I thought I would never go to Eastern Europe, but, by the end of this journey, I found unexpected resolution. To my husband’s dismay, I referred to this “vacation” as the Concentration Trip Tour. Harry reminded me that we would be spending only two of our eighteen days visiting concentration camps. To prepare, I immersed myself in Holocaust nonfiction and reached a moderate level of self-traumatization before setting foot on the plane. At the last minute I reached in my jewelry box to find an amulet for this journey. Since my Magen David and mezuzah had been given to Vera long ago, I was left with a golden hamsa (the hand against the evil eye), a gift brought to me from Israel by my friend, Janet, who had already made the trip to Poland.
Last week my blog was about Berlin. Today, I write about Poland. I thank Dana Yugend-Pepper and Rabbi Alexander Davis (our leaders) for pointing me to a wonderful book by Rabbi Byron Sherwin (z”l) who was a force in intercultural understanding and reconciliation between Jews and Poles. In Sparks Amidst the Ashes, Rabbi Sherwin states “In 1939, on the eve of the Holocaust, more than 80 percent of all the Jews in the world were either living in the historic Polish lands or were descended from Jews who had lived there.” My expectation for this trip was to find nothing but ashes.
Even if this were true, Sherwin writes of the Hasidic metaphor viewing the soul as a flame of sparks. “Some of these sacred sparks dwell within the self; others live in exile, scattered throughout the world.” With each journey we have the possibility of discovering those abandoned sparks. By performing a “sacred deed”; which, I interpret as saying the kaddish prayer, or witnessing in one’s own way, our souls become more whole.
We had a soft landing in Warsaw first entering the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. My impression of this high tech, capacious space was that the museum overly romanticized the relationship of Poland to its Jews. Granted, there were golden years in Poland, perhaps centuries, when Judaism indeed flourished, but waves of anti-Semitism also erupted causing heavy casualties as Jews were blamed for the Plague, as Jews became wealthier and the object of jealousy, as the Cossacks came in not needing a reason to hate Jews, or later as Jews were identified with Communism.
So the message from the Polin Museum was that Poles and Jews have lived side by side for a thousand years in harmony for much of that time. The Poles also suffered horrible losses under the Nazis though they were further down on the list for extermination than the Jews. Furthermore, there were Poles who had valiantly aided Jews and those that fought for the Partisans. Jews had made up more than a quarter of Krakow’s population, a third of the populations of Warsaw and Lvov, and a tenth of the population of Poland.
The next landmark was the Schindler Factory Museum in Krakow. Schindler, a righteous Gentile, was responsible for saving 1200 Jews from extermination camps. This claustrophobic museum was a far more personal look at the Holocaust. Our Polish guide was filled with passion as she narrated the story of the Nazis taking over Poland in just over one month’s time with the Nazis attacking from the West and the Soviet forces from the East. She recounted how healthy Polish men were sent to Germany to be workers and the stripping away of the rights of the Jews. At the end of the factory tour we walked along a dark hall. The flooring was a cushion that was unstable. In front of us, flashed photographs of Jewish children who had died. We emerged in a white chapel like room – this was the “Hall of Choices” which presented the ethical dilemmas that occurred and quotes of choices from the war’s survivors. The guide emphasized that people had choices and some made courageous one; some did not.
It is estimated that 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland in 1939. Only one tenth survived the war. It is not unusual in Poland that a Catholic grandparent on his deathbed confesses to his/her grandchild that he/she had a Jewish parent. Many of these young Poles are dealing with their newfound Jewish roots by wanting to know more. They have found a home in Beit Varshava in Warsaw and the Krakow JCC. Both institutions reach out and embrace anyone with interest in Judaism. The lay cantor at Beit Varshava used a term that I began to hear several times in Poland when I asked her how her friends responded to her conversion. She referred to her friends as “philo-Semites.” The University in Krakow has a Jewish Studies Department. Lay cantors are going out to smaller communities to provide services. We had a chance to talk to the congregants of Beit Varshava and to hear from the Krakow JCC Director, Jonathan Ornstein, who all emphasized that there is a renewal of Jewish life in Poland.
Visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau on the day of the March of the Living was filled with paradox. The tragic cries of these horrible camps were drowned out by the joy and singing of 10,000 people coming together (90%, I estimate, were Jewish kids 18 and under). Before the march, we were able to tour Auschwitz with a Polish guide. It was clear that his job as a guide was a sacred calling for him. As he observed disrespectful behavior of an adult, he said, “Everyone should come here, but not everyone deserves to come here.” In the end he gathered us together, as I imagine he does with Polish school groups, and said “Hitler didn’t begin with crematoriums. He began with words.” And cautioned us to be wary of ideology.
Renewal was a theme among the Polish Jews we met, many of whom were converts. Certainly one couldn’t participate in March of Living walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau without a sense of awe that Hebrew songs were being sung, that there is a vital memory, and Jewish culture has survived. Harry and I had complained about the sky blue jackets we had received as part of our participation in the March. These were like swim team jackets emblazoned with an Agam-designed star and the words “March of the Living.” Why did we need to wear a uniform? As we walked, I was drawn to the many teens without jackets. These were the Polish high school students who chose to participate. I talked to a few, interested in why they were doing it. “It’s fantastic.” “We support this.” They were thrilled when we offered them our jackets. I must admit that I was distracted from the horrors of the huge Birkenau death camp by the Yom HaShoah memorial ceremony that was taking place. But perhaps this is the point. “Sparks amidst the ashes.”
I never thought I could walk through a concentration camp. Yet, how could I not? Particles of human ashes were in the ground we walked on, the air around us. They hovered. Our Berlin guide, Jeremy Minsberg, told us that a Polish man brings seedlings from Auschwitz to plant around Berlin. I thought about the ashes in the ground that nourish the roots and how powerful that act of replanting the tree is. Perhaps each of us is a replanted tree.
Now as I reach up to touch my necklace and feel my hamsa or when I look in the mirror and see the charm, I am reminded to never forget. This impels me to live my life more fully. I feel more whole and rooted in my life and my history thanks to this trip.