By Rina Haller
Hours ago I left Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. My first stop was the Kotel, as the sun shone. Just to write that I am back is an emotional catharsis. I have not seen the sun in a week. You cannot appreciate Eretz Yisrael until you leave, until you go to the depths of the earth. To me and about a hundred seminary girls, Poland is now that depth.
I have written and rewritten facts and thoughts about my trip. To record the facts among the feelings now is too close, too soon, and will wait for another opportunity. But here are the emotional facts.
One of the unique aspects of my seminary is the included Poland trip. A handful of teachers whom we know and trust took us. The entire country, to me, can be summed up simply as death. Even when it was natural and G‑d’s hand was giving, there is still destruction. In the Warsaw cemetery, some 200,000-kevarim strong, there is a mass grave from the ghetto. In every other cemetery we visited, tombstones lay broken and tracts of land unmarked, like in the Rama cemetery in Krakow. The Nazis seemed to think even death can be degraded.
Days into the trip, I just saw blood seeping from each piece of land we drove through. The illusion escalated when we visited a mass grave in a forest, when we walked in Treblinka at night. If left alone, it would have been the end of me. That I got back and I still believe is entirely from Hashem who sent me these teachers and these friends to pick me up and soothe me.
You have never cried until you stand in a cattle car and hear what happened there. Everywhere I envisioned the scenes. I saw faces and limbs in the caged shoes in a Maidanek barrack. I saw the bodies being placed by the Jewish workers into the crematoria. I heard so many cries and not just ours, not just mine. Our coats were damp with not just a slight drizzle but with the tears of others resting on our shoulders.
If I think about what I have seen, I can cry again. I can only move on due to the strength G‑d has given me. In Treblinka, the first camp we visited, our rabbis left and we sang. Surrounding the mass graves, ditches of burned bodies, we sang the tune of Ani Maamim composed by Jews en route to Treblinka in a cattle car.
The only ghetto we actually stepped into was in Warsaw. Poles now live in the Warsaw Ghetto. This higher sensitivity to death seems to be a Jewish moral—not living on death; not destroying after death. The entire country is a graveyard. Even the graveyards have been plowed over, as pieces of the land have become the roads.
I just wanted to shout, “What are you thinking?” as you walk your child past the Warsaw Umshlagplatz (train station), the sight of the deportations. We saw groups in Auschwitz which were only there due to mandated education laws. This is not their grandmother’s barracks. This was just their country and some of their people. None of it makes sense.
One teacher said each time she comes she thinks she will get clarity, but the confusion just increases.
Until I went, there was a world of Holocaust knowledge I did not know. You can only know and realize how big Auschwitz is, how systematic and thought-out was the murder, if you have been there. How can you deny the Holocaust? You’ve never looked at it. Deny after Auschwitz-Birkenau; deny after Maidanek; I challenge you. It’s not possible.
Fantasy movies are not scary when you mature and are aware of their plots. Poland is real. The steps of mud frozen in Lublin’s old cemetery remind you how this place is frozen in time. Our guide, a wonderful source of knowledge, pointed out buildings that date to the Second World War. People just live in the shadows of these camps.
I don’t understand, I won’t pretend to. But if you hear stories of Jews convening a beis din against Hashem in a camp, ending with a guilty verdict yet they daven Shacharis, there is something more. Saving food for Shabbos, risking your life to bake matzos—these are not the actions of ordinary men. This is our heritage.
I spent a week living in the past. I just checked my e-mails today after a week of no communication with my family. The school kept them informed but the week was longer without my parents’ voices. I cried in the airport when I called them this morning—my living, healthy, breathing, incredible parents. I will never, bli neder, take them or any of my siblings for granted. I spent days wanting to hug my little brothers or even my eim bayit’s baby.
Happiness was only the achdus of singing together in Auschwitz, in a cattle car, at Sarah Schenirer’s kever. The best day, after the holy Shabbos, was Rav Elimelech of Lizhensk’s yahrzeit. To see Jews alive, I could cry only tears of joy. That achdus was palpable as was the free food for the visitors.
Food seemed more comforting than usual. But even that we did in achdus, passing around whatever we were given or had. Shared emotions (and tissues) flowed with the achdus you can only feel walking through a gas chamber together. When others shared their thoughts, it gave me a chance to gather my own clarity.
Rav Yakov Bender, shlita, of Yeshiva Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway, always tells this story, and until motzaei Shabbos in Krakow I never understood why. He relates how being in class as a young boy, there was the possibility for over 100 grandparents. Yet being the generation following the Shoah, there were only 12. He pointed out to the crowd representing the thousands of bachurim in the current yeshiva to look how far they’ve come. I never understood why he always repeats the story, until now.
Rabbi Bender is noting the revenge, the continuation of Am Yisrael. We stop at nothing; death is a portal to the next world. To live with the message of the massacre of each generation, we take their Torah and live as they would. If Jews in a concentration camp would risk their life for a mitzvah, then what are we doing squandering ours so easily?
This is what we were told; this is what we believe. To build Klal Yisrael I must hang on to the shirttails of the past to build, as a mother, my future. Our foundations rest in Chachmei Lubin, in Rav Meir Shapiro and the daf yomi.
Both Auschwitz and the yeshiva of Rav Shapiro lie in the same country of death. Both places strengthen me. I need to live a life honoring the kedoshim by learning their Torah together with the rest of the nation. This is what being in Darchei Binah is doing for me. Because only together will the final Geulah come. Until then, I must never forget because I can’t. The looming towers and walls are etched in our memories as we cry out “Shema Yisrael.” v