By Chaya Sarah Stark
Project Inspire spearheaded its first “Journey to Poland” to recall the glory of the past, to daven at kivrei tzaddikim, to bear witness to Churban Europe, and above all to apply its lessons to life.
Dayan Yonasan Abraham of the London Bais Din graced us with his presence, along with his rebbetzin. At each stage of the trip, his divrei Torah and beautiful nigunim and leibidigkeit gave us the chizuk that we needed, especially at the difficult moments, and truly put the whole experience into perspective. Tzvi Sperber, our fabulous tour guide from J-Roots, provided an unending flow of information, inspiration, emotion, and context for every site we visited.
In the words of Dov and Syrel Kurland, “we had no clue about why Project Inspire organized a trip of this nature. As events unfolded, we learned that it’s not our job to understand the Holocaust; it is our job to do something about the tremendous loss that took place both during the Holocaust as well as the spiritual Holocaust that followed.”
According to Rabbi Yaakov Giniger, Project Inspire director of programming, the impetus for the trip was to provide a spiritual, emotional, and mental venue for the participants to evolve and then utilize the insights they had gained to reach out and help others do the same.
An emotional highlight took place in the women’s barracks in Auschwitz. Tzvi Sperber shared the story of Dr. Gisella Perl, known as “the other doctor” of Auschwitz. One Jewish woman arrived pregnant, a certain death sentence for the woman. As Dr. Perl delivered the woman’s baby, she declared “a life for a life,” and did what was necessary to save the mother’s life. This woman survived the war, married, and was once again expecting a child. Walking the streets of Kew Gardens Hills, she found the practice of Dr. Gisela Perl, who also survived. Dr. Perl this time delivered this woman’s healthy baby and handed her to the mother, declaring, “A life for a life.”
Journey to Poland participants later suggested that we start a campaign of kiruv to bring back the many Jews who are at the brink of spiritual destruction and call it “A Life for a Life.”
Rabbi Chaim Sampson, director of Project Inspire, effectively summed up the trip with his comment: “I think that I can truly speak on behalf of everyone that this was one of the most profound experiences that we ever had. Coming face to face with death somehow awakened within us the spirit of life, and aroused within us a desire to care for and assume responsibility for acheinu Bnei Yisrael. “A Life for a Life” represents our commitment to the six million that were lost, and our attempt to draw our alienated brothers and sisters closer. The achdus and openness of the group was profound, and the life lessons truly inspirational.”
The Okopowa Street cemetery in Warsaw, ironically, pulsated with life. Beautiful foliage and greenery adorned each grave and lush green grass and trees were to be found everywhere. One could feel the energy of this great city colloquially known as “The Paris of Eastern Europe” in the cemetery that housed such luminaries as Rav Chaim Brisker, the Netziv of Volozhin, and many other greats. The inscriptions on the graves of both men and women point to a city steeped in Torah and chesed, with a vibrant Jewish community before the war.
We visited the faint outlines of the Warsaw ghetto, the Umschlagplatz, and the ZOB memorial site that chronicle the destruction of the Jews of this great city. Even in the ghetto, Torah continued to thrive in makeshift shuls and batei midrash that were set up. Complicated halachic she’eilos were answered on a daily basis and both men and women expended heroic efforts till the end to live within the parameters of Jewish life.
One of the most emotional and haunting moments of the trip occurred on our visit to Zbylitowska Góra, which was the site of the mass murder of the Jews of Tarnow on June 11, 1942. Huge mass graves were dug and the Jews were shot into the prepared graves. We walked through the forest singing “Gam ki elech b’gei tzalmaves,” and gathered around the grave where 800 children were murdered. The beautiful trees and foliage of the forest contrasted sharply with the atrocities committed at this place.
The forest resounded with our introspective thoughts and grief. Rabbi Sperber asked us to take a few moments and write a letter to our loved ones, expressing how much they mean to us. All of us, shaken from this experience, proceeded to do just that, in the shadow of the trees and the monument that was built as a tribute to these lofty souls.
Unplanned Kiruv Moments
On our way out of the forest, something occurred that was so serendipitous it could only have been orchestrated from above. A large group of teenage tourists from Israel were sitting at the monument steps. Dov Landau, a Holocaust survivor who had joined our trip, spoke to the youngsters in Hebrew, reminding them of his father’s last words to him, “Always remember that you are a Jew, and remain Jewish.” Dayan Abraham then encouraged the group to remember that they are the future of Klal Yisrael and that every act of shemiras ha’mitzvos honors the memory of these kedoshim. We left the forest singing “Vehi She’amda,” joined by these pure and innocent voices.
