Personal reflections on my journey to Poland
By Stephanie Hodes
A few weekends ago, I participated in Inspired TLV’s journey to Poland. Visiting the sites of some of our darkest moments in Jewish history has been something I have wanted to do for a long time, but never quite found the right moment to do it. Most likely because making that decision is hard enough. How do you convince yourself to spend a weekend in a place that you know will be so emotionally trying? And if planning a weekend abroad, why not book a ticket to somewhere exciting like Florence or Paris and go indulge in all that these beautiful cities have to offer?
I am going to start off by saying, that this trip was a lot harder than I could have possibly imagined, and I came back feeling utterly devastated, heartbroken – and to some extent, traumatised.
The book of Hasidim talks about how physical places absorb the energy of events that occur in them. If something positive happened, a place will always feel joyous, but if something terrible happened, it will be doomed with energies that reek of pain, suffering or sadness. On moments during the trip, when I could not stand to look anymore, I would close my eyes hoping that my mind would show me something more positive and give me the boost of strength I so badly needed to process what I was seeing. However, closing my eyes didn’t make things go away; it’s not like watching a scary movie and covering your eyes just as something terrible is about to happen and when you open them it’s over. With my eyes closed, my senses were heightened and from deep within, I felt just how dark, cold and evil the ground was beneath my feet. There was no silence, only the distant, soul-wrenching sounds of screaming, weeping, and unanswered prayers.
“Feeling” was even more terrifying than “seeing”.
Day 1 – Majdanek
Majdanek is positioned in the city of Lublin; residents drive by daily on their way to work and this former concentration camp is in plain sight for all to see. It is the most well-preserved of the camps and remains today pretty much as it did in 1944 when it was liberated by the Soviet Army. While Majdanek is less spoken about than Auschwitz, it was in no way less horrific. It is estimated that 360,000 people were murdered there, 125,000 of them Jewish and the remainder Poles or Soviet prisoners of war.
The barracks housing rows of triple layer bunk beds, the showers that either released ice cold or scorching hot water to ensure there was absolutely no pleasure in taking a shower, and the room filled with thousands of pairs of shoes – mans’ most personal item, are just a few of the spine chilling things one will find at Majdanek. When walking into the gas chamber, my breath immediately caught in my throat. The gas chambers were not rooms that by default were filled with gas. They were meticulously thought-out and designed with the sole intent to kill as many as possible as fast as possible, right down to the smallest detail. One of the first things you will notice is that the door opens outwards instead of inwards, as human instinct had frantic victims trying to break the door open when they realised what was about to happen and resulted in piles of corpses next to the door making it extremely difficult to open from the outside. The low ceilings of the gas chambers are not found anywhere else in the camp. The gas chamber inter-leads with the crematorium, complete with an en-suite bathroom where Nazi officers often bathed next to burning corpses as this was considered by far the warmest place during the winter.
As we exited the crematorium, we were confronted by a large concrete monument which houses a monstrous pile of ash. Here lie the remains of our dear brothers and sisters, their bodies reduced to mere ashes. Stripped of their dignity, clothes, hair and teeth; robbed of their possessions, forced into slave labour, forced to watch their relatives die and children torn away from them, and at the very end not even afforded a decent burial. They lie there on display for all to see – and all we could do was say Kaddish (the prayer for the dead).
Day 2 – Belzec
There is very little that remains of this Extermination Camp – in fact there wasn’t a whole lot to begin with. Jews were transported by freight trains and traveled for hours or even days under intolerable conditions. Many died en-route. Upon arrival, they were told that they had arrived in a transit camp in order to be disinfected and showered. Men and women were separated; all were told to remove their clothing and were forced to hand over their valuables. Thereafter they were sent straight to the gas chambers. The whole process took between 60 and 90 minutes. 600,000 Jews were murdered at Belzec, and there are only two known survivors who managed to escape into the surrounding woods. Had they not escaped and given their testimonies, we would never have known about the atrocities committed. One of the most powerful moments of this entire journey was walking down the snow-filled pathway to the memorial wall at Belzec singing somberly and unanimously:
– גם כי אלך בגיא צלמות לא אירא רע כי אתה עמדי –
“Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no harm, for You are at my side”
We grappled a lot with the concept of faith in G-d during the Holocaust, finding it harder by the moment to believe how Holocaust victims who lived through the worst degradations and pain retained theirs. A German prison guard was asked how he knew when everyone in the gas chamber was dead, to which he responded, “It was when I stopped hearing the words Shema Yisrael“.
