Horror and hope

Horror and hope

Two local mothers accompany their daughters on school trip to Poland

Shanna Lehmann Wolf, her daughter Arianna, Rebecca Packer, and her mother, Tutu, stand together in a synagogue in Lublin.
Shanna Lehmann Wolf, her daughter Arianna, Rebecca Packer, and her mother, Tutu, stand together in a synagogue in Lublin.

We had both wanted to go on a meaningful trip to Poland, but we hadn’t found the right opportunity or time to do it..

Our daughters both chose to spend the year after high school studying in Israel at a girls seminary, Midreshet Moriah in Jerusalem. Their school offers its students the opportunity to go to Poland with Heritage Seminars, a group that has been running guided learning and experiential trips to Poland for 25 years. Parents can join their sons and daughters on these trips, but only a handful end up doing so.

Shanna convinced Tutu that this was the time. It was our time to share this unique experience with our daughters, who have been friends since they met in playgroup. So, shortly before Passover, we were privileged to go on a Heritage Seminars trip to Poland with our daughters, Arianna and Rebecca, and their Israel program.

Before we left, we read books on Poland and the Holocaust. We were taking the trip to honor the memories of the Jews murdered there, and we wanted to see the places we had read about for ourselves. We were anticipating a sad, informative trip.

It certainly was that. We visited concentration camps, cemeteries, ghettos, and the sites of deportations and mass killings. But so much more also lingers with us from our week in Poland.

Our fearless leader, Michal Porat-Zibman, and our clever historian, Dr. Jonty Moretsky, made the trip be about so much more than just sadness. They infused the sites we went to and the stories we heard with hope for the future, opportunities for Jewish pride, and gratitude for our Jewish homeland and our ability to carry on Jewish learning and traditions now, in 2016. We are especially thankful to the girls and staff who welcomed us on Bus #100. They made us valued members of the group, not just tag-along moms. We usually were the only parents on our bus, and often we provided advice and snacks to the girls, but otherwise we just followed the group and soaked up stories, facts, and lessons with the other participants.

Standing in the Majdanek concentration camp, which the Nazis deserted quickly and therefore remained somewhat intact, you can see the houses of ordinary townspeople that surround it. This camp is very raw. The shoes, eyeglasses, and ashes are still there. Our emotions were very raw as well, particularly when we saw the ovens and the crematoriums. All those Jews and their dreams just went up in smoke.

The soulful music by girls from different seminaries, singing together directly in front of the crematoriums, made us cry for so many reasons. There was the horror of ovens that were used to burn Jewish bodies, juxtaposed with the achdut (oneness) of the girls singing songs of sadness and hope. It is a vision seared in our minds — fortitude coming out of the ashes. Young girls singing “Ani Ma’amin” (“I Believe”) with heartfelt yearning in a crematorium means Hitler did not win.

On our last day with the girls, we spent 11 hours at Auschwitz, with a guided tour, the museum exhibits, the bunkers, and the gas chambers. In front of a mostly destroyed gas chamber, Tutu told our group the story of her treasured grandparents, who survived Auschwitz but lost all their parents and siblings in that very spot. Tutu stood by the gas chamber with her daughter Rebecca, who both are named after relatives who perished in the Shoah. They lit a yahrzeit candle to honor those murdered and Tutu said the blessing “Baruch ata Hashem elokeinu melech haolom….she’asa li neis b’makom hazeh,” thanking God for the miracle that had saved her grandparents, thus allowing her to be born and standing in that place today. By walking through the camp and hearing about stories of luck and ingenuity, Tutu was able to piece together her grandfather’s miraculous story of survival from the horrors of Auschwitz.

When we returned, many people asked us how our daughters felt about our being there. (Michael Berl, the director of Heritage Seminars, always was confident that our daughters would be thrilled.) We believe that Arianna summed it up at the closing circle right outside of Auschwitz. The girls shared their own messages. Some talked about their increased faith in God, many stressed the importance of the injunction “never forget,” quite a few spoke about aliyah, tikkun olam (fixing/improving the world), the need to be part of an empowered, growing nation, and their desire to live more fully. Arianna said that she had a different experience, because her mom was there. She felt so fortunate having her mother as part of this inspiring trip. She was able to feel a stronger connection to generations lost, and to the meaning of continuity, watching her mother and Tutu process the stories, sights, and lessons on a more mature level. She told the girls that after what we have seen, we need to be grateful for our parents and their presence in our lives.

Arianna encouraged everybody to call their parents to thank them for this special trip. And with Arianna’s warm hug, we got our answer.

Poland was dark and haunting, but being on a bus with nearly 50 seminary students gave the journey a new kind of meaning. The trip was poignant, informative and unforgettable. We learned more of the stories, Torah learning, and aromatic flavors of Jewish life in Poland, and that imagery has informed our more nuanced views and knowledge of the Shoah.

What was destroyed was millions of lives, and also communities, rabbinic dynasties, and a “hard but sweet life,” as Tutu’s grandfather would always recall about his pre-war Czechoslovakian town. We are thankful that we got to experience our heritage with the next generation, so that instead of only focusing on what we lost we also can be hopeful.

We highly encourage those of you who have the ability and a desire to go on a trip to Poland to share it with a group of students. The days were very long and the trip was difficult, but we were glad that the youthful exuberance of the Midreshet Moriah students were with us at all the painful, gloomy, and unfathomable sites. Ultimately, as we were told standing in the emptiness and eeriness of Treblinka, “We can’t give meaning to the Holocaust, but it can give meaning to us.”

Tutu Packer and her family live in Teaneck, and Shanna Lehmann Wolf and her family live in Bergenfield.

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