Until recently, I had little interest in visiting Poland. The March of the Living did not exist when I was younger. In addition, not having grown up as a child or grandchild of Holocaust survivors, that horrific period in Jewish history is not something that’s directly relevant to me.
That’s not to say that my family members were completely unscathed. Some of my mother’s relatives perished in the war, including my mother’s grandmother, who died in Treblinka. Similarly, my father’s extended family in Ukraine were never heard from again after the war. I was also reluctant to spend money in a place where millions of Jews died.
When my shul organized a trip to Poland this year, I felt that the time was finally right. I was motivated in part by the hevrah (group) that was participating. They were a group of mostly younger guys who know how to have fun, how to cry, how to be sad, how to pray and could do it all with great passion and in the right balance.
The group was led by Rabbi Yoir Adler, our spiritual leader in every sense of the word. His warmth, enthusiasm, vast knowledge of Torah and excellent oratory skills combined to make a trip to a land where many Jews lived productively and died tragically an extremely meaningful one.
We visited concentration camps, liquidated ghettos and mass graves. We also prayed in shuls that had miraculously survived the war and at the graves of some of the greatest rabbinic personalities of the past 500 years. The burial site of Sarah Schenirer, a pioneer in Jewish education for religious girls in the early 1900s, was another moving pilgrimage we made.
It would be superfluous to describe the places where millions were slaughtered, or to express the emotions we felt there. So much has already been written about that in the pages of this and other publications. Rather, I would like to search for a lesson to be learned from such a journey.
Phrases such as “never forget” and “never again” are what usually come to mind. But these are more for the collective consciousness of our people. What about the individual? I recently spoke with a 20-something young woman who had gone on a trip to Poland eight years ago. She bemoaned the fact that whatever impact seeing Auschwitz-Birkenau had on her had faded with time.
For me, a story told by our guide about Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandl, who was extremely active in the rescue efforts on behalf of Slovakian Jews during the Holocaust, made a lasting impression. Sadly, his own wife and children perished at the time. After the war, he started over, remarried and had several more children.
Speaking at the bris of his fifth son, Rabbi Weissmandl said that he previously had five children who died as martyrs, sanctifying God’s name. His wish was that each of his new children also sanctify the Almighty’s name, this time not by dying as a Jew, but by living as one. Now that is a lesson from the Holocaust that all of us should take to heart.
The trip was incredible and, in case you are wondering, other than the prepaid portion of it, I managed to not spend a single zloty while in Poland.