We woke up not-so-bright but very early in the town of Lublin and went downstairs for a special birthday breakfast for Tammi and Erin before we set out on our journey for the day. Driving through the streets of Lublin, our tour guides told us of the rich history of the Jews of Lublin, and how it was the center of world Jewry, making the annihilation of this community all the more tragic.
We drove the short journey to Yeshivat Chochmei Lublin, and with much anticipation, walked inside the Yeshiva. As we took our seats in the old Shule, Gilad and Avichai, our resident musicians, began to play the song Ashira LaHashem on their guitars, and within seconds, the whole room had erupted with the sounds of our voices as we chanted this beautiful song. The walls echoed our prayer, and it was as if they were singing with us.
Before we began the Shacharit service, Tzachi, one of our tour guides, shared some of the history of the Yeshiva with us. The Yeshiva was established in 1930 by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Shapira, and soon people from all around the world came to study and learn there. From six in the morning until eleven at night around 400 people studied the ancient Jewish texts - the power of the Jews was and still is, our knowledge and our endless learning. In 1939 the library of this Yeshiva was ransacked, and all it’s books were taken outside and burnt. They were burnt in the parking lot where our bus was parked. This marked the death of the once thriving learning center. Saddly the students were deported to Belzec.
Rabbi Benji then led us in the Shacharit service, and it was incredible to daven in a place that had such a rich spiritual history, a place that was once thriving with the words of Torah. As we said the Shema, we were all able to bring back a little bit of the spark that once was, and stand up and raise our voices for our people, for our past, present and future. Avichai, one of our Madrichim, shared a powerful idea with us about the first six words of the Amidah: “Adonai Sephatai Tiftach, U'fi Yagid Tehilatecha” (My lord, open my lips, so that my mouth may declare your praise.) Sometimes we don’t know how to speak to Hashem, or what to say, especially standing and witnessing the remains of the horrors afflicted on our people, but it is important to know that this is alright, that we can’t always speak to Him, that sometimes we need His help to open our lips, to open our hearts.
Then, because it was a Thursday, we had the privilege of hearing the Torah read in this place that was once the heart of Judaism. We heard one final idea from Rav Chaim Soloveichik before leaving the Yeshiva; whose grave we visited on our first day in Poland. He speaks about how everyone, no matter how many sins they have committed, can return to G-d through doing Teshuvah, because everyone and everything on this earth has a spark of holiness in it. There was a real sense of our unity as a Jewish people and as a tour group as we left this beautiful Yeshiva and got onto the
buses, ready for our next destination, Majdanek.
Majdanek. It was as if we were driving down Old South Head Rd, and turning into Christianson Park. That’s how close Majdanek was to the city and to the main road. A vast green expanse awaited us, and I could only imagine how scarily pretty it would have looked in the summer, the grass vibrant and colourful. The first thing we saw was the big stone monument, up on the top of the hill at the entrance to the camp. We walked down a ramp, then up steep stairs under the monument, prompting us to question, ‘How does the weight of memory sit on your shoulders? How will this memory impact who you are? What is our role in passing on the memory of the Holocaust?’ The first thing that struck me was the close proximity of surrounding houses to the barracks. The camp was so close to where people lived, so close to the train station, there was no way the atrocities in the camp could have gone unnoticed by the outside world. How? All I could think to myself was how could this actually be real? We stood dead silent as our tour guides taught us some of the history and workings of Majdanek. Everybody simply looked around completely bewildered, unwilling to believe that what we were hearing had actually happened right where we were standing.
We walked along the gravel path in silence, the only sound was the shuffling of 160 pairs of shoes on the ground. Looking to my right I could see the city, a main road and houses, and to my left, barracks. Big, black wooden barracks that stood amidst the green grass. All I could think about was the horrors that had occurred inside of them. It was the disinfection room that we visited first, and our tour guides told us of the atrocities that occurred inside this place. People were shaven, and along with their hair, they lost their dignity, their humanity, all where we were standing. Not one word was uttered as we stood in that room, and slowly, slowly, we walked towards another room. The blue hue of Zyklon B coated the walls of the room that was later used as a gas chamber. The pain and sadness of each and every one of us was palpable. I cannot even begin to put into words how it felt to stand in that room, to look around and try to barely conceive of the agony experienced and felt by our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers-our people. I ran my hands against the wall and could feel the scratches made by people trying to do anything to save themselves in the last seconds of their lives. I could hear them, the scraping of their agonised fingernails against the stone walls. Scraping, scraping, trying to escape their fate. Rabbi Benji began to sing the words of Avinu Malkeinu, softly, softly, until everyone joined in and sang so loudly, with so much passion and so much pain, we sang for the people whose voices had been silenced prematurely. With heavy hearts we left the barracks, all of us comforting one another as tears streamed down our faces and our hearts hammered in our chests.
We walked in silence towards another bunker, and my breath left my lungs as I saw rows and rows of shoes. 460000 pairs of shoes were in that room. A sick feeling settled in my stomach. So many times we’d been shown photos like this in school, in movies, but now it was right in front of us. So many shoes. So many people. There were male shoes and female shoes, and baby shoes. Most were grey but some were white, some were black. Each shoe had a story, each shoe had an owner, and each owner had a family and a life. The next barrack was still intact with what could only be loosely called as bunk beds, but were really wooden frames with material on the bottom. As I stood shivering in my subzero temperature ski jacket, I thought of the temperatures these people suffered in with only their flimsy camp uniform, and I felt so grateful for everything that I had.
