It is an early afternoon in Poland. I am standing in a green field surrounded by a deep forest. The spring sun shines through the occasional clouds. Had there not been the thousands of stones standing in front of us, it could have been like any peaceful Central European location. Yet, the stones were a memorial; a reminder of the millions of nightmares of the past. It was Treblinka, the death camp, the graveyard of many innocent. As I was continuing my walk, I was hiding my tears, while asking myself over and over again ''Why?''
The Women’s Zionist Organization Hadassah and the Jewish Agency founded the Youth Aliyah movement before the Second World War, to save children by helping them to escape the Holocaust in Europe. First it was a part of an operation called ‘Aliyah Bet’; a clandestine operation that consisted of daring, brave men and women who knew that they were risking their own lives in saving other lives. As it is said in Talmud, a lore full of Jewish religious wisdom: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world”.
A few years ago during one of my visits to the KKL-JNF headquarters in Jerusalem, I remember coming across the several volumes of the Children’s Book or, as it is called in Hebrew, Sefer Yeladim, which are on display for visitors. Just like the ‘Golden Books’, these books were used to inscribe children’s names in honor of special occasions such as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. The proceeds were used to buy land in Israel, which at that time was part of the British Mandate of Palestine. These specific children were from Eastern Europe, and the dates were from 1920s and 1930s. Many of them never survived, but these books are a reminder, perhaps the only evidence that these precious children once were among us, but are no more.
A Long Journey to Freedom: The road to escape the Holocaust for the children saved by Youth Aliyah was long and exhausting, crossing through many dangers. In one of the adventurous escapes, their journey took a detour to Tehran, the capital of Persia, from where they arrived safely to the Land of Israel.
It was like the story of Passover, from oppression and slavery to freedom. These children had seen the horrors: most of their parents did not survive. These children were the very blessed ones as they were able to start their lives in new homes in Israel, while millions of Jews in Europe experienced death camps. The modern day Youth Aliyah is still saving lives, providing children with good role models and a place to grow.
Recently, I was travelling in Poland with a group from the Youth Aliyah invited by the Hadassah and the Jewish Agency to see and experience the sites of the Holocaust through our own eyes. The group that I travel with consists of more than hundred youth from difficult backgrounds; many from the Former Soviet states and Ethiopia.
As Barbara Goldstein, the Deputy Director of Hadassah Offices in Israel puts it, the trip to Poland was a “journey of many ethnic groups for whom the Shoah is not in their family history. Therefore they bond with each other as they experience the places where Jews lived for thousands of years, and are no more. There is a reality, a harsh reality, when you see the shoes in Majdanek, and you know just by looking that those could’ve been one of our pairs.”
Thousands and thousands of pairs of shoes: Why do we have to remember and never forget? Is this a road that led nowhere but to terror and death? In Poland there were many of these roads. Suddenly I remembered a quote from a Holocaust survivor, who once said “never say it is the end of the road”. What does that mean? Even in the darkest days of the Holocaust there was hope. The hallmark of Judaism is about hope, hope for a better future. The future is bright because there is life; life is the greatest blessing.
As I traveled through Poland, I did not feel at home. What brought peace to my heart during the long and exhausting days was to be with our Israeli youth. Another memory comes to my mind: A scripture that was inscribed in one of the cemeteries for the Shoah victims: “Even when I walk in the valley of darkness, I will fear no evil for You are with me” (Psalm 23:4).
There was light after the long walk in the valley of darkness. The fact that Israel, a beautiful oasis in the middle of dry desert lands, exists today is a miracle; a bright light in the dark world. The two thousand year journey through Diaspora was finally over as the State of Israel was established in 1948. The road led to the Promised Land, but the price was very high. These young people, the Youth Aliyah, are the future of Israel.
The future of Israel is in our hands: We need to look after Israel’s security and safety: its survival depends on this. We need to continue building; saving lives as Hadassah and Youth Aliyah are doing, planting forests as KKL-JNF is doing, and foremost, bringing the Jewish people home from the long journey of the Diaspora, which is one of the Jewish Agency’s primary tasks. We all have tasks to fulfill, equally important.
I feel even more blessed when I arrive back to Israel. It is still early morning when I descend from the airplane on the tarmac of Ben-Gurion Airport. The moist Mediterranean air welcomes me, while in the distance I see the blue and white Star of David waving at me.
Finally I arrive home from the long journey full of thoughts and memories that will never fade away; I have a lot to think about. I agree with Barbara Goldstein who told me that the journey was an affirmation to our youth about the utmost importance of a sovereign Jewish State. I look at myself in the mirror. I see a changed man.
I feel very blessed. I am in Israel.