November 24, 2013
A change of atmosphere was glaringly obvious the day after we visited the first death camp- Madjanek. A somber gloominess hovered over the group after our visit to the ‘Kingdom of Death’. Vivid images of the horrors experienced by our people stuck poignantly and stubbornly in our minds, making us look forward to the reprieve that Shabbat would offer.
We began Thursday with a long bus trek south from Lublin to Krakow. After our experience at Madjanek, most of us felt slightly more prepared for the horror that lay ahead of us at Belzec. But as we disembarked from the bus, the prospect of being exposed to further atrocities became more daunting.
Mist smothered the grey town of Belzec, and invasive fumes emitted from a nearby factory left a strangely eerie fog over the camp. Despite there being no physical remnants of the camp, the death factory had a profound affect on me. Before us stood a mass grave marked by rocks, split only in the middle by a descending ‘Schlüss’ (tube). We followed the same steps of the 500, 000 people who were led to the gas chambers down this path.
Upon arrival, the Jews were manipulated into a sense of calm by 30 SS guards, 80 Ukrainians and 600-800 Sonderkommando Jews. The Nazi officials went to great lengths to establish notions of hope that these people would return home and be re-united with their families. But in reality, there would be no chance to say goodbye. This ultimate deception disgusted me to my core. Our tour guide David repeated throughout the tour- “There is a line between hope and illusion…”
The victims of Belzec were forced to undress, and the guards used whips and bayonets to force them down the winding path to the ‘showers’. The running engine of carbon monoxide was blocked out by the camp orchestra. It reminded me of my great uncle Ernest who played in Auschwitz. These monsters were given absolute freedom to exact relentless cruelty on the INNOCENT. Not guilty; but innocent.
The purpose of Belzec was not for labour, or profit, but for the extermination of the Jews. Astonishingly, only 2 people survived the camp- both escaped the train on arrival.
In the moments before death, an instinctive futile struggle to evade the gas on the floor of the chamber replaced ones humanity. On top of the mangled bodies of skeletons lay the strongest men, below them the elderly, women and children, and on the floor of the chamber lay the infants. Jewish dentist Sonderkommandos were tasked with the worst job- searching through the bodies for golden teeth, which were to be melted into ingots and sold, and burning/burying the bodies of their brothers. Even after death the Nazi’s stole from us.
The town of Belzec was not oblivious to what was happening- human fat from cremated bodies layered the windows of the town. But nothing was done to stop these atrocities. In the space of 7 months, half a million Jews were murdered and the camp was shut down.
At the end of this path stood a wall of remembrance, and spread across lay an abundance of familiar and foreign names; the names relatives, the names of my friends, the name of my great uncle who perished. My name.
As dusk began to fall upon Poland, we were led to a secluded location in a small town’s parking lot. The significance of this place was unclear to us all until Gabi Levy notified us that this was the grave of the great Rabbi EliMelech! We sang and danced, celebrating his life of chesed. While some wrote notes of prayer that were to be placed on the grave, others prayed silently. Hundreds of Jews across the nation travelled to the great Rabbi’s grave to wish for the miraculous, so we felt honored to be there.
An ominous tone followed us into the Polish forest. The deeper we delved, the darker it became. We were all very appreciative to have Big Mike the Polish bodyguard with us. As night fell, the black silhouettes of trees outlined the star-filled sky. If not for it’s historical events, the place could have been beautiful and serene.
We stood before a pit where 800 children were brutally murdered, their childhoods stolen from them. Kites, dolls and flowers decorated the grass. It was incredibly challenging to deal with the fact that below us lay the bodies of hundreds of Jewish children.
Rabbi Benji’s words echoed through the silent forest and carried with them a significant message. When these children’s lives were ruthlessly cut short, so were the lives of millions of future Jews. Yet today, 50% of us will choose to marry out and assimilate. It challenged my previous perceptions of the importance of this. For the sake of Jewish continuity, Benji posed a question- what will you do with your Judaism? We concluded by screaming into the sky and shaking the heavens with three repetitions of “AM YISRAEL CHAI!”. I felt empowered by these words as we were paying tribute to those whose lives were cut short! After one final exclamation, our echoes faded away into the darkness, and we walked back to the buses in silence.
When we sat down on the bus, we each received a letter written by our parents. The letter from my father made me feel so fortunate to have stability, guidance and love in my life. Having been in the children’s forest, witnessing the great loss of life, I took out my phone and returned their message, thankful they had raised me Jewish.