I had very mixed emotions before embarking on my journey through Poland with my son and 25 otherstudents from Orayta. There was plenty of anticipation to see my son again, but I had plenty of anxiety knowing that our meeting place was Poland…home to some 3.5 million Jews before World War II. But in my gut, I had always wanted to visit the death camps, forests, and ghettoes where millions of European Jews were systematically killed by the Nazi beasts. The place where by the end of the war, only a tiny fraction of Polish and European Jewry survived the horrors wrought against them.
In my 57 years, I have known many Holocaust survivors and became good friends with many of their children. I always believed I was a good student of the Holocaust having read many books, listened to many survivor stories, and seen many intense Holocaust films. I never missed a Yom HaShoah event in Memphis, my hometown. But I always felt there was a missing information link. I yearned to go to Poland and see it up close so that I might better comprehend what happened in those nightmarish years from 1939 to 1945. I longed to go there once…see it, feel it, and never return.
Without internalizing it too much, I jumped on the opportunity to join Orayta’s 6 day trip to Poland. I’m grateful that my son, Isaac, wanted me to join him. I came prepared. I packed clothing suitable for cold winter weather in Poland. We visited four death camps…Treblinka, Majdanek, Chelmno, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. We visited destroyed synagogues in Tournow and rebuilt ones in Lublin, Dabrawa Tarnowska, and Krakow. We walked through the streets that were once ghettos in Warsaw, Lodz, and Tarnow. We visited a mass grave of some 700 children in a forest outside of Tarnow. We visited some of the world’s largest Jewish cemeteries in Lodz and Warsaw (250,000 interred) and a smaller one in Krakow where the Ashkenazik 16th century commentator, The Ramah, is buried. We listened to Paulina, a 90 year old Polish lady, tell our group how she and her family fed and hid many Jews throughout the war all while risking their lives to do so. She and her family had been honored by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations (Gentiles). We even saw her family’s medal and certificate from Yad Vashem. She is a true living hero, and a link to the awful past. By no means was it an easy trip: we toured all day, ate lunch on our laps on our touring bus, found precious few bathrooms along the way, and arrived in our hotel late in the evening. We were chilled to the bone both physically and mentally. And I would not have changed a thing.
We were led by the inspiring Rabbi Yizhak Rubenstein from Heritage Seminars. Rabbi Rubenstein has been leading groups to Poland for years. This was his 40th trip! But his enthusiasm and energy would lead you to believe it was his first. The students were amazing to travel with. I got to know quite a few of them. They were excited and eager to know everything they could learn. Many of the students were grandchildren of survivors and spoke eloquently about their family’s experience. Many who spoke were moved to tears as we all were.
I am grateful to Orayta for inviting parents. It was a personal pleasure for me to get to know Rosh Yeshiva Rav Blau. And a special shout out to Monica, the logistics specialists in Poland, the 2 able bus drivers, and Marias, our security attendant, who was always close by and made us feel very safe. And lastly, I encourage everyone to consider a trip to Poland. You will not be disappointed, and there is no substitute.