Nothing could have prepared me for what I witnessed on my recent trip to Poland.
Back in November, my mother asked me to join her and 20 other members of her local synagogue on a guided tour of historical Holocaust sites in Poland. This heritage trip would end with a few days in Israel. Without a moment’s hesitation, I said yes, as I felt an inner obligation to pay homage to the victims of the Holocaust and to see where my grandfather’s family came from.
To be honest, I knew this trip (see pre Poland reflections post here) would be difficult but the intensity of it didn’t really hit me until the day before I left. I began to question, why was I going? Why did I need to visit sites where acts of torture and hatred took place?Last minute, I thought to back out of this trip, but I couldn’t disappoint my mother and there was a part of me that felt it was the right decision.
We landed in Warsaw on a dismal Sunday afternoon and I found that simply driving through the city was chilling. I’m not sure if it was the grey gloomy day, the austere architecture or eerie quietness on the street that gave me the pit in my stomach that remained there for the next few challenging days.I almost feel cowardly as I write this because I came to Poland in 2020 as a visitor, not as the child of a survivor, nor a Holocaust survivor himself. How dare I complain about feelings of despair.
Over the next few days, we visited the few remaining synagogues, cemeteries, ghettos, and museums but the most painful of all was visiting the concentration camps. We visited 3 different camps. The first camp we visited was Majdanek, located in Lublin where 80,000 Jews were murdered.
As I was walked through this camp on a chilling winter day, dressed in warm gear, all I could think about was the tattered threadbare prisoner’s garb worn by the inmates during the fiercest winters.The thoughts of starvation, deprivation and unsanitary conditions were too much for me to comprehend.
Each barrack contained 400-500 prisoners and if one person tried to escape, the entire bunk would be killed.
When I saw the crematoria, this is where I broke down. How could human beings be so cruel? How could this happen and how could the Germans place Jews in charge of cremating the bodies of their own people?
I was sick to my stomach. The biggest question was how the world sat by and did nothing? Incomprehensible.
One particularly painful story was told about a survivor who worked at a Matzah factory in Brooklyn for many years. As he was getting on in age, his employees recommended he retire and enjoy the rest of his life. He said he couldn’t stop baking until his job was done. Years later, when he did finally retire, he explained that he wanted to make sure that he had baked enough matzah to atone for his sins of working the ovens in the concentration camps.
Birkenau, the largest camp, was where 90,000 Jews were murdered in gas chambers or died from disease.
From there we went to Auschwitz and by then I was physically and emotionally ill.
All I wanted to do is block out everything I had seen. There are no words to describe the pain I felt, seeing with my own eyes, how Jews suffered. I’m not sure how they endured all the pain. I can’t imagine being separated from my baby, from my children or from my husband. I can’t imagine being degraded and dehumanized simply for being a Jew.
No nightmare could be as traumatic as the day to day reality faced by a Holocaust victim. These truly brave ones are my heroes.
At this point, I couldn’t wait to leave Poland and get to Israel. Each time I visit, I feel as if I am home, and this time more so than any other. I was so grateful for the Jewish homeland and to have a safe haven.
It was literally going from darkness to light. I was there to celebrate being a Jew and to be proud of it.
We ate, we drank, and we prayed in this particular order. Best of all, we toured holy sites in Hebron where our forefathers are buried – I had never been before. We loved and we celebrated life.
I wrote much of this on the plane trip home as it gave me quiet time to reflect on this educational yet emotional trip. I don’t think I completely processed this experience just yet – I think it will take time. Many people asked me if I was happy I went to Poland. The answer is no because I can’t use the word happy to describe visiting the Holocaust sites. What I can say, is the trip was a real eye-opener and this first-hand experience made the kind of impact that no book, movie or personal account could.
I did wake up on Sunday morning with much gratitude. Happy to be in my own home with my family and the sun shining through my window.