The juxtaposition of the two and the meaning behind it made an indelible impression on all the participants.
Later, in the midst of leibidig Shabbos zemiros and nigunim in Krakow, the dividing wall of our dining room opened to reveal 40 young people from Brazil. We immediately began a large rikud around their tables and they joined us in the ruach for 20 minutes. We did not share a common spoken language but we all felt the ahavas Yisrael and the feeling of achdus that all Jews must have.
The concept of ahavas Yisrael resonated loudly at the kever of Rav Elimelech M’Lizhensk. Thousands gather at this site, especially on the yahrzeit, to plead with him to intercede on their behalf. When one examines the tefillah of this holy tzaddik that ends with “Aderaba, tein b’libeinu shenir’eh kol echad ma’alas chaveireinu, velo chesronum (place in our hearts that we all see the qualities of others and not their deficiencies),” one understands why so many tefillos and bakashos are answered here.
The kabbalas ol Malchus Shamayim and the recitation of the Shema at the crematorium—there are no words in any vocabulary in any language to describe what we felt at that moment. As we walked the paths that they had walked leading to their deaths, singing the Ani Ma’amin composed by the inmates, we wondered what their last thoughts were. Surely it was of the love they had for their families. And when they said their final Shema . . . history shows, and the guide confirmed this, that the last sounds heard in the gas chambers were of prayers and singing.
Dov Landau, Survivor, Speaks
In the men’s barracks in Birkenau, we watched as Dov Landau, the Holocaust survivor from Tel Aviv, originally from the city of Jesko in Poland, stood up on the concrete slab that was used to punish the inmates for their “crime’’ and, with the tattooed number clearly visible on his arm, began to tell the story of how he arrived in Auschwitz–Birkenau with his father, the selection process, the angel of death, Mengele, pointing with his white-gloved finger, Rechts, Links, Rechts, Links. As he led us through the men’s camp and spoke of the forced labor and inhumane conditions (the latrines were particularly telling), we wondered, how did he survive? The life expectancy for women was two months and for men it was six months. Dov credited his survival to the time he spent with his father and his father’s exhortation to him when he left him to “always remain a Jew.”
‘Lo Amus, Ki Echyeh’
Today, Dov is the patriarch of a family of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren living in Israel. He also serves as a liaison to many of the children who have strayed from the path of Torah. His life is a testament to the concept of Jewish survival. Later that morning, Dov’s granddaughter, unaware that Dov was in Poland, broke out of a group of Israeli teens touring Auschwitz to embrace her grandfather.
The High Shul resounded Friday night with the Carlebach-style Kabbalas Shabbos and Ma’ariv. Shabbos morning at the Kuba Shul, and a visit to the famous Izaak shul with the walls and ceilings so beautifully adorned with the months of the year and their mazalos and tefillos painted onto the walls, made us all yearn for a time when these majestic shuls were packed with the Jewish residents of the city—when the heartfelt tefillos pierced the heavens.
Each of the meals was graced with speeches from our participants. Ephraim Vashovsky, who originally hails from Russia, told the story of his father, an accomplished gymnast and someone who enjoyed a successful life in the Soviet Union. After Ephraim was denied entry to a swimming competition because he was Jewish, his father explained to his son that despite his own comfort and large social circle, he would relocate his family to the U.S. because “I want you to be a proud Jew, and never held back because you are Jewish.” Today Ephraim is a successful businessman, askan, and the father of a large family all dedicated to keeping Torah and mitzvos.
‘Where Do We Go From Here?’
Moshe Caller shared the following inspiration: “I remind myself how, many times while reading or hearing about the Holocaust, I always feel that so much more could have been done to save Yidden, and had I been around during that time, I would have turned over the world to save as many of my fellow brothers and sisters as possible. We all know that the spiritual Holocaust has claimed more than 13 million Jews to assimilation and intermarriage. At the end of the day, if I’m not doing what I can to stop the daily losses, then it’s highly unlikely that I would have done much more during that time.”
Project Inspire proposes everyone take part in the project “A Life for A Life”—what will you do to fulfill that promise? For further information or to join us on our next trip, please call 646-291-6191 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. ϖ