By: Max Strickberger
Bundled tightly in long underwear, a few shirts, double socks, two jackets, boots, gloves and a scarf, the bus dropped me off, along with 34 other Nativers, in a residential neighborhood. People hurried by in a morning rush with backpacks and briefcases. Many of us held tefillin and tallit bags. We walked through an opening between dreary, soviet-era yellow apartment buildings, through an icy courtyard and into a second clearing. Incongruously tucked away amid the parked cars was a separate two-story building, a small tablet engraved on the façade and stars of David in the windowpanes. We were standing at the only remaining shul in Lodz, the town where my mom’s grandfather was from. I was the first in my family to return and the powerful Jewish concept of L’dor V’dor did not escape me.
Half of Nativ 37 travelled to Poland for eight days in January. We visited official Jewish cemeteries for hundreds of thousands in Warsaw and Lodz, and larger unmarked graves of millions at Majdanek, Belzac, Auschwitz and Treblinka. We explored significant cities like Krakow and drove through smaller ones like the town unsettlingly situated in the two mile stretch between Auschwitz 1 and Birkenau. We prayed in synagogues that were once focal points of Jewish life before 1939. Hours of bus rides totaling 2,000 kilometers were packed with traditional Jewish songs and tuna sandwiches.
Despite years of a formal Jewish education and multiple visits to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum – a short drive from my house – many aspects of “familiar” content felt raw. Days, sometimes lasting from 6:00am to 12:00am, were consuming and when journaling about my thoughts and emotions replaced hours of sleep, trip details blended together. Our time in Poland was not just filled with death and sadness. Poland was demanding, emotionally complicated, depressing, meaningful and empowering, and it also celebrated life. In reflecting, a few aspects stand out.
“To fully understand what was lost you have to understand what was there.”
Anytime I learned about the Holocaust, the education focused solely on the loss suffered by the Jewish people in a devastating six-year period. However, the above quote from Yossi, who guided our Poland Seminar, quickly became a theme of my experience. Our first stop in Warsaw was at the new Jewish Museum where out of eight exhibits, the first seven highlighted Jewish life before the Nazi invasion. I felt grossly unaware of this history. I learned that for almost millennia, Jews traded, thrived, celebrated, suffered, danced and built thousands of communities in Poland. America today, in its “golden age of Jewry,” is 2% Jewish where even cities like NYC are only 8% Jewish. Consider our influence. Imagine if those percents were doubled, quadrupled. Before the Holocaust, Poland was 10% Jewish. Jews accounted for ⅓ of Warsaw, and ¼ of Krakow. While we were exploring the latter city, one block alone housed seven shuls, remnants of the once bustling Jewish life that flourished there. I thought of Jerusalem where you find a shul on every corner and wondered how many synagogues existed in Krakow before the Nazis.
Every morning we davened shacharit at restored synagogues or other emblems of former Jewish existence. A couple had high ceilings and bright blue Jewish stars. Many had peeling paint and faded prayer inscriptions on the walls. Some of my most emotional moments came during those services. On our second day we prayed at what was the Yeshivat Chochmei Lublin. It only operated for nine years but was intended to be the Harvard of Yeshivot, progressively uniting Jews from across the orthodox spectrum. Though most of the building is now a fully operating hotel, a reconstructed beit midrash pays tribute to its history. Before Nativ, I never wore tefillin but throughout the year I started appreciating the Jewish custom, a feeling that was amplified in Poland and in this yeshiva. Since so much Jewish life no longer exists in the country, it felt comforting to tangibly feel something Jewish. Wrapped in my tallit I looked at its four corners: one from my tallis, one from my dad’s, another his dad’s and the fourth his dad’s dad. Four generations of Jews. Four generations that would have been cut short had my family not moved from Eastern Europe. There is nothing that can be done for the murdered Jews of Poland and elsewhere, but in honoring their religious lives it felt like we were living their legacy.
“Each shoe was a person.”
Most of us were talking on the bus when Yossi’s voice interrupted: “To the right is Majdanek.” The death camp appeared so frighteningly untouched that everyone fell silent. Snow covered the ground in front of the imposing barbed wire fences, brown guard towers and fully erect bunks. The scene looked like it was copied and pasted out of a 1940s black and white photo. One bunk we walked into was filled with a thick leather smell. Inside were thousands of shoes. “Each shoe was a person,” Yossi reminded us. We walked through the camp wearing many layers but still we shivered. It was unimaginable that people stood in this biting cold, at times for hours during cruel role calling sessions, with nothing but tattered clothes.
