadly listened in disbelief to the stories and we strolled somberly around the pits and read the plaques and memorials and were deep in our thoughts of wonder of- what kind of world was this- once upon a time? The vastness of what lay ahead of us seemed endless and troubling beyond our comprehension. Draped in our flags, we concluded with Kel Maleh Rachamim, Ani Maamin and Hatikvah. What more was there to say or do-sans tying and leaving a piece of us- our Israeli flag -around a freestanding Jewish star to mark the site of Jewish burial. 

And in sheer disbelief we bused back to Warsaw to end our journey with meandering around the Polin Museum. We saw, learned and heard how did  Jewish people end up in Poland? What was their world like back then? What went wrong and turned it upside down and caused their burial deep into the bloody ground that Poland had become.

Yes, we heard and learned of some special Polish souls and those righteous gentiles who were devoted, dedicated and life saving. Sadly they were greatly outnumbered by those who indeed collaborated with the greatest murderers of our times.

We heard many of these stories of the generations in a world that could have been, but instead, was just burned away. And it will take generations to heal and feel otherwise towards  the partiality of an entire country.

In a few days-as We get closer to the holiday of Purim we will fulfill our Toraidic obligation on  Shabbat Zachor-to remember what Amalek did to Am Yisrael as they came out of Mitzrayim; “Zechor et asher assah licha Amalek”. This Zechor is also mentioned to be said daily at the end of our Shacharit prayers.

The vicious, barbaric attack on a newly redeemed nation-that were like newborn babies-unarmed and inexperienced. And so the Jewish people have been commanded for all times-‘you shall erase the remembrance of Amalek from under the heavens, do not forget!’

As the main foe in the Purim story was Haman ha’Agagi m’zerah Amalek, Haman the Aggagite from the seed of Amalek, we begin our Purim festivities with first recalling what Amalek – the father of Haman and the father of all Jew-hatred – did to us then… and what he still strives to do to us today.

R’ Soloveitchik zt’l comments on the verse in Migeelat Esther: As Haman’s genocidal plan became known to all;  “וְהָעִיר שׁוּשָׁן נָבוֹכָה, the town of Shushan stood aghast in horror. Our faith in man’s goodness should not blind us to the latent demonic in man. Evidently, civilized men can become the personification of evil. ‘The town of Shushan stood aghast in horror’ due to the traditional naivete of the Jew who cannot believe that human beings may act like predatory beasts of the jungle. This was a traumatic discovery for the Jews of Persia.  The Jew believes intuitively in man’s inherent goodness, that a divine spark inhabits every human being, even the habitual sinner and criminal. The sudden confrontation with the total Amalek-style cruelty was, therefore, a painful and rude awakening. In Haman, the Jews of Persia met a descendant of Amalek.  

“Who is Amalek?  He is the personification of total evil, for whom immorality has become the norm.  Amalek is obviously more than a Bedouin tribe. He is more than a particular group, nationality or people.  He is Every-man gone berserk, who has shed his divine image for that of Satan. This is the persistent villainy that the L-rd bid us combat and against which He has sworn eternal enmity.  It is for this reason that there is a positive Torah commandment: Remember what Amalek did to you when you were on your journey, after you left Egypt…Do not forget (Devarim 25:17-19)” (Megillat Esther Mesorat HaRav, p.83-82).

And so we are commanded to remember not to forget. The dual language of remembering and not forgetting is sort of odd and almost redundant. Why the commandment of both? 

It has been answered, that remembering a horrible event is not difficult at all? Who wouldn’t remember? Which survivor to Nazi Horrors could ever- not remember? But forgetting a horror, many if not most, would want to -to regain normalcy, to let go and to live on. But here the Torah must command that NO- never forget! For we are forever- not the same. Forever- life is not the same. It can not be. We cannot forget- because it is possible to repeat itself and we must be prepared for it.

