By Esther Mann, LCSW
A Transformative Trip
Like most people, I’ve always had a “bucket list.” Unlike some, whose lists are long and intriguing, mine has always been kind of skimpy and not particularly creative. Frankly, it’s always amounted to a meager three items.
I’ve always fantasized about taking a ride in a hot-air balloon. With shades of one of my all-time favorite movies, The Wizard of Oz, and a nod toward adventure, it was something I felt I needed to do. Quite a few years ago, I was lucky enough to find the right opportunity to fulfill that dream, with my husband David and children in tow. I’m disappointed to say that it was nothing with nothing. Certainly nothing as thrilling as I had anticipated. Despite going up, up, and away, I left feeling somewhat flat and kind of disengaged.
My second hankering was to take a gondola ride in Venice. Again, not sure why this became a “must do” for me, but both David and I knew I’d be nudging him forever if we didn’t make it happen. With my fun-loving sister Dray and equally fun-loving brother-in-law Burt, we all planned an exciting trip to Europe and Israel, with my knowledge that we would not be leaving Venice without doing this particular “do.” On our third day there, as the sun was quickly setting, we (sort of) hopped aboard an authentic gondola and belted out our best renditions of “Volare,” as we sailed around the canals of Venice, having an amazingly wonderful time. No doubt, it was loads of fun and a great bonding moment for all, but in the end—not to discredit the experience in any way—nothing about it was life-altering. Nor should it have been. Ultimately, it was something else I was able to look back upon with fond memories and something I was able to cross off my list.
With my first two bucket-list dreams put to bed, I began to focus on my third longing, which was a visit to Auschwitz. Instinctively and intuitively, I always felt that it was something that I had to do. From the time I was a little girl, I knew that my father’s (alav ha’shalom) mother, sister, and numerous brothers all perished there, and as a result, I was more than a little obsessed with all of the stories that I heard from a very young age about the Holocaust.
As a naive young girl, I would often look deeply into the faces of strangers passing me by on the street, hoping to one day recognize a familiar feature—in particular, light blue eyes, the color of the sea, which was the hallmark of my father’s tremendous good looks. For quite a few years I felt certain that the day would come when my hunt would be satisfied and that my long-lost aunt or perhaps one of my long-lost uncles would respond in the affirmative to the name Schwartz and I would ecstatically bring that person home to meet the rest of the family that had also been waiting for this remarkable reunion.
Of course that magical moment never did happen, and at some point I realized that it never would. But that didn’t mean that I couldn’t visit the place that held their energy, their essence, their tears. And by walking the very ground that they walked on, somehow channel their spirit.
So when my dear friend Rita told me that she was going on a “Heritage Seminar” trip to Poland with her grandson and his fellow classmates from the Yeshivah of Flatbush, I jumped at the opportunity to realize my greatest dream and joined her. Without any arm-twisting or any investigating into the specific itinerary of this, as it turned out, quite grueling excursion, I happily signed on the dotted line and started counting down the days.
A week or two later, I actually looked at the daily schedules and was horrified to learn that I was expected to be up by 6 a.m. each morning and on the go until close to 11 p.m. or so each evening. The schedule was geared toward high-energy teenagers raring to go. What was I thinking? Who was I kidding? Shouldn’t I be touring Poland with a group of adults my own age?
As I sit on the plane, headed home from a most outstanding trip, beginning the process of trying to channel the proper words for my column that might successfully reflect even a partial indication of how remarkable our journey was, I realize I absolutely made the best choice possible in terms of teaming up with the seniors of the Yeshivah of Flatbush.
On a very practical level, because our days were so long, in addition to the traditional landmarks that all groups visit we were able to visit sights that were way off the beaten path and experience places that most groups never get a chance to see. From seeing Schindler’s factory to crowding into a dark bunker in the city of Częstochowa, on the way to Lodz, where more than a dozen people hid out for quite a long time while the Nazis were evacuating that particular ghetto, we participated in something that was both experiential and dramatic.
However, the purpose of this column is not to serve as a referral base or a travelogue for those of you contemplating a trip to Poland. Although, it is incumbent upon me to mention that the staff of professionals who closely led us along the way, both literally and spiritually, were quite magnificent. In particular, I would like to mention Rabbi Prag, a revered and beloved rebbi at the yeshiva, who embodies tremendous kindness, great knowledge, and enormous modesty. Also, Tzvi Shiloni, our tour guide from Israel, was able to take his tremendous and precise knowledge of those horrific years in Poland and wrap them with heartfelt emotion, tempered with beautiful melodies that together hit just the right note and gifted us all with a stunning journey that could never be equaled.
So what, then, is the point of a journey if not to leave us with some life-altering perspectives? On a personal note, I feel as though I came as close as humanly possible to reaching out to my family, as, together with the group, we reenacted many of their movements from the moment these tragic victims stepped out of the crowded cattle cars that had transported them from towns like Nyíregyháza in Hungary and other such places to Birkenau–Auschwitz. As a group, we walked along the open area that they walked as men and women were separated from one another and further distinguished into a group that could still work and those who would immediately be sent toward their bitter end. We saw with our own eyes the path they were forced to take as they walked along their dehumanizing course toward their disgraceful doom.
Despite all the stories we’ve heard and read about, actually standing at the scene of these crimes simply takes one’s breath away. And as hard as one might try to feel our ancestors’ terror and pain, it is impossible to come even a little close to truly immersing oneself into the depth of their despair. But I do wonder whether there is something in all of our DNA that holds on to tiny shreds of our ancestors’ essence. Maybe not genetically, but perhaps cosmically, metaphysically, spiritually. I do believe that I’ve always felt some of that spark and maybe I’m not totally alone in my sensitivities.
So what is the takeaway from all of this? What is the message? One might think that it is a story so jam-packed with doom and gloom that there is no place for anything positive to emerge.
And this is to a large degree why I feel such gratitude to have been given the opportunity to share my experience with maybe a dozen or so brave adults, but primarily with a large group of teenagers, who were truly reacting to the Holocaust stories and sites from a fresh and open perspective. Their reactions were quite touching, powerful, and inspiring. Despite some tears appropriately being shed here and there, the energy was positive.
As we drove to the airport, headed for home, most of the young men and women on the trip took hold of the microphone, one by one, and described their unique experience and subsequent goals. Their vulnerable comments reflected our collective experience, as over the course of just six days, despite the differences in our ages and other distinctions, by sharing such an intimate experience we unified into an assemblage of individuals not only supporting one another, but sharing many of the same thoughts and emotions.
And this universal message was ultimately one of enormous gratitude that here we are, still standing, despite plans for the Final Solution. We are strong, we are thriving, and we are better than ever, despite gruesome behaviors and unspeakable loss. We are the victors, after all. And as victors, we must live with purpose and take upon ourselves resolutions to do better, be better, and, through acts of kindness and taking on additional mitzvos, live a more mindful life as stronger people and stronger Jews.
Personally, despite the sadness and anger one naturally feels over the horrors inflicted upon our people and the many questions that don’t seem to really have good answers, I came to understand that there is more to this story. It has more than one theme, more than one chapter, and the story is far from over.
And so, with my bucket list realized, I find myself thinking about creating a new one. As what is life, if one isn’t striving toward new adventures, fulfilling fresh dreams, and living with honest intention?
But I find myself creating a different kind of bucket list. One that reflects goals of a more spiritual and emotional nature. As before, I’m still searching for new experiences, and though I like to think that “fun” is still my middle name, the concept of a bucket list has forever been changed.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.