Robert Festenstein
Robert Festenstein

So how was your trip to Poland?

For some time now, there have been regular trips to the remains of the Concentration Camps in Europe made by Jews from all over the world.  My friend Wendi Cooper, from North Manchester in the UK recently went and asked me to post this for her.  It conveys I believe very well, the inextricable link between the Jewish people and the State of Israel.  Wendi refers to attending a lecture given by Dorit Novak, the Director of Yad Vashem in Manchester last week.  I too attended that lecture and heard Dorit talk about the importance and significance of educating the world about the Shoah. Wendi’s article does just that:

“So how was your trip to Poland?” – Wendi Cooper

I have been asked that question so many times in the days since I returned and on each occasion, I can only respond with a long pause followed by more silence. I just cannot put it into a sufficiently short conversation.

I was one of a number of people who took part in Whitefield Synagogue’s Heritage, Holocaust and History journey to Poland guided by Jeremy Kurnedz. Jeremy is the son of a Survivor whose parents and siblings perished in Treblinka. He told his father’s and other individual’s stories throughout the trip, guiding us through what history he could in the short time that we had together.

We had a packed itinerary but managed to visit the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery, Warsaw Ghetto remains, Treblinka Death Centre, Majdanek Concentration Camp and Death Centre, the resting place of Rabbi Elimelech of Lejansk, the town of Tarnow and the Bimah of the old Synagogue, the Children’s Forrest (the Forrest of Zbilatowska Gora), the Old Jewish Quarter of Krakow and its Ghetto and finally Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau.

This essay is not written to narrate what we saw and were told but in order to describe how I felt along the way and after to help me process it all. Since returning the group have kept in touch with each other and we all appear to be having the same experience of being all encompassed by what we saw, heard and felt – what I call processing. I cannot get the Shema Israel Niggum out of my head and I hear it playing in my mind when I wake up, many times during the day and when I go to sleep. That tune is synonymous of the trip for me, making me sad for all those who suffered and proud to be one of the Jewish Nation. I am not yet ready to hear it less and less. Thanks to Jeremy I now have an audio file of Mordechai Ben David singing it and I have it on repeat whilst writing.

So how was the trip? I think it is better described as a journey. The word “journey” is commonly used in reality television programmes and is mostly scoffed at. But I can honestly say I have been on one. I have gone from being Jewish by birth, having little involvement with the community but a Zionist to something much more. Whilst I haven’t particularly enjoyed the religious side of our festivals and everyday laws, I have always respected the right of others to enjoy them. So much so that on the day we were travelling to the resting place of Rabbi Elimelech I told Jeremy that it was not “my thing” but as I had nothing else to do I would embrace it. And I did. Very much so. It stands out to me as a significant spiritual moment. I am proud to have embraced it and I believe it was important to me in my journey. But where else has the trip taken me? It has taken me through dark places and in to the light of our Nation. By Nation I do not mean it has taken me to the State of Israel as I have always had a love of the country. My Nation is the one of the Jewish people, wherever they are.

We should all have heard the statistics of how many Jews (and non-Jews) were slaughtered in the Shoah, but I think I had heard them so often that to some extent I had become slightly immune to impact. I was shocked on day one to hear that the city of Warsaw lost a third of its population to the Shoah. A third of people living in that one city were tortured and murdered. But what impacted upon me more was hearing about the individuals.

The individual experiences of the Jews who fought and died in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and their hidden diaries hit home that these were real people, not just statistics. These brave souls were the first Jews in 2000 years to have taken up arms to protect themselves. Nowadays we take this for granted as we see the State of Israel and its citizens having to do this all the time, but it was significant to me.

Jews have been hated since Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. We have been blamed for that and the world’s ills throughout many generations. What struck me, though, was that the barbed wire and artillery showed the fear of Jews as well as the desire to wipe the Jewish Nation from the face of the earth and history. The Jewish Nation is not the State of Israel but all the Jewish people on earth. There are many in this world who still fear us and seek to wipe us out, hence, to me, the need to protect ourselves and Israel. This in and of itself makes me a stronger Zionist and a prouder Jew.

