Past and present meet in Poland

Past and present meet in Poland

Local students tour death camps, reflect on life lessons

Wrapped in an Israeli flag, Alexa Hirschberg stands outside the gates of Auschwitz.
Wrapped in an Israeli flag, Alexa Hirschberg stands outside the gates of Auschwitz.

Instead of heading to the beach during winter break, nine college students from Bergen County joined 95 peers on a Jewish heritage trip to Poland.

Starting in the Warsaw Ghetto and ending at Treblinka — the village whose name is infamous for housing the Nazi extermination camp where more Jews were killed than at any other camp other than Auschwitz — the weeklong exploration is a project of Meor (Illumination), a nonprofit organization based in Pomona, N.Y., dedicated to inspiring, educating, and empowering Jewish student leaders at 21 universities and at an alumni center in Manhattan.

“The goal of Meor is for people to appreciate and understand the beauty of Judaism, and sometimes you have to go to dark places to really understand that,” said Rabbi Yosef Lynn, director of Meor Poland, a program first piloted in 2008 and now offered to students at every Meor campus. Thanks to sponsors, including Olami and the Kohelet Foundation, the cost of the trip is heavily subsidized.

The itinerary — coordinated by JRoots and led by professional tour guides, Jewish educators, and a Holocaust survivor — provides a rounded picture of Polish Jewish communities before World War II, the loss of life during the Holocaust, and the rebirth of Jewish communities after the war.

“There’s a lot to cover in six or seven days,” said Yael Seruya, the assistant director of Meor Poland, “but we try to balance each day between life and death — something intense like a camp or mass grave, and something inspiring, such as Jewish communities that exist today. Many of the students are grandchildren of survivors, so it helps them understand where they came from personally, and they feel empowered to live on for family members who weren’t able to.”

Rabbi Lynn said it is not meant to be a history trip.

“I want them to really engage with the experience and be present with what happened,” he said. “I want them to deal with the tragedy and the pain, and I try to prepare them to get in the mindset of the question I want them to think about: What is so special about Judaism that the Nazis dedicated so much effort to try to wipe it out?”

Adi Elmaleh, 22, a recent SUNY Binghamton graduate from Fort Lee, recalled that Rabbi Lynn boarded the bus on the second morning and announced, “This is where things are about to change.”

The bus took them to a mass Jewish grave in Chelmno, the first of several they would visit. Reminders of suffering and mass murder were everywhere they turned. “You’d be driving on a highway and you’d pass a camp or a graveyard; a mile’s worth of dead bodies. It was everywhere. It was eerie and gross,” Ms. Elmaleh said.

As a Sephardic Jew, her family was not directly affected by the Holocaust, yet she jumped at the chance to fill an extra slot on the trip. “Having grown up in an Ashkenazi community I felt a connection, and just being Jewish I wanted to know more,” said Ms. Elmaleh, who moved to Israel in early February.

“I think it’s completely necessary that everyone do this trip because it’s our history and our families, and it’s so much different than reading about it in a history book or even hearing about it from a survivor,” she added. “To stand outside in the cold Polish winter, shivering despite being dressed warmly, is to know in some small way what it was like to stand in that cold for hours wearing nothing but thin pajamas.”

Alexa Hirschberg, an Emory University sophomore from Woodcliff Lake, has a similar perspective. “I felt that I would never truly connect unless I stood where they stood and saw the camps, cemeteries, and ghettos with my own eyes.”

She said that as the group walked on the train tracks toward Auschwitz-Birkenau, “I looked to my right and left and noticed just how massive the camp was. It extended for miles so far in each direction; the torture endured here was unimaginable. At this moment, the weight of the Jewish people’s history hit me extremely hard.

Joshua Burshtein meets with two children of righteous gentiles in Poland.
Joshua Burshtein meets with two children of righteous gentiles in Poland.

“I felt my heart drop to my stomach and I felt extremely scared because for the first time, I could feel the Nazi power that once existed on the ground that I stood on.

“A moment later, as I was walking into the camp, a couple ran past me. They were on a jog, listening to music with their headphones plugged in. They did not seem fazed in the slightest bit by what they were running past. I immediately felt disgusted.”

It was not the only time she would witness Poles pushing strollers, picnicking, or walking dogs on grounds where thousands of Jews were tortured and slaughtered.

