About Pilgrimage: Poland
Pilgrimage: Poland will explore the roots of Judaism in Poland and how Jews were able to thrive, and how the Catholic nature of the country shaped the Jewish experience while the Jews helped shape Poland. Then, we will consider the lead up to and effects of the Holocaust for Poland and the Jewish community. Implicit in the exploration is the questions of responsibility, culpability, and victimhood. Finally, we will witness how the community dealt with and still handles the ramifications of the Holocaust. We will look at the great tension of commemoration, preservation, and reconciliation in everyday life of the Poles, Jews and not.
The experience in Poland includes stops in the cities of Krakow, Lublin, and Warsaw. We will visit museums, universities, churches, castles, and historical sites within each city. We will visit Concentration Camps and Death Camps to view the sites of unspeakable atrocities and how these spaces have been converted to memorials. We will meet with organizations trying to grapple with these difficult questions and trying to facilitate the painful work of reconciliation. We will also share in Shabbat Worship with a Jewish community in Warsaw.
Who We Are
It didn’t take long for the details and questions of the Holocaust, which were constantly on our minds for eight days, to recede into the backdrop of our lives. We returned to classes and jobs, to roommates and families.
But there are still those moments when everything comes rushing back. Something simple—an article online, a picture saved on a phone, a dirty sock—can return us instantly.
Or maybe the question, “What was it like?” brings everything front and center again. Sometimes all we can muster is a simple, standard response—pointing out the obvious difficulty or defaulting to a humorous moment—as we try to stifle the images that begin to flash through our minds. We might choke back an unexpected swell of tears, because now just isn’t the time to feel everything all over again.
Other times, we can talk for hours, barely pausing to take a breath, thinking if we can remember every little detail, maybe we can give others just a hint of what they need to know. Because, as we learned, that’s the most important thing we can do—tell the stories.
With that in mind, 25 days later, we all gathered together in one room again, this time to commemorate the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day. We were dressed in fewer layers and feeling a little more warmth in our souls. Our friends and colleagues had joined us, wanting to hear what we had to say, about the objects and the faces and the simple moments that made us realize the power of what we were experiencing.
The lights were dim, a single candle lit at the front of the room. We filed in one at a time, and removed our shoes, placing them in a single line. A pair of delicate sandals next to a pair of sneakers next to a pair of black heels—the line shows both the uniqueness of each individual and the collective of humanity.
As we took our seats, Melissa stepped forward, pulled a small, folded piece of paper from her shoe, and began to read a brief poem.
This was a note found in the shoe of a child at Majdanek, written prior to her death. Her reference to herself as Elzunia, a nickname for the Polish name Elizabeth, shows that she was loved. This note and her shoe are the only pieces of her that will ever be known. Like this shoe, which is just one of the 900,000 pairs that were found in Majdanek at the end of the war, every shoe has a story.
But with 11 million stories, where do we even begin? Andrew began by saying there’s no right way, but that everyone is trying and so must we.
In Poland, there are very few remnants … some objects, few survivors, no headstones. In Birkenau, the death camp attached to Auschwitz, only four markers in English, Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew were built to mark the one million murdered there. There are no tombstones, no names, just an eerie void left at a site where a million lives ended … the world’s largest cemetery.
Regina was drawn to the stories of more than one million children who perished during the Holocaust. Pastel buildings and cobblestone streets reminded her of her own childhood innocence, something she hopes they never lost.
Visiting Majdanek on my birthday and peering into the box of pictures with faces of unknowing children smiling back at me, I just couldn't help but feel both angry and grateful for their innocence. That's what bothered me the most, really. To think that at a time where the whole world is new and nothing can harm them, that they felt fear. That even innocent and fresh-faced, barely just-arrived children were thought to deserve death over life. But instead, I'd like to think that they didn't know. That they still had just enough of their childhood left to still think of this world as good.
Perry saw an eeriness in the train tracks leading into the concentration camps. Typically seen as modern symbols of progress, these tracks instead served as a step in the wrong direction.
When these victims were looking for a way out of their increasingly dire situation, the Nazis provided a lie of hope: a train ride to a faraway camp. This option was the only one these oppressed people could take, clinging to the belief that these camps would provide a place to live in wartime. The most horrifying piece of this lie was that some people were convinced to buy their own ticket on the train, hoping that the destination would provide solace from the torment of the Nazi occupation.
The tracks ran through the center of the camp, giving the prisoners a glimpse of how they came to be in this situation, and the torturous hope of a way out. But they would never have a chance to leave. There was no progress on these metal tracks.
As an aspiring archaeologist, Janelle noticed the relationship between people and their objects. These objects, she said, tell us so much about the people who used them.
When you walk into the first room at Auschwitz where objects are on display, their physical presence is overpowering. The first shock is the sheer number of objects. Endless piles of shoes, enough cooking pots to fill an Olympic-sized pool, more toothbrushes than you can imagine. Each of those objects belonged to someone, and moreover, these objects were extremely valued by their owners. These are the few things that people chose to bring with them as they were forced to leave their homes. The bare necessities. The few dear implements of life that they really needed. But the concentration camp prisoners were forced to let go of these necessities. Even these small vestiges of human dignity were denied.
