A Flame Re-ignited: A Returning to Poland, Part I
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:
Today is October 7th, 2015; there is a tense feeling which blankets the air here in Israel. Tensions have been mounting for several weeks now, and things are only bound to get worse. Tonight is the night I leave for Poland. Suffice it to say, I am a bit uneasy; I am the first member of my family to go to Poland since my grandparents left there around 70 years ago. Thoughts flow through my brain uncontrollably: "Will I cry? Will I even understand what happened there? Why even go?" Yet, deep down inside of me, I know that this trip is necessary, for as Syd Moore wrote, "Disregard for the past will never do us any good. Without it, we cannot know truly who we are." Tonight is the night I confront my past, in order to find who I really am.
Thirty-nine other students from my school and I officially begin the trip at the Western Wall, with some words of inspiration from the head of Yeshiva. He is speaking about the phrase, עם הנצח לא מפחד מדרך ארוכה"" which, in english, translates to, "The eternal nation is not afraid of the long journey." With all that is happening in Israel right now, and with the trip we are about to make, the phrase is all-too applicable. We have endured for thousands of years; nothing scares us now.
A Wolf in Sheep's Skin
The plane touches down in Poland at roughly 0800 local time. We get off the plane, and quickly go to pray. As I don my Tefillin (Phylacteries), a strange and unfamiliar sensation overcomes my soul; I, a religious Jew, am praying in Poland, the resting place of millions of murdered Jews. It was only seventy-or-so years ago that had members of my family had tried to do the same, they were shot; how fortunate I am to not be facing the same fate. We pack onto the bus and start driving through the country-side, when I feel another sensation overcome me. For all my life, I have been told that this country is a barren wasteland; simply a graveyard for our brothers and sisters who were murdered here. All the videos I have watched and pictures I have seen have indicated just as much. But as we start driving, I am confused and torn. Nearly every fiber of my being is telling me that I should be disgusted with and hate this country. Yet, I cannot help but find myself astonished by Poland's beauty. The fields of the country-side are painted a rich, deep green, blemished only by trees of rust, mustard yellow, and blood red. Forests of coniferous trees create an almost Narnia like utopia. Fields of what look to be apple groves sprawl as far as the eyes can see. If not beautiful, Poland is at the very least picturesque. Deep down, though, I realize that something is amiss; I just cannot determine what it is. Maybe the beauty is superficial. Or, possibly, I was wrong about this country; but that cannot be the case. Nevertheless, after discussing my quandary with a chaperone, I am provided with a possible answer: "Appreciate the country and scenery for its beauty," he says, "But do not forget what lies beneath the surface.”
How could I?
For the first night of our trip, we are staying at Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin. As we pull up to the building, my eyes are affixed upon the magnificent structure which stands before me. Obviously, the building has been re-built, but the history of the location which we are at is a rich and important history for Polish Jewry. The Yeshiva, which opened officially in 1930, was dreamt of by Rabbi Meir Shapiro in order to raise the overall prestige of Torah in the world and, specifically, in Europe. The Yeshiva stood as a symbol of what Jewry could have been in Europe; however, those dreams were crushed by the Nazis. A gut wrenching story is told to us by our guide about the time the Nazis decided to burn the thousands of books in the Yeshiva. The Jews of Lublin were forced to stand around for hours and watch as their holy books were desecrated; turned into mere columns of smoke ascending to return to G-d.
Staying here is a strange phenomenon for me. It is especially strange for me to be here because only so many years ago my grandfather was a student at the Yeshiva. I am, at present, re-living what my grandfather had experienced tens of years ago, and it feels strange: Why did I get so lucky as to merely re-live a history, and not create it?