Lublin and Majdanek
One of my favorite parts of the Jewish prayer service is אלו דברים שאין להם שיעור elu dvarim sh-eyn lehem shiur, the passage that declares that the study of Torah is equal to all of one’s good deeds and righteous acts combined. Jewish Lublin embodies this quotation. The renowned Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva is the essence of this prayer. In Judaism, the study of Torah is never meant to be an end unto itself. One does not study Torah just for the sake of learning, but because the wisdom imparted from studying Jewish texts serves as basis for all that we do in this world. The brightest Torah scholars from all over Europe came to study in Lublin because of its outstanding reputation as a center for Jewish learning. At EIE, our visit to the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva is not just an acknowledgment of its former glory, it is a chance to recreate the atmosphere of Jewish learning that pervaded its halls. We chose to study in particular this day a Talmudic passage from Tractate Sanhedrin dealing with the eternal question: what is more important, study or action? We read it aloud, we argue, we debate, and through it all we realize that this was the sound that was heard in these hallowed halls for the all-too-brief decade that the yeshiva existed in the 1930s. The flame of scholarship that was kindled here by its founder rabbi Meir Shapiro is still burning brightly today in the form of the Daf Yomi system, the one-page-of-Talmud-a-day method that has swept across the Jewish world inspiring generations of Jews to explore the infinite wisdom of the Talmud, the central pillar of Judaism.
I have never met Halina Birnbaum, but I know that I have a lot to thank her for. A Holocaust survivor who had her entire world taken from her at a young age, she found the courage to rebuild her life, and even more to publish her personal story in the gripping book Hope Is The Last To Die. It is the perseverance and fortitude of people like her that have helped Am Yisrael emerge from the ashes of the Shoah. Halina Birnbaum was thirteen years old when she was sent to the Majdanek concentration camp; thirteen years old when she witnessed her mother and brother taken from her forever. It is her story that provides the backdrop for how I guide the students in Majdanek. It is thanks to her that I can read personal testimony about the most minute details of prisoner life here. And even so, Halina’s words barely scratch the surface of the unimaginable nightmare of life in this concentration camp. But after three hours of gloom, after finishing at the gas chamber and crematorium, I find my spirit lifted by the inspirational words and prayers of our students in the memorial ceremony that they have worked so hard to prepare. I don’t leave Majdanek despondent, but rather with my head held high knowing that these amazing teenagers are the future leaders of our people.
If the previous day of the Poland trip is the most intense, then day four in Krakow is lightest in terms of content connected to the Shoah. “Shul hopping” is what I like to call it. That is, visiting five different synagogues that in one way or another personified the pre-war Jewish community of Krakow. The beauty of Jewish Krakow is that it is hard to differentiate between myth and fact. Is it true that King Kasimir the Great had a young Jewish lover named Esther in 1300s (they were so in love that the king used a secret tunnel from Wawel Castle in order to meet her at night according to the legend)? Is it true that in the 1600s there was a rich miser in the community who was labeled with the unfortunate moniker “Mr. Olam HaBah” (meaning “Mr. Next World”) because everyone thought that his refusal to give any tzedakah was a sign that he was saving all his money to take with him the next world? (Only to discover after his death that all his life he was giving anonymously and never sought recognition for his generosity!) Is it true that once God himself made the Earth swallow up a wedding reception for continuing past sun down on a Friday and thus violating Shabbat? Indeed, Jewish Krakow straddles the fine line between myth and reality. The main question that I put to the students is what does the existence of all these myths and legends say about the Krakow Jewish community.
Unfortunately too many people get their impression of Jewish Krakow from the movie Schindler’s List which was filmed and takes place there. I believe, however, that the real story of Jewish Krakow is found in the multiple synagogues of Kazimersz, each one a testament in its own right to specific shade and layer of the once vibrant kehila. None more so than the Beit Knesset De Remu, the synagogue named for Jewish Krakow’s most revered 16th century scholar Rabbi Moshe Isserles, known as the Remu. His monumental halachic work known as the Mappa (the table cloth) became the concise halachic guide to Jewish practice for the entire Ashkenazi world, similar to what Yosef Karo’s Shulchan Aruch written in Tzfat did for the Sephardi world. In a time in which the observance of halacha was the backbone of all Jewish life, the Remu’s writings were indispensable to the perpetuation of the Jewish people. That’s why it’s so surprising to walk across the street and enter the Temple Synagogue, Krakow’s so-called Reform shul. I say Reform, but certainly nothing like we know the Reform movement today. In many ways, the Temple Synagogue more closely resembles what we call today Modern Orthodox. Whatever one wants to call it, it cannot be denied that the Temple Synagogue is spectacular in every respect: the ceiling, the windows, the bima, the ark, the décor, everything. Perhaps the most gratifying part of this day is that it is the students themselves who do the guiding. We have designed this “shul hopping” to me more of a self-guided scavenger hunt than just the teachers talking and explaining. From my perspective, it gives the students the chance to take ownership of the guiding and kind of do-it-themselves.
