Evelyn G., a Spring 2016 participant, is a junior from Falls Church, VA. She is a member of Temple Rodef Shalom. She writes about the first day of her trip to Poland, and how visiting a cemetery in Warsaw taught her about the lives that people lived.
We began our pilgrimage to Poland bright and early on a Sunday morning. Once we arrived in Warsaw we started our week off by visiting a cemetery. Cemeteries are often known as a place of death. However, we learned that the translation of “cemetery” is “house of life.” We got to take a look into some people’s lives and learn about them just by the images on their tombstone. Images on the tombstones such as hands in a blessing motion, a broken tree, or a charity box can give us some backstory about the person who was buried there. Visiting a cemetery as our first stop gave us a feel for what the week would be like: sad and dark, but also a celebration of the lives that were lost in Poland.
Our second stop of the day was to the remaining wall of the Warsaw Ghetto. Even though not much of it is still standing today, the small section still stands in remembrance for the awful things that happened inside those walls. After seeing physical memorials, we went on a memorial walk and learned more personal stories. We made several stops to talk about important who fought to save lives, also known as acts of Iberleben.
Personally, I saw beginning our masa, our journey, with a visit to the cemetery or house of life as extremely meaningful and powerful. Walking into the cemetery and seeing over 200,000 tombstones was unbelievable for me. The images and words written on the tombstones helped me put into perspective that these weren’t just over 200,000 bodies that were buried. Rather they were real people and they all had a story and a life just like the rest of us. It was hard for me to view this place where so many people are dead as a “house of life,” but seeing centers for study that were made in honor of some people who passed away helped me understand that these tombstones and buildings are there to honor the person and carry on their name. Conversely, I found the remaining wall of the Warsaw Ghetto less impactful than the other stops. Although the old wall stood out against the cookie-cutter apartments surrounding it, it seemed like just another wall.
However, the memorial walk was very impactful for me. Often times I think, “Why didn’t anyone do anything to stop the Holocaust?” On the walk, though, I learned that many people risked their own life in order to save others. The story that hit me hardest was the man who took many kids in and treated them as individuals and was so dedicated to giving them a good life and being there for them that he was with them until the moment they were killed. Hearing these stories showed me that even in the darkest times, there were some who still has hope and still fought for what they believe in. Our first day in Warsaw showed me that even though 6 million people died, we can keep them alive by sharing their stories and celebrating their lives for what they accomplished.