Yom HaShoah 2015 – Josh Altman

Thirteen. In Christianity, thirteen is considered an unlucky number because the thirteenth apostle to arrive at the Last Supper, Judas Iscariot, betrayed Jesus. In Shiite Islam, thirteen is the day of Imam Ali’s birth in the month of Rajab, while in Judaism, thirteen is a holy number because that is the age at which a child celebrates his/her bar/bat mitzvah and becomes an adult. In my family, thirteen represents life.

This past summer I participated in USY’s Eastern Europe and Israel summer program. As we drove through the Lodz Ghetto, heading towards the local Chabad for dinner, many of us were unconnected to this specific city. While others had links to Berlin, Lublin, or Warsaw, this area and I had a special connection. Growing up I had often seen the places in Lodz, prior to its becoming a Ghetto, in black and white pictures. Stories were told by members of my family who lived there until 1935 and about how they tried to come to America, but decided on Zionism and Palestine instead.

When I read the itinerary for the summer prior to the trip and saw that I was going to Lodz, I knew this was my chance, my chance to finally connect with a grandfather I was not fortunate enough to meet.

On July 8, during a 7hr bus ride from Berlin to Lodz, I mentioned to our tour guide that my family grew up in Lodz, and that I was wondering if it was possible to drive past the spot where they lived. After giving him the address of their apartment and the theater that they owned, he responded that he would try his best to get me there. After returning to my seat, I realized how much of a long shot it would be that the group was going to be near a specific address in one of the largest cities in Poland. After arriving in Lodz, we disembarked from the bus in the town square, and I was called to the front of the group. My tour guide informed me that we would be walking past the address of the theater on our way to dinner, and that he wanted me to speak to the group about my family’s history in Lodz. I told him that I was apprehensive about speaking to the group because there wasn’t much to tell, and that I was scared that the rest of the group would get mad at me for delaying dinner. But, to no avail, he shrugged off my troubles and told me that I would do fine.

As we drove through the Lodz Ghetto, heading towards the local Chabad for dinner, we passed 89 Pomorska, the address where my grandfather and his sisters grew up. And although this may seem cliché, I felt a connection, even if it momentarily existed, it was there. I felt ties to my grandfather, his two sisters, their parents, aunts uncles and cousins, many of whom, perished in the Holocaust. Afterwards, we continued towards 13 Pomorska, the address of the theater they owned. There, I found the courage I needed, and spoke of my family’s history in Lodz.

My mother’s father, his two sisters, and their parents lived on 89 Pomorska. They owned a theater on 13 Pomorska, which was successful, until the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930’s. During that time, as their business began to fail, they looked towards the U.S., where some family members were already living, and hoped to emigrate there. With little success, they turned to Palestine, and became a Zionist family.

Although the experiences of the individuals in the Holocaust were not always as clear as cause and effect; for my family it was. Their business failed, so they left, and because of that they survived. They were also able to leave with their possessions some of which we have today: a Mishnah from the mid-1800s with family names, school report cards in Polish and Hebrew, and many pictures of pre-war Lodz.

Throughout my childhood of learning about the horrors of the Holocaust, I understood and knew that it was a terrible, horrifying event for the people that were forced to suffer through it. I viewed it as a black and white scenario: the Nazis were bad, and many Jews suffered. Six million was a number, but since I did not come from a survivor family, I had no real connection to the people involved. However, this summer, after walking through my first camp, Tereisenstadt, I realized, for the first time, what actually happened in the Holocaust. And although I still pictured it as black and white in my mind, I saw for that the people who were persecuted were normal individuals, like you and I. They were not superheroes, nor were then born under any special circumstances.

They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

After walking through Tereisenstadt, we stopped at a secluded shack within the ghetto. After walking around in the limited space available, we thought that there was nothing special about the concrete room. However, we were wrong. Hidden in the front of the room, covered in dust and barely legible was a Psalm. This took our breath away.

No one said anything for the longest time, then slowly we began joining together in singing the song Achienu, “our brothers”. At first we sang softly, but then began increasing the volume as more and more people joined in. We didn’t shout, but rather sang loudly, for the people who could not, for the people who had to daven in secrecy in fear of getting caught. This was the first time our group, who came from cities across the United States and Canada, was a kehillah, a community.

Time and time again, as our trip took us from ghetto to camp, we were forced to deal with the death and destruction we witnessed by coming together as a community.

One of our greatest challenges took place in the Lodz ghetto. We entered a cattle car and though we were only 46 people, we were still crowded. I was a breezy day, the sun was shining and yet, there was no air in the car, only thick silence. I wrote in my journal that day: “I am completely dumbfounded. My body is still and numb. There is really nothing to say.” In most entries, I tried to speak about how we came together as a community and opposed the atrocities. But for this one, we could not. We could not contain our emotions; we were distraught, overwhelmed, and some people could not even manage to stay inside the cattle car.

After that experience, I feared that the Nazis had really won; that they were able to destroy the new community formed by a group of traveling Jewish teens. After walking through the horrors hidden away in the Majdanek concentration camp, my group and I were stunned. We could no longer bear to continue. We were told that the camp had been left in its original state from the war, but that did not matter. It was raining but nobody noticed. We were broken, tired, and in need of rest. As we made our way from the gas chambers to the ash memorial in the center of the camp, we saw a group of Orthodox boys, who were spending their summer the same way we were. Without any introductions, they grabbed our hands and began to dance and sing “Shir Yerushalim”.

We had never met them, and even though there is sometimes tension between the Conservative and Orthodox communities, we were tied together by a common goal. To show the world that the Nazi’s did not win, and that Jews all over the world, regardless of race, background and religious affiliation, must stand together, remember, and educate others about the evils that occurred to the Jews in the Holocaust.