Rav  Soloveitchik wrote that although Birth Amalek is no longer recognizable, National Amalek is always here-which would be defined as any nation who wants to wipe out the Jewish people. And so all those whose charter states that their goal is to send Israel into the sea- would certainly fall under that category. All those who have slaughtered tens and hundreds and thousands of Jews for their libels, revenge, jealousy and those who blame for all their problems over the years would certainly fall into that category. All those Nazis- may their memories be erased who tried to make their land and all of eastern Europe and so forth ‘Judenrein’- certainly fell into that category and all those who continue to support these goals today.

And so we as a people have loads of remembering to do and loads of not forgetting to do-yearly anyway.

Those survivors of the aforementioned atrocities would certainly be at the forefront to lead those to remember. Then there are those who are children of the survivors who would certainly be right behind remembering. It seems that so many do have a story.

And there are so many of us who don’t have a personal story but no matter because we are ever so connected as a member of the Jewish people.

We must blot out the memory- of all they  present day Amalek and we must wipe them out- figuratively anyway. We must remember and can never forget. And so the  journey continues because once there was a world… And so days after participating in a journey of a lifetime, here are the sentiments that cry out to be shared.

This journey like no other- Needs to be obligatory for every Jew- if not every human being at some point in his or her life. The stories we were told, heard and listened to must continue to be transmitted for perpetuity: Similarly some reasons offered why Chazal state that Purim unlike all other Chaggim won’t be abolished in the times of Mashiach, but rather will always be for perpetuity

לא אמות כי אחיה ואספר מעשה קה.-I will not die because I will live to tell my story

Thank you fellow group-mates for sharing this life experience. We will never again be the same people.Thank you Shifra Waxman for your expertise in all ways, leading a Massa Like no other. Thank you JRoots.

And as for our group of 29- we flew out from the world that once was…

And we left broken for the 6 million destroyed souls and worlds….

And we left sullen for the loss of life and worlds….

And we left mystified where the country of Poland was once home to most Jews in the world-then the pit of death to one third of world Jewry.

And then- we reentered our lives- most of us in our national Jewish Homeland- the state of Israel- Eretz Yisrael.

And we arrived  in our homeland mended and whole again from the journey as we so proudly feel our own families and friends who have built up this land- Od  Lo Avda tikvateinu! We have not lost hope! B”H We have our IDF to defend us at all times, to say NEVER AGAIN!

But forever, we will remember and continue to tell the stories. Holocaust education must always continue. We must teach our children and our children’s children We must teach them all to always hear the stilled voices.We will never allow those voices to be silenced.

And so, the story doesn’t end there, because we continue the story. We- on the Massa are the shleechim/messengers- and duty calls us to continue the story of those- to tell and retell, to build and use beautiful Shuls and Yeshivot and Batei Midrashot to practice and uphold Torah and Yahadut, to keep going further and to appreciate the Tzelem Elokim/Godly spark found in all people in the world and as Jews to be Ohr Lagoyim/the light among the nations. We need to uphold the values and eradicate the evil with zero tolerance of those who strive to bring forth barbarism and evil throughout this world to our people and others. We must never stand silent for any of them, because silence is tantamount to collaboration.

May we all  always pay forward the importance of this massa to others to carry fourth, and to make sure- never again!

Because once there was a world…far far away….

Today there is a world- the world is in Israel for all to come and stay! This is where the Jews can be safe and free.The time has come for all to heed the call- as we continue in the creation of this New world. Am Yisroel Chai!!

About the Author
Phyllis Hecht is living in Chashmonaim with her family since their Aliyah-17.5 years ago from Queens, NY. She is a Judaic studies teacher with an MA in Holocaust studies. Phyllis has a teudat Horaah in teaching English and a license in special education reading recovery. She is also a licensed debating teacher. She has taught business English in Israel and abroad and has taught Holocaust and Judaic studies classes in Israel. Phyllis is currently a High school English teacher and Debating coach at the Zeitlin High school in Tel Aviv.