Our last stop at Majdanek was a massive Soviet era memorial in the shape of an open concrete sphere. Grey debris towered in the middle. I didn’t know what it was until a whisper went around: ashes. I struggled to conceptualize how many ashes it would take to pile so high. I was also confused that I wasn’t more upset. Why the night earlier during the movie “Escape from Sobibor” did I cry but now, actually standing at the site of such destruction, I couldn’t? In small group debriefs later that night, other Nativers spoke about the puzzlement and frustration they too felt in not viscerally reacting to Majdanek. The rest of the trip continued to uncomfortably challenge the way many of us understood our emotions. Yossi offered one explanation, which was that since we were so removed from the Holocaust its horrors have dissipated. “You have to use your imagination” to try to grasp a sliver of the suffering, he said.
Like many of the other camps we saw, we never left the local town of Lublin to reach Majdanek. This proximity disturbed me. How many silent bystanders saw the smoke from the crematoria, or heard the gunshots that murdered over 40,000 Jews in the two day “Harvest Festival” of 1943? We stood at the site of those mass graves as three small valleys still carve the grass in the back of Majdanek. As Elie Wiesel famously said, “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Where Majdanek shocked with its realness, death camps like Belzac and Treblinka were chilling in their nothingness. They are two camps where no signs remain of the killing machines they once were. At Belzac, countless rocks mark where the camp stood and names of hundreds of Jewish communities that were destroyed during the Holocaust line the border. It was unnerving to see how tiny the land was; one picture taken on my phone captured the entire scene. In an area the size of a few football fields almost half a million Jews were murdered. Thin, bare and eerie trees loomed around Belzac. Their height made me think they were some of the only witnesses to the Belzac crimes. The camp had only four survivors.
Similar trees conceal Treblinka, which is isolated in a rural Polish forest. There, the Nazis perfected their systematic killing technique and, on another little plot, efficiently murdered 800,000 Jews. We trudged through fresh white snow, an image of serenity that was jarring in its contrast to the place’s history. 17,000 jagged stones poked through the snow paying tribute to wiped out Jewish communities. They occupied some space but what made Treblinka so otherworldly was its emptiness, its void. There was a feeling of hopelessness and desolation in all the white, a bleakness that was almost hypnotizing. Together, we stood in a circle and sang Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem. After the group left, a few friends and I lingered. We had never heard a silence so prominent that it sounded like its own noise.
Fitting with the theme of the trip, before visiting Auschwitz we davened shacharit at a shul in Oscwietzen, the town in which the infamous death camp was built. The service was poignant and empowering as we prayed in memory of the vanished local Jewish community of 7,000 and at the footsteps of the largest Jewish cemetery in the world: Birkenau. One of the most emotional parts of Auschwitz 1 for many of us was inside Bunk 27, which was renovated by Yad Vashem. It was snowing when we entered, and on the second floor a room was dedicated to drawings from children of the Holocaust. They were sketched identically to the originals, most in pencil and just a few inches in size. A few depicted guards hanging or shooting prisoners, which was especially heartbreaking in childish stick figures. The gravity of the scenes felt incompatible with the age of the artists. Another exhibit was a 25-foot long elevated book of names of Holocaust victims. Its size stunned me and only after a few minutes did I realize why everyone was pouring over its pages. Each Nativer was looking for their last name. When I found my not-so-common last name of “Strickberger” it took up 20 lines alone. I thought of my parents and siblings and how easily we could have been listed were we born in different circumstances.
When I got back on the bus, “Fiddler on the Roof” was playing. In contrast to the numbers assigned to Jews at Auschwitz, here Jews were wholly human. They laughed, yelled, debated, sang and reminded me of the complexity and beauty of our people. I’d seen the movie before but this time it felt distinctly comforting.
״ יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהֹוָה וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ, יָאֵר יְהֹוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָ, יִשָּׂא יְהֹוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם.״
Today in Poland there is a fledgling Jewish community with passionate people behind what they hope will be a Jewish “renaissance.” During Shabbat we stayed in Krakow and heard from members of the JCC. The assistant director excitedly spoke to us about their push to reconnect Poles who discovered they were Jewish to their ancestors’ religion. I asked him what his connection to the Jewish community was, expecting him to be a member. He surprised us when he said he wasn’t. Instead, he became interested when he learned that his grandparents’ town used to be 70% Jewish. His story is not unique. He explained that many Poles feel a hole in their culture and want to learn more about a group that once played such a major role in Polish society. It was inspiring to hear how dedicated a non-Jewish Pole was to this Jewish revival.
One year ago from today, there were many things that were not on my radar: spending a year experiencing life in Israel was one of them and trip to Poland was another. Many Jewish people believe the former is a necessity. After completing the latter, I believe it is too. Without appreciating our history we cannot reshape our future.
I shared my first Shabbat back from Poland with extended family in Jerusalem. In an intimate moment the grandfather of the family performed the blessing of the children for his grown son, who 30 years earlier lost a brother in the IDF. The concept of L’dor V’dor returned to me. Jews suffer, but that is only part of the picture. We persist and we thrive, and in memory of those no longer with us we strive to create a better world for our children. Poland left me inspired to be a part, however small, of that legacy.