Even though this is a lighter activity than the other days of the trip, we cannot ignore the ultimate tragedy that befell the Jews of Krakow (that Schindler’s List does a great job of portraying). After learning about the Golden Age of Polish Jewry from the different batei Knesset, we silently walk across the bridge of the Vistula River retracing the steps that the Krakow Jews were forced to take when they were ordered out of their home and into the ghetto. It hardly needs to be explained. The students just get it, they know that we are transitioning from the lively atmosphere of “shul-hopping” to the seriousness of the Shoah. With a maturity beyond their years, they tackle the difficult topics of ghetto life and the excruciating dilemmas that those in the ghetto confronted on a daily basis. I am amazed at their ability to talk about the controversial actions and decisions of those in the ghetto in a non-judgmental way, not easy for anyone to do, let alone a teenager in today’s world 70 years removed from the Holocaust.
But Krakow has an uplifting story as well. The inspiring story of Oscar Schindler was destined to be told and shared with the world. The story of one man who defied history, who defied his time and circumstance. The heroic story of Oscar Schindler is just one example of over twenty two thousand righteous gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews. Although the factory itself has been transformed into an art school and gallery, the setting itself hasn’t changed, and neither has its significance. It is here that we share the unbelievable stories of Irena Sendler, the Danish underground, just a few striking instances when courageous people refused to give in to the evil and madness of the Nazis and look away indifferently from the atrocities, which is precisely what most their neighbors were doing at that time.
There is simply nothing to say that can adequately prepare one for a visit to Auschwitz. The size of Birkenau is incomprehensibly enormous. The staggering amount of people murdered is difficult to realize despite the number we attach to it. How do I find the right balance between the dry historical details and the personal stories when guiding? Standing on this cursed soil, we are required to use all of our senses to begin to understand where we are. Although the railroad tracks went quiet seven decades ago, we touch them with our bare hands and attempt to feel the vibrations, those same vibrations that carried 400,000 Hungarian Jews to their death. In fact, the entire framework for guiding at Auschwitz is based on re-tracing the steps the community of Hungarian Jews in the summer of 1944, the vast majority of them immediately selected to be murdered in the gas chambers upon arrival. During this time period, an SS officer at the camp decided to take a roll of black-&-white photographs recording the arrival, selection, and walk to the gas chambers of a train filled with Hungarian Jews which became one of the most important historical artifacts that gruesome process. I say out loud to the class that “the people in these photos were murdered in the gas chambers within an hour or two of their arrival,” but I’m not sure if that sentence registers. I’m not sure if even I can understand this awful truth even when I utter these words.
There is a building at Auschwitz-Birkenau nown as the “sauna”. This is the reception center where those selected for work were sent to be transformed into fulltime prisoners. Among other horrors, this is where numbers were tattooed onto arms, where one’s hair was cut off, and where the stripped “pajamas” were issued out. In short, this is the place where people entered as individuals and left as numbers, the place where any last semblance of humanity was shredded. But the “sauna” is significant not just because of its gruesome history. It contains one of the most poignant exhibitions on display. Dozens of old photographs that were confiscated from people’s suitcases are assembled into a remarkable display showing what these folks looked like in happier times, as they are meant to be remembered. It is not lost on me that in the same place where people were deprived of their humanity, these pictures have succeeded in restoring a small glimmer. These photos are at once charming and haunting. There is a Mona Lisa-type aspect to many of them in which the eyes of those in the pictures seem to follow you. It is possible to gaze into their eyes and attempt to connect with them.
Ultimately, we are able to do something that those victims could not. We recite kaddish, we sing Hatikva, we wave Israeli flags, and we walk out of that darkest of places. There is hope, there is a tomorrow, and there is a free Jewish state in our ancient homeland. The only fitting way to end this day is with a message of Am Yisrael Chai. For this, we are fortunate to pray the evening prayer at the Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue in the town of Oswienciem. This is the Polish town that the Germans took the name Auschwitz from. For the Jews of this town, it was “Ushpizim”, the holy guests that one invites into the Sukkah on the holiday of Sukkot. This was a place where Jews felt at home, it was Polanya. It would be so easy to give into our despair and retreat into the pain, but we overcome. As we recite the Amida prayer, the central paragraph states that God remembers the righteousness of our ancestors, and thus will bring redemption (geulah גאולה) to their descendants (meaning us).
To Eretz Yisrael
There is a special feeling one gets after returning home to Israel after a week in Poland. There is a feeling of completeness, a feeling of coming full circle to our biblical roots in the land of our ancestors. Hebrew is a language that warms the soul. To return to Israel and be immersed once more in Hebrew is to appreciate the miracle of the redemption of the Jewish people. Now the true understanding of what we just went through starts to slowly sink in. The understanding of the life that was, and the tragedy that ended it is ingrained in our collective memory. The realization that this is a pilgrimage that every Jew should make in their lifetime.
You can read more from David and his students at his blog: http://kitatdavid.blogspot.co.il/.