Motzei Shabbat – Buczyna Forest
After an uplifting and inspiring Shabbat (Sabbath) filled with song, stories and a walking tour of the Jewish quarter of Krakow, we were instructed to dress warmly and get on to the bus for a night activity. 1.5 hours later we arrived at what appeared to be a very affluent Polish neighbourhood and started walking through its streets until we eventually arrived at a forest. It was pitch dark, bitterly cold and wolves could be heard howling in the distance. We walked down a dirt path and then finally turned left into a field and arrived at a sectioned off area decorated by balloons, candles and an Israeli flag.
We were then told that we were standing next to a mass grave where 800 children from the nearby town of Tarnow were brutally murdered in the middle of the night at the hands of Germans soldiers – hearts hardened against the children’s humanity by years of incessantly messaged hate. We stood there teary eyed and shaking from the cold, picturing young children, perhaps siblings, holding hands. Helpless. Scared. Crying for their mothers. In that forest. In that very spot. We could do nothing but pray for their souls. This was undeniably the most disturbing aspect of my entire experience, but powerful beyond imagination and speaking volumes about the importance of Jewish continuity.
Day 3 – Auschwitz-Birkenau
We were told of a story about a how a survivor of the Holocaust who was transported from Majdanek to Auschwitz, got off the train and kissed the ground upon arrival at the camp. At a first glance, I could understand why. The former military compound, in stark contrast to Majdanek, is organised into clear sections with sturdy structures, a post office, kitchen and medical barracks. Undoubtedly the largest and most notorious of all the Nazi death camps, Auschwitz was equipped with several extermination facilities and 1,100,000 Jews were murdered by means of Zyklon B gas. In its museum today, you will find 100,000 pairs of shoes, 12,000 kitchen utensils, 3,800 suitcases and 350 striped camp garments and millions of items of clothing that once belonged to men, women and children. One of the most harrowing sights is a room containing 6,350kg of human hair that had been destined for factories where it would have been woven into fabric for carpets, work clothes and for car seats.
Visiting Birkenau isn’t like a museum. You are mostly left on your own with your thoughts. Left to take it all in and try to make sense of what took place here. It is vast – spanning over nearly 2 Kilometres with over 200 buildings, and honestly too much to possibly comprehend. Most of its structures lie in heaps of bricks as buildings were torn down, blown up or set on fire, and records were destroyed by Nazis desperately trying to hide evidence of their crimes pending the end of the war. But it is increasingly evident that this place is an emblem of evil, a site of historical remembrance and a vast cemetery.
Although there is a lot more I still want to share, I am going to end this post by saying that this experience changed my life. I am in complete awe how anybody survived those places under the most untenable conditions, and I have nothing but admiration for the resilience of our precious Holocaust survivors who walked through hell and emerged to tell their stories in order to ensure that the world will never forget. I am still processing a lot of emotions, fighting off bouts of anger, uncontrollable sadness and teary moments, but I am immensely thankful for the opportunity to have experienced this with an amazing group of young professionals from all over the world, led by Rabbi Avi Hill, Rabbi Ilan Segal and Rabbi Raphael Raiton who took us to the darkest of places and showed us the most beautiful light through their love for Judaism, Torah and song. They always had a positive message to lift our spirits, teaching us to value and appreciate life through the hardest of lessons. The impact of embarking on this journey with a group, as opposed to alone was immense and I urge anyone with enough courage to join the next Inspired TLV journey to Poland for a truly meaningful and life-changing experience.
About the Author:
Stephanie Hodes made aliyah from Johannesburg in 2011 with a background in Journalism, Jewish communal leadership. Today, she lives in Tel Aviv and runs a hi-tech recruitment company focusing on placing English and foreign language speakers in Israel with top Israeli companies.