Last week, I had the honor of joining my son on Yeshiva Orayta’s Poland trip. I experienced an unexpected and profound spiritual experience in a reconstructed crematoria in Majdanek, the labor/extermination camp outside Lublin. While walking through the camp, our inimitable guide, Rav Yitzchak Rubinstein of Heritage Seminars, explained that Majdanek was known to be the most brutal of the camps. It was both surreal and sickening, a disorienting mesh of past and present. Majdanek stands empty yet intact– the eerie watchtowers, the barracks, gas chamber and crematoria bear mute witness to history. Although we had visited the Treblinka extermination camp the prior day, there are no physical structures left of the camp. The fact that extermination camps truly existed for labor and to murder Jews became clear at Majdanek.
One minute we were travelling through a neighborhood with children walking to school, and people waiting for a bus, and then right off the main thoroughfare we saw the watchtowers surrounding the camp. Think concentration camp in Central Park. Right in the center of town. The juxtaposition of the camp with the bustling Lublin neighborhood was jarring. In sharp contrast to Auschwitz which is full of tour groups and guides– including groups of Israeli 11th graders and members of Tzahal— Majdanek stands looming and silent. As we walked through the camp, through the description provided by Rav Yitz, and his retelling of accounts from Holocaust survivors, we began to understand the brutality and horror of life in Majdanek.
A short walk past the barracks, we arrived at the reconstructed crematoria. Along with the 36 Yeshiva Orayta students, two Yeshiva Rabbanim (Rav Yitzchak Blau and Rav Adin Krohn), and six parents — we huddled together in the concrete room with a low ceiling. We started to meditate on what it felt like to stand in a gas chamber during those final moments. The only light came in through the two square holes in the ceiling– and we began to imagine the moment when the Zyklon B gas pellets were dropped from above. Rav Yitz asked us to close our eyes, be silent and try to imagine what it felt like standing in that gas chamber– naked, shaved, clutching our families. We learned that mothers and children typically went into the gas chamber together, and the thought — as a mother whose son was steps away from me– of embracing my children left a searing imprint on my soul.
We learned about the role of the Sonderkommandos– work units made up of death camp prisoners, who were forced, on threat of their own deaths, to aid with the disposal of gas chamber victims. Filip Muller, one of the Sonderkommandos at Auschwitz Birkenau, couldn’t handle it any more and jumped into the gas chamber along with a group of women. The women– starving, naked, dehumanized and about to die– found the strength to admonish him and demand that he leave the gas chamber– as he needed to bear witness to the horrors of the camp.
What is our response to evil, and how should we teach our children to respond? Standing in the vortex of the absence of morality, the boys began to sing the prayer Shema Yisrael, arms locked one with the other, and their voices filled the gas chamber. Sonderkommandos report that the prayer of Shema Yisrael regularly emanated from the gas chamber. Starting to feel a tiny bit of what it felt like to stand in the gas chambers, Rav Yitz explained that as we do each Yom Kippur during Neilah, this was our moment to accept Ohl Malchut Shamayim, to reaffirm our faith. Hearing the entire group say “Hashem Hu Ha’Elokim” seven times, each time louder, reverberating throughout the chamber was an intense religious moment filled with the recognition that even in the face of evil, we each make choices as to how to respond.
When we left the crematorium we faced one of the most difficult sites of the trip– a concrete memorial structure encircling a very large mountain of human ash. The monument overlooked a grassy area with indentations, and we learned that on a single day in November 1943, 18,000 Jews were brought to Majdanek and shot. The Nazis blared music in an attempt to blot out the sound of bullets. It is believed that among those murdered that day was the Aish Kodesh z”l, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapiro– the Hasidic leader from Piaseczno, near Warsaw, who regularly preached sermons to his followers inside the Warsaw Ghetto. What was the Orayta response to this horror? One of the Orayta students made a siyyum (a celebration of the completion of a unit of Mishna or Talmud) as we faced the testament to the horrors of Majdanek. Without the strength of the students, I am not certain at all that I would have been able to stand there for more than a few moments. The emunah (faith), strength and learning of the boys strengthened me and modelled for me the way to respond to the horror.
Each of the extermination/labor camps, mass graves, monuments, synagogues and ghettos we visited was infused with moments of kedusha (sanctity)– through davening, a siyyum, singing and dancing. I feel deeply privileged to have had the opportunity to join the Yeshiva’s Poland trip and to experience together with the students the gut-wrenching lows and spiritual highs. After hearing the thoughtful questions the students asked the Rabbanim, and the mature nuanced reflections of the Orayta students, I feel personally strengthened and am optimistic–with these boys, am yisrael has a bright Jewish future.