The simple freedom of walking around and observing the sites in his own way was a realization of its own for Jake. To him, it reinforced the importance of visiting these places and understanding what had occurred.
As we entered one of the barracks at Majdanek I thought, "I am freezing, I want to get back on the bus and enjoy the heat." But then I thought, "I am complaining about walking around a preserved landmark with no restrictions or hostility. The people that were forced to live here for years at a time were tortured on top of being unprepared for the Polish winters.” The idea itself made me uncomfortable. I can further explain how this trip should make you feel, but in all honesty, the only way to fully understand and grasp the experience is witnessing the locations firsthand.
Rachel saw not just a loss of people, but a loss of culture, particularly reflected in the collection of prayer shawls at Auschwitz.
They represent the Jewish culture and the Jewish religion, its rituals and its symbols and its most important objects. But most importantly, they represent hope of a normal life. All they had was hope—hope that they would make it out of this horrible situation.
We all struggled with how to remember these stories—both in the individual and the infinite. For Terry, remembrance began with a dirty pair of socks.
On the day at Auschwitz and Birkenau I had worn my running shoes instead of boots, knowing we would be walking such a long way, and had many layers of socks. The outer layer, I discovered, had absorbed gray mud during that snowy sleety day. As I peeled them off that night I looked at them in horror. I felt the mud on the socks must contain some ashes of victims, and it felt sacred. I will keep the socks as they are to remind me that someday I too will be ash. But until that day, I have a responsibility. I have walked the world’s largest graveyard. It has no tombstones; it is up to me to carry the knowledge of their cruel murders, and to be changed by it.
Our story of commemoration wasn’t all death and destruction, though. Just as we found glimmers of hope along the way, we wanted to bring that same feeling to those back at home, to remind them that the Holocaust is more than loss. I saw signs of that forward movement in the changing landscapes of the camps and the nearby communities.
When we first pulled off the road outside Plaszow, my eye was drawn across the street to a row of candy-colored condos. Signs of everyday life were visible on the balconies—towels drying, chairs, a bike. At first I was surprised. Why would anyone choose to live so close to a site that once contained such death and destruction? But in a way it makes perfect sense. To give precisely the amount of land acknowledges the tragedy and ensures its preservation—as both a cemetery and a reminder that genocide isn’t that far away from any of us. But it doesn’t grant the evil any more reach than it’s already had. We can’t forget what happened, but to be defined only by loss would be a disservice to the victims.
Brian saw hope in the Jewish communities of Poland. Though small, they are thriving and growing.
While there were was so much pain and devastation after the war, people began to rebuild. During our last night in Poland we had the pleasure of attending a Shabbat service in Warsaw. From beginning our journey walking along the old Jewish quarter of Krakow to ending with the standard blessings over candles, wine, and challah that happens on campus here every Friday night, we saw that while much smaller, the Jews of Poland have not given up.
Molly was struck by a single blond braid, resting atop a pile of dark brown hair, clipped from women as they entered Auschwitz. While she only looked at for a split second, she saw in this braid the face of a life that was lost, but also the face of her next-door neighbor, her classmate, her best friend. She was haunted. Until, on our final night in Poland, at a Shabbat service in Warsaw, a young woman was called to the front of the congregation for a blessing before her upcoming marriage.
As she looked out at us, she was glowing with happiness, smiling at us as if she was among her closest family. She was so beautiful. Young and fresh and full of a life that lay ahead. As she turned towards the Rabbi to embrace him, her back was turned to the crowd. I was stunned when I saw a long thin beautiful braid, blonde against her dark sweater.
And that's when I understood.
The girl with the braid was still here. I did not need to be haunted anymore; I did not need to keep searching for her. I no longer needed to try in vain to pin her to one face, one name, one life. It wasn't just about the loss. It wasn’t just about the emptiness. It wasn't just about standing in the freezing rain and trying to feel a suffering that happened in a time a place that are beyond what we can truly imagine. It's about life too.
It's about the fact that, in a city that had once been home to 350,000 Jewish people, in a country where these people had met a merciless death, on the grounds of unimaginable suffering, I can walk into a Shabbat service in Warsaw, full of life and welcoming brightness, and worship God with a group of people that someone once mistakenly thought they could remove from this earth. I can shake Anna's hand as she walks out of the temple with her fiancé, and congratulate her on her marriage, to a life of happiness and love and hope and faith. I don’t know the face of the woman with the braid and I will never know. She was stolen from us. But if we can think and we can feel and we can discover empathy for someone so far away and so faceless, her story is all but lost. Her story can live everywhere. So in some sense, I do know her. The girl with the braid is the face of hope. She is a story of renewal in a land of ashes.
That is perhaps the greatest lesson we learned, that we can bring to others who may never set foot on the grounds of Auschwitz. That the stories of the perpetrators and the victims, the survivors and the generations after are the stories of each of us. Just as we all have the potential to find hate and focus on difference, we have just as much ability to focus on what brings us all together.
And with that, we searched for our shoes among the pile in the front of the room, returned them to our feet, and walked back out into the night.