There are certain life experiences that are difficult to describe even for someone accustomed to speaking and writing for public audiences. This past summer my wife, Bassie, and I enjoyed such an experience when we had the great privilege of leading a group of adults on a nine-day trip to Poland, run under the auspices of “Names, Not Numbers©”, a one-of-a-kind Holocaust education program directed by Mrs. Tova Rosenberg, who, along with her husband, Dov, meticulously organized the trip down to the last detail, and were also part of our group.
Most of the participants had some prior knowledge about the history of the Jews in Poland, but we were all still deeply impressed by the imposing Polin Museum, which we visited upon our arrival in Warsaw. Just a few years old, it is a truly outstanding museum that presents the long history of the Jews of Poland, containing troves of information about the varied experiences of Polish Jewry throughout the centuries. Interestingly, although the present assessment of the Jewish presence in Poland focuses primarily upon the Holocaust, the overall picture includes many positive highlights, and it is not an exaggeration to say that it was the Jewish experience in Poland that shaped much of the tradition associated with Ashkenazic Jewry to this day.
Everyone on the trip was aware of the tragic fate during the Holocaust of three million Jews from Poland, but we were all nonetheless incredibly taken by everything we saw—our sages tell us that hearing about something cannot compare to actually seeing it for oneself, and that was certainly our feeling. None of us will forget the infamous “Umschlagplatz,” the place from which so many thousands of Jews from the Warsaw area were herded onto trains by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps like Treblinka and ultimately to their deaths. We could only imagine what it must have been like for the families who were gathered there to await their destiny, as we looked at the names on the memorial wall—dozens of only first names of Jewish men and women, as there is no real way of knowing the last names of all the people rounded up there.
Our next destination was Lublin, where we were exposed to a concentration camp for the first time. We will never forget seeing the barracks, the gas chambers and the crematoria at Majdanek and then praying and singing Hebrew songs as we stood by the covered pile of ashes in the back of the camp. Nor will we ever forget the stirring and eerie memorial at the Belzec camp, which is not well known and of which nothing original remains, though it is estimated that some half a million people perished there, among them the relatives of one of our participants, who recited an emotional Keil Molei Rachamim.
For the last few days of the trip, we were joined by the indefatigable Dov Landau, a truly remarkable Holocaust survivor who is now in his 90s. Dov lived through five concentration camps and a death march, and helped save the life of a little 8-year-old boy in Buchenwald named Lulek, who later became Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau; he later spent time in a Jordanian POW camp. We were all profoundly moved as he took us on a tour of his hometown of Brzesco, where he lost much of his family when it was overrun by the Nazis, and he then accompanied us on an unforgettable tour of Auschwitz and of Birkenau (the sheer size of which is staggering, as is the chilling efficiency with which the murderous operations were clearly managed), where we were able to experience the infamous camps through the eyes of someone who had been there in the most awful of times.
It was quite meaningful to see the very places where great rabbinic luminaries of Poland lived and taught. I personally will always consider it a great privilege to have been able to relate a sharp Torah insight from Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik and the Netziv before seeing their graves in the huge Warsaw cemetery, to have been able to share a chasidic thought from the famous “Chozeh” and from “Reb Tzadok” near their gravesites in Lublin, and from the Noam Elimelech after seeing his tomb in Lizhensk. It was similarly an honor to present a fascinating Talmudic insight by Rabbi Meir Shapiro in the very building of the yeshiva that he built in Lublin and to summarize an unusual halachic decision rendered by the Rama in his own shul in Krakow. One feels very much a part of the ongoing chain of Jewish tradition—so much of which has important roots in Poland—when engaging in such activities.
Our trip, however, was not at all focused only upon the past. We were interested as well in seeing what is happening in Poland today. We were surprised to learn that large numbers of young Polish non-Jews are interested in learning about the history of the Jews of their land, and that many, including several we met, are incredibly knowledgeable. Linking past to present, we met with a righteous gentile whose family hid two Jewish women during the war and saved their lives, and also heard from the leader of an organization called “Forum for Dialogue” who travels across the country to educate children in the public schools as to what happened to the Jews of Poland and who works to preserve the sites of local Jewish cemeteries and prevent them from being built upon. This woman is not Jewish herself. Nor are the organizers, whom we met, of a Jewish cultural festival held each summer in Krakow that attracts some 25,000 attendees. A mere generation ago this would have been inconceivable.
We also had the opportunity to learn about Jewish life in present-day Poland. In Warsaw’s Nozyk Shul, the only shul, of hundreds, to survive the Nazi destruction, we heard from Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, and later in Krakow, we visited the Jewish Community Center (JCC), where we were quite impressed with the astonishing array of vibrant Jewish programming opportunities. We also met with an elderly Holocaust survivor who, despite her advanced age, travels around the country to share her story and works towards the rebirth of Jewish life in Krakow. Again, inconceivable a generation ago.
Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of our trip was the wonderful weekend spent in Krakow. It was uplifting to daven on Friday night and Shabbos in an old shul together with hundreds of other Jews of varied religious and cultural backgrounds. It was inspiring to see the historic building that housed the original Beis Yaakov school for girls founded by Rebbetzin Sarah Schenirer. And it was exciting to visit the famous Schindler factory and go through the stunning museum now housed therein.
There is no doubt that all those who participated in this most unique trip were profoundly impacted by the experience on many levels. And while it was a physically and emotionally draining nine days, I would happily return to help open the eyes of others to the past, present and future of Jews in Poland.
By Rabbi Michael Taubes
Rabbi Michael Taubes is a rosh yeshiva at RIETS and Yeshiva University High School for Boys as well as rav of Congregation Zichron Mordechai in Teaneck.