“As much as I understand that history is in the past and life continues in the places where the ‘final solution’ took place, it pains me to see people not even acknowledging the places that mark so many individuals’ and families’ lives and deaths,” Ms. Hirschberg said. “This did not only surprise me, but inspired me to make a conscious effort to continue in my efforts to learn about the Jewish people’s past and spread this knowledge, these stories, these horrors, and these triumphs so that the Holocaust and those who perished, along with those who survived, will never be forgotten.”

Chelmno stood out as one of the most emotional moments on the trip, she continued. The former extermination camp is a gravel-covered expanse. There are few monuments and plaques honoring those murdered here.

“Under this gravel lie the pits where individuals and families were thrown after being gassed,” Ms. Hirschberg said. “We learned that many of the deaths at Chelmno were not recorded. Our educator gave us the opportunity to walk around the camp, pray, and think.

“We were given latex gloves and were told that we could dig around the dirt and look for bones. It didn’t take very long for us to find teeth and pieces of bones among the sediment, as they were in abundance. We were holding the bodily remains of people whose deaths may or may not be accounted for. Because a proper burial is essential in Judaism, we took the pieces that we found and buried them together. We prayed for those who died at Chelmno, both known and unknown.”

While standing at a mass grave of hundreds of children in the Zbylitowska Gora Forest, George Washington University freshman Deborah Frank of Ridgewood said, one of the trip leaders read them a letter from a mother to the infant she handed over to non-Jews for safekeeping.

“The letter was written so beautifully, and the whole group was standing silently, so upset that any mother or father had to give up their child so tragically,” Ms. Frank said. “However, the leaders took this opportunity to remind all of us how lucky we are to have parents who care so deeply about us, and how fortunate we are to have our parents in our lives at all. It was a very real and effective way of conveying that message, and we took time at this grave to really deeply reflect about our own lives and our own families.”

The group then wrote letters to their parents.

Ms. Hirschberg shared this section of her letter: “Today I came to understand that it is both our honor and responsibility to be proud and influential Jews. This journey has helped me realize that what matters most in life is our values — in a world of darkness, we must continue to be the light. I am beyond grateful for the life and opportunity that I have to carry Judaism with me and I have both of you, Mom and Dad, as well as the education and experiences that you have provided me with, to thank for this understanding.”

Ms. Frank said that although “no one can really imagine the number six million, the Meor and JRoots team that led this journey was able to take a tragedy as vast and unimaginable as the Holocaust, and empower us. They were able to remind us that as youth of the Jewish people, we can continue the legacy of those who suffered through this atrocity. We can study the Torah, observe Shabbat, and keep the tradition alive — something that so many people didn’t have the opportunity to do.”

Debra Kodish, Meor’s executive vice president, said that the trip to Poland “is in line with our mission to educate students to care about their Judaism and be passionate about who they are, where they come from, and where they’re going.”

Joshua Burshtein, an NYU freshman from Saddle River, went into the trip (along with his twin brother, Aaron, also an NYU freshman) quite knowledgeable about his family’s past.

“My family is from the former Soviet Union, specifically Ukraine and Belarus, and they have recounted terrible stories to me,” Mr. Burshtein said. “The treatment of Jews and other minorities is widely talked about, but now is seen as a statistic, not an actual event.”

Going to Poland helped him grasp “that each and every person, not only Jewish, had their own journey through that period,” he said. “We met an Auschwitz survivor named Leslie, who told us his story. All of those six million Jews who died had their own story about being ripped apart from families and shot or gassed to death. I realized that it isn’t just a statistic; it is the personal account of 6 million Jews.”

Mr. Burshtein said that the message he brought home “is to follow the principles of the Jewish people — kindness to all, loving my family and friends, helping those around me, and working hard in everything I do. I have a purpose in life to promote happiness, peacefulness, and health to all of those around me. Remembering those who gave their lives is the first step to living a life with an intention to be better tomorrow than I was today.”

Rabbi Lynn said that this is a typical reaction. “For me, going to Poland is a trip about life, about the future of the Jewish people and about how we live our lives right now,” he said. “If the students come back depressed and sad, I would consider myself a failure as an educator.”

The other Bergen County participants were Benjamin Gera of Closter, a student at Stanford University; Tal Ben-Gera of Closter, a Rutgers student; Miles Cutler of Fair Lawn, who studies at Binghamton, and Kim Preminger of Ridgewood, whose school is George Washington University.

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