My good friend Rabbi Yaakov Landau had asked me numerous times to go with him on a tour of Poland, along with Rabbi Ari Scharf, Rav Paysach Krohn, with Project Mesorah. I had so many excuses, but in the back of my mind I knew this was important for me, my wife Atara, family and all our readers. This trip was particularly important today because of the constant devastating news from Israel and all the anti-Semitism in the world. Atara and I thought this would be a great opportunity, especially with so many Holocaust survivors no longer living among us.
The trip was much more than we expected in such a meaningful way, and we will never forget all that we experienced. I only hope Hashem gives me the siyata diShmaya to express my feelings and thoughts clearly.
This journey was inspiring beyond words and has become a trademark event of the noted organization Project Mesorah, the industry leader in inspiring Jewish heritage trips. The trip, which returned last week from its 2015 winter mission to Poland, brought over 60 people from across the United States, Canada and England to Poland, from where we trace so much of our Jewish heritage and Torah life.
It became quite apparent that we would be starting a full day of visiting holy and memorable places, and that the little sleep we caught on the plane would have to do for the time being. The bus is packed and we start heading towards the last remaining shul in Warsaw, the Nozyk Synagogue. As we walk, I am overtaken by the beauty of the shul and how it is the same shul that is in the photograph from the 1940s that Project Mesorah’s director, Rabbi Ari Scharf, passed around for all of us to see. The shul looks as if it could be anywhere in the world, and that triggers deep emotions, as we realize that the Jews of Poland lived in a very similar fashion to the way we live today. The photo shows Jews standing in front of the shul before the war. I am astounded at the association of the photo and the building in front of which we stand. We then take a 15-minute drive to the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto and cemetery, where there are tens of thousands of kevarim. We daven at the kevarim of Reb Chaim Brisker, the Netziv, the Chemdas Shlomo and many more.
Reb Ari calls us over to one kever in particular and asks, “Does anyone notice what is different about this kever?” He continues: “This is not a real kever; it is a bunker that led into the sewer system, made to look like a kever, where children hid at night to stay safe from the Nazis, ym”s. Any child who fled through the sewers into the cemetery had a chance of survival, because the Nazis refused to go in, as they were afraid of diseases. The children would hide in this bunker disguised as a grave at night, because the Nazis would shoot randomly at anything that moved at night.” We then board the buses and travel to Ger to see the ohel of the Sfas Emes and the Chidushei HaRim, and to visit the Ger Beis Midrash. Finally, we arrive at our hotel in Lublin for the night, although we are all too charged to sleep.
Bright and early the following morning, we wake up for Shacharis and breakfast before setting off on the second day of our “mission” to Poland. People cannot understand unless they have been to the Poland, but there are a lot of mixed emotions about being there. On the one hand, there was the unspeakable horror that haunts us with every step. On the other hand, there is a feeling of happiness—a joy that we are able to daven, learn, sing and dance in these holy places where our brothers and sisters used to do so. There is also a feeling of gratitude to the Ribono shel Olam for allowing us to be able to live as Jews all over the world and return to Poland. Some of us returned to say Kaddish for loved ones, while others were joining the mission to connect to our heritage; but everyone was there for the common goal of connecting to our past in order to build a stronger and brighter future. We daven and sing our hearts out to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and thank Him for the brachos He has given us.
We arrive at Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, and we hear krias haTorah. Shortly thereafter, Rav Paysach Krohn and Rabbi Yaakov Landau start singing, and before we know it, we are dancing around the bimah with the Torah, lighting up the beis midrash with simchah once again. After a truly inspirational and moving speech by Rav Krohn, some of us run off to tovel in the mikvah before jumping back on the bus. From the yeshivah, we daven at the kevarim of the Maharshal and the Chozeh of Lublin. There is an eerie feeling in the air as we enter the Majdanek camp. Seeing the gas chambers where so many lost their lives brought streams of tears down our faces as we sang Ani Ma’amin. We thought our day ended in Lizhensk, where we davened at the kever of the Noam Elimelech; we sang and danced, and our voices were heard throughout the streets. Later that night, to our surprise, Reb Ari stops the bus on the side of the road and tells us to get off. We’re a little confused, as we cannot see the hotel. Following Reb Ari blindly, we go down to an empty piece of land. Reb Ari explains that this is a mass grave where over 800 children lost their lives. Rabbi Greenberg speaks and we all cry—he says that instead of saying “goodbye,” we should tell the children “goodnight,” and that they will never be forgotten, that klal Yisrael would continue to visit them. As we sing “HaMalach HaGoel” to them, not a single face is dry. Shortly thereafter we arrived in Krakow.
That was only one and a half days of the trip. There was also Shabbos in Krakow, visiting the shul and kever of the Rema, as well as the kevarim of Sarah Schenirer, the Tosfos Yom Tov, the Megaleh Amukos, the Bach, and more—it was truly inspiring and unforgettable.
The Mesorah Trip to Poland is designed for the participants to feel as if they are themselves going through the experience of the Holocaust. Rabbi Scharf explained the psychological warfare and logistical atrocities in such clear detail of how the Jews were herded from their homes to the ghettos. He detailed how the Germans abused core family values by brainwashing Jews into believing that each of the evacuations was for the benefit of Jewish family life—we, the trip participants, felt as if we were the actual ones being persecuted, a harrowing experience for us.
The trip participants were from all walks of life: physicians, teachers, business people, a veterinarian, psychologists, chasidim, and wearing hats of all shapes and colors. Just as the Germans did not discriminate, we were an indiscriminate proactive group. We all cried together, danced b’simchah together, and prayed together for klal Yisrael. We all felt our mission was accomplished. Our history must be learned in order to live in the present and guide our future.
One of the exhilarating aspects of our tour group was a three-generational cluster. There was a nine-month-old baby (the youngest of 12 children) accompanied by her parents (the mother is one of eight children) and the baby’s grandparents. Upon leaving Auschwitz, the mother said she felt proud that she had brought the baby to the concentration camp, showing that we have defied the Nazi attempt to annihilate klal Yisrael, that she was able to show that klal Yisrael stands strong!!
We came to Poland as individuals and couples; we left Poland as one unit, as one family, brothers and sisters—and we understand that, no matter what, we need to love and care about every Jew, regardless of level of affiliation or denomination. We felt proud that we were part of Project Mesorah, helping the future of klal Yisrael remain bright. On the next trip, I plan to bring many of my friends as well.
Thank you, Project Mesorah, for such a meaningful experience.
By Yaakov Serle