I was privileged to join the students of Orayta on this year’s Heritage Seminar in Poland. As my family is from Poland and my grandparents are survivors, I felt obligated to take advantage of this opportunity. Although, frankly, prior to the trip I was dreading it. I worried that an itinerary comprised of visiting sites devoted to dead Jews would be overly depressing. Instead I found it to be informative and moving (and I would be lying if I did not include that seeing my son every day for the duration was wonderful treat).
Our trip consisted of 27 boys, Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Blau, tour guide Rabbi Rubenstein, and another parent – Mr. Graber from Memphis. Tennessee. Other staff included Shye, our medic, Monica, our wonderfully helpful Polish translator and “fixer,” Marius, our security guard, and two bus drivers.
Rabbi Rubenstein began by teaching us about the rich history of Jewish life in Poland. He underscored that Jews lived in Poland for 1000 years prior to the shoah. We visited historically significant places in Jewish history such as Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin and the grave of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk (one of the founders of Chasidism). We visited Jewish towns such as Tarnow and Dubrow which were 50% and 80% Jewish before the war, respectively. After the Nazis took over Poland, Jews were herded into ghettos. We visited what remains of the ghettos in Lodz, Tarnow, and Warsaw as well as sites where the Jews were put on trains. Then, of course, we visited their final destination – mass graves and death camps – including Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz/Birkenau. To complete our understanding of Jewish life in Poland, we were privileged to meet Rabbi Baumel, a Rabbi in Krakow who is involved with the revitalization of the local Jewish community, including helping the many who have recently (post-communism) discovered their Jewish identities.
Rabbi Rubenstein was a dynamic speaker who gave us a nuanced understanding of the lives of contemporaneous Jews and Poles, both good and bad. When visiting various sites he read us vignettes by survivors to help us visualize what had occurred. He was sensitive to the emotionality of our surroundings, lifting us up when the reality of what had occurred became overwhelmingly sad.
One of the many moving experiences occurred during the first day of our trip in the train station of Radegast. We piled into a cattle car and heard about the horrific conditions and what awaited those individuals at the end of their journey. Then Rabbi Rubenstein told us the story of a Chasidic composer who wrote a well-known niggun on his way to a death camp and how it came to be known. He then led the boys in singing that niggun and dancing in the cattle car. Looking at our sons, the future of the Jewish people, rejoicing in the continued existence of our people turned my tears from sadness to joy.
What a bunch of wonderful boys they are! They showed themselves to be respectful, thoughtful, and supportive of each other throughout the trip. On a number of occasions Rabbi Blau lead sessions where the boys could speak about and process their thoughts and feelings about the trip. After seeing places where great inhumanity occurred, the boys questioned what it all meant and many expressed feeling inspired to make themselves better people and to try to reach new spiritual heights. As such, I felt this trip fit perfectly into the Orayta experience where our boys are encouraged to learn, question, and understand what it means to be a religious Jew and how to appropriately express those values.
Now that I am back home, although the trip was sad at times, I am so glad that I went. Although the events of the shoah were beyond horrible, I returned feeling I went on more than a trip. It was an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual journey on which I feel privileged to have accompanied our sons.