First Person: An IDF delegation confronts the past

The army’s Witnesses in Uniform program enables soldiers to travel to Poland for a journey through history.

Warsaw Ghetto monument Poland 311 (R) (photo credit: Agencja Gazeta/Reuters)
Warsaw Ghetto monument Poland 311 (R)
(photo credit: Agencja Gazeta/Reuters)
Maj. Peter Lerner, the spokesman for the Central Command, blogged on the IDF Spokesman’s website about his recent experiences in “Witnesses in Uniform,” a special week-long program run by the IDF in Poland as a way to contribute to commemorating the Holocaust and heroism in the army.
SUNDAY continued from Saturday – no sleep and diving right in to the heart of the Jewish community in Warsaw, Poland.
The appropriate place to start such a visit was obviously…the Jewish Cemetery. The cemetery is huge, with approximately 300,000 graves; the vast majority of those from well before World War II and the Holocaust. Rich people in fancy family plots, respectable rabbis that led the spiritual community, cultural leaders, writers and composers. Also graves after graves of loved ones laid to rest with kind words and admiration.
All the time we were roaming the cemetery thought came to mind of my mother’s extended family that are supposed to be buried here. I learned of this just a few days ago when preparing myself for this trip. Ultimately the family that did not leave Poland is uncharted and unknown; this feeling has been itching me like an open cut.
From there the mission moved on to tour the Ghetto itself. I found it extremely hard to imagine the Ghetto way of life as described to us in the preparatory meetings mainly due to the fact that hardly any of it remains.
There are some walls still standing that we visited but honestly they don’t amount to much to illustrate the Ghetto way of life.
We moved around and reached the old Orthodox synagogue called Nozyk Synagogue. This is the only synagogue that was not ruined in the war. We were told that the Nazis used it a stable for horses and that minor alterations were made to the exterior in order to enable the horses to enter the “stables” with the carriage still harnessed to them.
Today this is the largest Jewish site in all of Poland, and it was very impressive. So impressive first of all the guide got us all to sing “Jerusalem of Gold”, and then the mission rabbi got us up dancing. Despite the fact that I am a nonobservant Jew it was a very emotional experience. We, the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces were sitting in a place of worship in our uniforms in spite of those stables. It gave me a strong sense of victory, even if only a small one.
From there we continued to the Monument of the Umschlagplatz, the place where some 300,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto were rounded and literally shipped off to the gas chambers. The efficiency of the Nazi war machine shipped about 6,000-7,000 people per day. As I stood there looking at my fellow officers I couldn’t help thinking of what happened here in 1942. It seemed so serene, peaceful the way we were all looking around, listening to what the guide had to say.
Although today was long and full of information, the highlight most definitely was the ceremony we held at the Ghetto Heroes Monument. The ceremony was joined by some French Jewish schoolchildren who stood in line with us and stood to attention when required. At the end we sang the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikva” that translates to “The Hope.” All the time I was thinking about my ancestors that did not leave Warsaw, and where the State of Israel is today.
I am proud to be part of this delegation. I expect tomorrow will be longer and tougher on the heart and soul.
I was up at 0530 this morning, making sure all my team was awake. Quick breakfast, and by 0630 all of the mission members were loaded on the buses for our first destination of the day. We traveled for about two-and-a-half hours, to a small village called Tykocin. The buses stopped at a small courtyard and we all got off, one team at a time.
I didn’t understand why we had to travel for so long to see another synagogue, especially after the one in Warsaw which is, as I mentioned yesterday, the largest in Poland. The entrance to the place of worship is a small wooden door that everybody was jamming into. Beyond the door is a small entrance and a few steps going down below the street level. I almost choked when I got inside; this is a magnificent place that has been transformed into a museum.
The synagogue was built in 1642, and is a living monument of the magnificent Jewish life that existed in this land before the Nazis tried to exterminate us. Before the war Tykocin was populated by approximately 4,000 people, 2,000 of them we Jews.
All the time I was listening to the guides I kept asking myself what happened to all the people that lived here. I was to have an answer at our next destination. After a short tour of the little village, via the square and adjacent village roads, we got on the bus and traveled some 7 kilometers away.
We stopped in the middle of a forest called Lopuchowo and were told to line up in four lines. We were then ordered to march; in the background our onboard military trumpet player stood in the midst of the forest and played some Klezmer music.
After a few minutes we started to understand where we were being marched. We arrived at three burial sites, all fenced off and surrounded by burned-out candles, Israeli flags and – today – by Israeli soldiers who marched to the site where the firing squad, the Einsatzkommando, shot dead men, women and children, just because they were Jews.
These pits made my stomach turn at the thought of the site.
Today I wept for the 1,700 Jews that were murdered on 25 August 1941. I lit a memorial candle for somebody I would have never of heard of if I hadn’t been on this mission.
Meir ben Gershon Polanski was murdered in a pit in a silent forest outside a village where Jews had prospered for hundreds of years. I lit the candle thinking to myself “never again.”
Lerner’s blog can be read at