Thursday, June 27, 2019

Greetings from Poland!

It’s with a heavy heart that I address you from land that has seen millions of Jews simply murdered in cold blood from the face of the earth. Part of me didn’t want to make this trip and see the worst part of our history up close and in person, just as part of me doesn’t want to observe Tisha B’av to mourn for our national tragedies. I then realized it was imperative to get a fuller understanding of our people’s story, and we must take an unpleasant look at the “hidden face of G-d.” These are some of the lessons I learned from spending four days in Poland.

Never Take Anything for Granted: It is hard to fathom the devastation until one actually gets here and gets to touch, feel, and breathe the reality of what occurred. In 1939, Warsaw was home to the second largest Jewish Community in the world with over 330,000 people and 800 synagogues. Today there are a tiny handful of Jews left with one remaining shul, and that is the one the Nazis chose not to destroy since it was used as a stable. Today it is once again a functional shul as I had the opportunity to participate in minyan there on Tuesday morning this week. Otherwise, the once vibrant and proud community has all but disappeared. The rich and meaningful Jewish life that was woven into the history of Poland goes back nearly a thousand years. There were great moments for the Jewish People in Poland as well. In fact, a few centuries earlier, Poland was seen as a place of refuge for Jews escaping from persecution in Western Europe. There was official Jewish representation in the Polish parliament including chasidic representatives as late as the 1920’s. Well, things can change pretty quickly as the lessons from the 1930’s taught us. The fact that a nation that was benevolent to the Jews for centuries now has over three million Jews’ blood-soaked in its soil should cause us to pause and reflect.

I Was There: We live in a time when the Holocaust survivors among us are fading away. There are fewer and fewer survivors among the living who will be able to look into the eyes of the uneducated and skeptics and say, “I was there. I experienced the hells of Auschwitz-Birkenau and had my arm tattooed”. Soon we must grapple with the reality that there will not be any first-hand accounts. There are no substitutes for that. However, the next best thing may be a personal visit to the Nazi concentration and death camps. After I exited the crematorium in the Madajanek Concentration Camp, the tour guide bent down and picked up some bone fragments and some ash from the ground. We walked a little further and saw the memorial established at Madajanek, and there is a large mound with human ash still there. There may not be any living survivors around for much longer, but anybody that dares to visit Madajanek can look someone in the eyes and confidently say- I was there!

We Will Outlive Them: One of the towns we visited was Lublin, which was a citadel of Torah. The famed Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin headed by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the founder of Daf Yomi, was located there. There was a compelling story I heard from our tour guide, Rabbi Ilan Segal that I would like to share with you. One time prior to a group of Jews getting rounded up for being killed, the Nazi commander demanded that they start singing and dancing. At first, the Jews were in no mood to sing and dance and certainly in no mood to placate the sadistic Nazi. Soon the Jews started singing in Yiddish” מען וועט זיי איבערלעבען/ we will outlive them.” The song seems a little foolhardy as they were shortly put to their deaths. Yet, at a closer reflection after 75 years the Nazis have long been defeated, and the Jewish People in general and the Torah scholarship from Lublin with the Daf Yomi, in particular, has been growing in strength. Right up the road the in Krakow the Bais Yaakov movement was started by Sarah Schneir which now has tens of thousands of girls and young women in its thriving educational network. It’s seventy-five years later, where you might ask are the Nazis today that taunted the Jews in Lublin that day? Relegated to the dustbin of history. We have outlived them after all. Am Yisroel Chai!

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