I Remember

About this time five years ago I was sitting on a plane on my way to Poland. I was a junior in high school, and had been studying in Israel for the past four months. The trip was part of our Jewish history program- we’d been learning the history of our people from pre-biblical times all the way up until the 1940’s. And while Jewish history has always had it’s magnificent ups and terrifying downs, things were about to get very, very sad.

I’d like to point out that Poland is a very lovely country. It’s full of cute villages and charming cities and museums and interesting people and cool places to visit.

I experienced pretty much none of that.

The train tracks leading in to Auschwitz.
I'm holding hands with a friend, walking on the tracks.
We landed in Poland very late at night, and I feel like we spent the whole week in darkness, though it’s possible I’m projecting. The week was sad. Unbelievably sad. Sad in ways that I didn’t even know were possible.

Most of the trip is honestly a blur to me. We visited Auschwitz and Berkenau. We went to Lublin forest and visited synagogues that had been destroyed. We saw towns that had been brought to ruins and barely managed to survive. We saw statue after statue, and museums that hid in alleyways, almost embarrassed of the things that they held.

We prayed in the woods where our people had been dumped in ditches. We sang songs in temples where horses had been kept, out of pure spite. We danced in village squares, and ate cheese sandwich after cheese sandwich on buses and on whatever small patches of grass we could find.

We sat on the bus and watched Schneider’s List. I cuddled in to my friend and tried not to cry. I cried a lot.

We read Night, by Elie Wiesel, as we made our journey. I cried even more.

The trip was overwhelmingly emotional. Even now, thinking of it, I’m stuck in a sort of sensory overload. I remember being bitterly cold- the coldest I’ve ever been, and being surrounded by people I felt so much warmth for, in places that made me feel like I could never feel again.

I remember a pierogi restaurant in the middle of Warsaw. Crowded in with people I loved and people I had never met. Tables overflowing with food we had somehow ordered in a language we didn’t speak, and candles lighting up a room that seemed much too small to contain everyone inside of it.  

I remember standing in Lublin forest, surrounded by trees that had concealed some of the most horrific atrocities the world has ever seen. We held hands and sang H’Tikvah, wishing for hope in places where hope had been afraid to live. As we sang it started to snow.
Auschwitz, in the cold and the snow

I remember walking through the gates of Auschwitz, holding hands as tight as we could. The term ‘never forget’ has become somewhat of a motto to a Jewish people, but after the things I saw that day, I don’t
understand how anyone ever could.

I remember running through village squares, giggling and singing silly Hebrew songs. I remember being desperately happy, because it seemed like it was the best way to honor everything we had seen.

Before we arrived at the gates of Auschwitz, each of us received a letter our parents had sent. Mine was from my father, who had staffed a trip for high schoolers who were visiting Poland and making their way towards Israel to spend a summer touring and exploring.

“…But, somewhat to my surprise, I was very optimistic when I left Berkenau.” my father wrote “Why? I think it was because of my traveling companions- a busload of young NFTY [North American Federation of Temple Youth; the Reform Jewish youth group] kids. I felt optimistic despite all the horrors, because I was surrounded by young Jews who were there precisely because of their commitment to, and concern for, Judaism.”

At the Warsaw Ghetto wall
I was there with people who cared very much and very deeply about the continuation of the Jewish people. I was there with people who wanted to sing songs and learn history. I was there with people who would eat perogies in Warsaw and cry in the forest and pray in the places where prayer had been banned from ever being heard.

That trip did more to my emotions than almost any other experience in my life, and while I don’t look back on it fondly, I look back on it proudly. I don’t know if I’ll ever make my way back to Poland. I hope so. I don’t want to base my entire memory of a country off of the memories I made there when I was sad and 16.

But, at least for now, that week stands out in my memory. As a week where I learned and cried and lived not just because I could, but as an act of defiance. And I think I’m proud of that. 

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