Often times relating to the dead is an incredibly difficult task. Being in Poland for 10 days last summer I felt this struggle very closely. I was in a place with such a tragically rich Jewish history, which naturally made me feel thousands of emotions all at once. I felt sad, scared, disappointed, and even disgusted.
I had the opportunity to visit various concentration camps, ghettos, the umschlagplatz, and other important historical landmarks of the Holocaust. The touring I did was very informative and helped paint a better and more full picture of the holocaust. Perhaps my most memorable experience was visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. My Kvutza had the opportunity to tour the site with a Holocaust survivor named Marta Wise, who had survived her stay at Auschwitz-Birkenau at age 10. We gathered in a room that held the famous picture of children behind barbed wire, and Marta pointed out which child was her. I actually have a picture at home of her pointing to herself in the picture as she told us.
One internal struggle I kept having was my inability to relate to those who lived during the Holocaust. I
wasn’t able to put myself in their shoes or begin to understand what they went through because the
Holocaust was such an unbelievable tragedy. This was a problem for me because the expressed goal of this Poland trip was to better understand the Holocaust and I found that I was understanding less and becoming more confused. I couldn’t relate to any part of the Holocaust. I was understanding the general plot better, but I’ve never experienced the type of hatred to that tremendous scale, so understanding
motives and ideologies became increasingly difficult. I really tried to connect to it. But connecting to the deceased is an incredibly difficult task.
The most meaningful part of the Poland trip, for me, came immediately after we landed in Israel for a 6 week Ramah Seminar experience. We went straight to the Kotel from the airport. As I first sighted the Kotel from a distance I didn’t really think much of it. I’d been here before and I’d seen all the pictures.
But as I inched closer and closer to the wall and then finally touched it I started to tear. It was then that I realized that I could connect to the Holocaust through the state of Israel. I wasn’t crying because I was sad about the Holocaust or because I had finally reached one of the holiest sites in the world. No. I was crying because I finally was able to relate to those who perished. For me the Kotel linked the present to the past.
The Jews of the Holocaust also had Zionist hopes. They died before having the opportunity to go to Israel. Although not every Jew back then, or even now, believes and longs for a Jewish state, Israel became a common ground between me and the victims of the holocaust. In fact, it was then that Israel became something that made me feel much more connected to every Jew, because Israel is a constant in a religion that is so diverse. In other words, everyone does Judaism differently but Israel is this “thing” that unites us all.
In addition to this, spending time in Poland helped me understand that being in Israel is an incredible privilege. It is a privilege that 6 million Jews did not get to live to obtain. This mindset helped me spend my time in Israel to the fullest, exploring with great curiosity and ambition. In a way, my connection to those who perished was the impetus that pushed me to use my time in Israel to the fullest.