We walked to a patch of grass in between the crematorium and the mausoleum. We were told that 18400 people were murdered on one day a few meters away from where we were standing. Sick does not even begin to explain how I felt. The extent of human cruelty and barbarity in such a place was truly unimaginable. Alone we walked into the crematorium, and all of us were completely shaken, everyone wanting to leave and never come back. Slowly we made the steep descent into the mausoleum, again, a metaphor for the weight of memory, and as I got to the top I felt as if someone had ripped my lungs out of my chest. Ashes. Bones. All piled up. So many. So many. I could never begin to explain to you how it felt, or what was going through my mind as I stood up there, looking at the bones and ashes of my people, but all I know is that I, and I know all of my peers, will do everything in our power to make sure nothing like this happens ever again. Because, as inscribed on the mausoleum, we must "Let their memories be a warning." As we walked towards the buses and set out to leave this hell, we all knew of the weight of our exit. We could leave, and they could not. This incredible responsibility that we now bear on our shoulders belongs to each and every one of us that visited this hell today. We must never forget. We must make sure that nothing like this ever happens again. And, most importantly, we must honour their lives by making ours meaningful and worthwhile, and bettering the world around us.
About two hours into our journey to Lezanjsk my bus started singing out of nowhere. All of a sudden, we were having a full blown tish in the back of the bus. The ruach was insane. After such an emotional morning, we let it all out in our song, celebrating the little things of what it means to be Jewish. I've been to a fair share of tishs in my life, and yet this spontaneous tish in the back of a bus in the middle of Poland was by far the best.
We arrived at the grave of Rav Elimelech of Lezanjsk, and no one really knew what to expect. All of our Madrichim had raved about the holiness of the site, how incredible it was, but it all seemed a little bit far-fetched to me. Wow, I was wrong. Never in the sixteen years that I've been alive have I ever experienced anything like what I experienced tonight. To even begin to put into words what happened in that Ohel is practically impossible, and I have no idea if I'll ever be able to. We walked into the Ohel and I thought I'd leave in ten minutes, completely unchanged. Jonty told us of how his wife Abi had prayed to find a husband at the grave, knowing of the holiness attached to it, and a year to the day, her and Jonty were married. The story was amazing, and brought a massive smile to my face, but I was still not convinced, stuff happens like that all the time. We davened Maariv, and we all tried to pray with a bit more kavana than usual, and the atmosphere in the room began to heat up. Then Dani Sussman told us the most incredible story. She spoke of how she had prayed for three people when she visited this grave four years ago, and how everything she had prayed for had come true, with tears in her eyes, and the most raw devotion and gratitude to Hashem I have ever seen, and not only now was Dani crying, but pretty much the entire girl section, all of us with tears streaming down our faces at the beauty of her words. With Dani's story fresh in our minds, we made a circle and in unison, began to sing Shema Koleinu. The lights were switched off and everybody got louder and louder. As I stood against the wall I could hear the passion in everyone's voices as they prayed for loved ones. Tears running down my face I held onto my peers, clinging to them for support as the words of the song filled me with hope and sadness. It's weird to say that I poured my heart out to Hashem, but I did. All my hopes and fears, dreams and anxieties I let out, singing and praying with so much emotion my body was shaking, and I know so many others did too. We sang Tov Lehodot, expressing our gratitude to Hashem for everything we have, remembering to not dwell on the sad aspects of our lives, but to celebrate and thank G-d for the amazing things we have too. We all stood, and we could hear the sounds of sobs racking the bodies of the people surrounding us, and it was so overwhelmingly beautiful I cannot even begin to describe it. Rabbi Benji informed us of the two terror attacks that occurred today in Israel, our true homeland, where we will be headed in 4 days, and we sang Acheinu. The words of the song rang clear with each and every one of us, as the walls vibrated with the power of our voices as we prayed for our brothers and sisters in Israel. Knowing that we would be in Israel so soon, in the Holy Land, especially over so much trepidation and tension over the past months, really added an extra level of kavana to the already overflowing pit of emotion and passion in the room. The singing ended, and we all had time to finish our conversation with Hashem. The electricity and power in the room had ceased to stop, and as I stood with my head against the wall of the Ohel of a great Tzaddik, and prayed for my loved ones, I thought of how privileged I was to be a part of such an incredible nation, and on such an incredible trip. After two hours, reluctantly, my friend dragged me out of the room (I could of stayed there for ten more hours) and I was left with an indescribable feeling of inspiration and awe. Shaking with the sheer spirituality and holiness of what I had just experienced, I walked onto the bus, ready for the journey back to Kraków, knowing that tonight was something I will never ever forget.
So many ups and so many downs in one day, from the ruach in the Yeshiva to the depths of hell in Majdanek, and finally, to the heights of spirituality in Lejansk, today is a day that I doubt will leave our minds and hearts for a very long time, if at all.