No one in my family has ever returned - or wanted to return - to Poland since my grandparents fled after the horrors of the Holocaust; last week, I broke that tradition. Here is my story from that trip:
I am woken up from my nap. “Where are we?” I ask my friend who sits next to me. “Treblinka,” He responds in a quiet, solemn voice. I look out the window, and I do not believe him. How could it be? All I see are trees. No train tracks, no chimneys, no barracks; just thousands of tall, menacing trees. My group exits the warm, comfortable bus, and we begin to make our way to the “entrance” of Treblinka.
With each step I take, I hear snapping from under my feet. Although I know that these noises are created by the many branches that lay dead on the ground, I cannot help but feel as though I am stepping on bones, which, together, create a symphony at my every move. At the entrance to the memorial, since the camp technically no longer exists, I am overcome with awe. Treblinka is simply a field adorned with thousands of stones, representative of the millions of people whose bodies still, to this very day, lay here. The stones scream out at me, begging for me to visit each one of them; I have no response. The stones are surrounded by dense forests, muffling and silencing their screams.
I feel uneasy, even a bit guilty; I cannot quite understand why. As I peer out over the vast expanse of land that lays in front of me, I cannot help but struggle with understanding what lies beneath my feet. I am told by my chaperone that the remains of many of the over eight-hundred thousand individuals who were murdered here still, to this very day, remain. I am struck: I truly walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
As the group walks amongst the sharp, dull stones, I come across a single rose. This rose, which has presumably been here for some time now, evokes a new emotion inside of me, one which I have yet to experience whilst in a place of murder. The emotion is that of an awareness of humanity. The rose, to me, represents life. And although the rose may be dead, the humanity of whichever individual chose to place this rose at this stone shows that the memories of these individuals who were slaughtered here will never be forgotten. Somewhere, someone really believes in the phrase, "Never Again."
As we continue our tour of Treblinka, we are given the opportunity to take a few moments and be alone with ourselves. Instantly, I decide to spend my time in the forest. As a quick side-note, although I may have been born and raised in Los Angeles, I have always felt comfortable - at home even - in the forest. I spent several summers at a camp in Wisconsin, and greatly enjoyed the outdoors, especially any and every activity that took place in the forest. As I enter into the forest, I feel myself become calm; relaxed. It feels to me as though I have been here before, even though I have not. The cool, crisp, uncontaminated air is refreshing. The forest quietly whispers to me, but I do not know what it is saying. I want to run into it, and maybe just sit there in peace for a few hours. Instead I say a prayer, and leave; I wish to not disturb the dead too much.
By the end of my time at Treblinka, I have noticed something unnerving: the utter silence which blankets the camp. There are over two-hundred people visiting this camp, yet it sounds as though I am alone. The silence is eerie, yet peaceful. I have not attempted to speculate on the reason as to why, but at least our brothers and sisters truly rest in peace.
The First Unit of the Israel Defense Forces
We are now in Warsaw visiting, among other memorials, the memorial of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It is dark, cold, and windy outside. A light mist falls from the heavens, yet we stand tall in silence as we pay our respects. After staring in admiration of the monument for a few minutes or so, a song comes on from a speaker we have brought with us. This song, one which has been played before, now carries new meaning. The song is a discussion between a (presumably) young boy and his father at the Passover Seder. Traditionally, at the Seder, the youngest member of the family asks the father the following question: ”Why is this night different than all other nights?" To which the father promptly responds "Because we were slaves."
When listened to this song in Majdanek, the song carried a very shallow meaning. It was as though then, as opposed to now, I was only capable of understanding the question at the most basic of levels. However now, I do not hear the song in the same way; the question is no longer, “Why is this night different than all other nights?” Rather, the young boy seems to now ask the following: “Why is this time period different than all other time periods before?” The answer is now ubiquitously clear: Because then, we were slaves. When I first heard the song in Majdanek, we were slaves, subjected to the fantasies of a sick enemy. Now, as I stand at the memorial of the men and women who fought to free us from our bondage, we are no longer slaves. While we were previously subjugated to the rulings and decrees of others, we are no longer. Today, we are a free people; an independent people. We are a nation - a strong nation - living in our homeland, thanks to the service and sacrifice of the few who stood up in Warsaw; the few who realized that no longer are we slaves, and that now, we determine our own fate.
I am honored to stand at the memorial of the first unit of the Israel Defense Forces.
I feel different inside. There is a certain sensation of warmth amongst my soul; a warmth I have not felt in a while. With all that is going on in my homeland, the State of Israel, I have been left feeling very numb; at times, emotionally frozen. My people are being killed, my city is being terrorized, and I am left feeling hopeless. However, now I feel warm. I feel warm knowing that I stand in the presence of Jews who, long before my time, made an active decision to stand up and fight. Jews who put an end to the narrative of Jewish victimization, albeit for a small amount of time, and ignited a flame of passion and unity amongst themselves and their brethren around them.
I feel that flame inside of me; I feel that passion.
With all that is taking place back home, I leave Poland with a clear message: I am done with being victimized. I am done being a victim of international pressure, expectations of the press, and double standards. I am done being demonized, trivialized, patronized, and scrutinized, all because we determine how we would like to live in our homeland. I believe that it is time every Jew decides to do the same.
For those who no longer can; we must.
Do you not smell the smoke?