I have also started to appreciate more the responsibility of every human being to be human. The Nazi’s considered Jews to be sub-human who should be treated as lower than animals. Jews were to be humiliated and tortured before being killed as they had believed themselves to be human when they were not and needed to know they were not.  It was not a case of Jews having to be put in their place and live in a way that suited the powers that be as they were not entitled to live at all.

The day after I returned home I attended the Chaim Ferster Memorial Lecture. Chaim was a survivor of the Shoah. I had the privilege of hearing him speak in October 2014 (as well as since) and following his recent death the first Memorial Lecture was given by Dorit Novak, the Director of Yad Vashem. She told a story of a boy who escaped the clutches of the Nazi’s by hiding in a dog’s kennel. The dog gave him warmth at night when sleeping next to him, only ate after the boy had eaten and kept him hidden by barking and warding off any people. As Dorit explained, the dog showed more humanity than people did.

On our trip we heard tales of the bravery of some Righteous Gentiles. They were non-Jews who put themselves and their families at risk, for no financial gain, in order to protect or save Jews who were being persecuted. Their humanity is not in doubt. So, I ask myself, what would I do if my Neighbour was in the same position as the Jews of Europe in the 1930’s and 1940’s? Would I have the humanity to risk my family’s life, let alone my own, to help them? I would like to think that we as a family would. It would have to be a group decision by those who could be affected by the risks being taken but I believe that we have the humanity necessary to help. Saying that, I would also like to think that civilisation would not allow such things to happen again. Only educating people of all cultures and in all areas of society could avoid such a catastrophe happening again. It is a lesson for us all.

I was struck by the way in which the victims were treated before extermination. Many people ask why the Germans would bother with the cruelty (such cruelty being beyond my words at the moment) when they were going to kill those being humiliated? Why would they dehumanise their victims by shaving all of the hair off their bodies before they were gassed? We cannot understand why from our own perspectives as we do not think in the same way that they did. It can only be understood from a perspective of fear and hatred and the belief that Jews were lower than sea life. From a perspective of people without humanity and conscience.

Other questions include why would they have others pull out the teeth of the dead and cut them open to see if they had any items of value in their guts? Why would they sell the ashes of the dead to local farmers? Why would they make cloth from the shaven hair and sell it? What would they do with all of the items they had “acquired” having sorted them into piles e.g. hairbrushes, glasses, false limbs, suitcases, shoes, clothing, prayer shawls etc etc. Well, of course, there was a war on so why not make money out of the dead animals. To the Nazi’s they were the spoils of war and akin to making a leather jacket. For the wife of the Commandant of Majdanek, the skin of the Jew was art material. Sickening to think of her choosing people to die for their skin so that she could make lamp shades and “art”.

As I recall the emotion that I felt when we listened to the Shofar being sounded in the gas chamber at Majdanek, singing Am Yisroel Chai at Treblinka, saying Tehillim at the Rebbe’s resting place, remembering the lives and deaths of specific children in the forest, I say “there but for the grace of G-d go I”. I think of my beautiful daughter and how I would give my life for hers. I wonder if I have been selfish to the Jewish Nation in not having more children. As Chaim Ferster said on the birth of another grandchild, pointing up to the sky, “He is still in deficit”.

But as I said before, I am proud to be Jewish and even more determined in my Zionism. I am more aware of my role as a human being to care about others and my role as a Jew to do what I can to ensure that my Nation is not eradicated from this earth. No more persecution, no more murder. Never Again.

About the Author
Robert Festenstein is a solicitor based in Manchester with considerable experience in Court actions. He is active in representing groups opposing BDS and fighting the increase in anti-Semitism, particularly amongst the left-wing in the UK.
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