This piece was written by Talia Hirsch after the group’s powerful experience in Poland.
Our day began at the esteemed Sages of the Lublin Yeshiva. During its time (1930-1940), it was one of the most prestigious and competitive yeshivot in the world. Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the leader of the yeshiva, trained the elite to become knowledgeable and personable educators of Torah. The learning center was in Lublin because it was the center of Torah scholarship in Europe at the time. Meir Shapiro had to raise a lot of money for the yeshiva. Since attendance was free for students, money was used to fund all their needs including room, board, and study materials. Secular Jews were some of the biggest donors.
The דף יומי (daf yomi)- one page of Talmud each day was created at the Lublin Yeshiva and is still used today. The method was to ensure everyone in the world is on the same page on the same day. It takes 7 1/2 years to complete the whole Babylonian Talmud using this method. To get into the yeshiva you had to memorize 400 pages of Talmud ahead of time and you were tested. To be accepted into the yeshiva, you had to already be a scholar. The yeshiva also included a library with 25,000 books and a model of the Beit Hamikdash. When Nazis came and took overtook it, they made the men put all the books outside and the Nazis had a book burning that lasted 3 days. Before we left, we studied a page of Talmud from Tractate Ketuvot with Rabbi Sykes in the yeshiva.
Next, we went to Majdanek, a preserved concentration camp. Death camps were often located in Poland because of its central location and the largest population of Jews lived there. Poland’s flat landscape made it easy to lay down rail roads which were used to transport people to the camps. Majdanek opened in the summer of 1941, and was originally for prisoners of war. The majority of victims murdered at this camp were non-Jewish Poles. The first Jews arrived in October 1941. It was also the first camp to be liberated in July 1944.
When we arrived for our visit, our first stop was a sanitation building. It is the first building you see when entering the camp, it also contained the first gas chamber.
Continuing our tour, the buildings along the road were used for holding the possessions taken from the prisoners who entered. We learned that the Germans who ran the camp used Jewish tomb stones to pave the road. This was very hard to see, because tomb stones are very sacred. Using them as a road is repulsive. Next we stopped at a statue with three eagles on top that represented the Third Reich. The prisoners were forced to salute the statue as they passed, they came up with a solution: the prisoners dug holes under the statue to bury ashes of their family or friends so that they would really be saluting their loved ones instead of the Third Reich. This story was very meaningful because it showed that the prisoners were still witty and thoughtful even while enduring such terrible circumstances.
Next we saw the crematorium. The building was split into seven rooms, all used to dismantle the bodies, search them, and then cremate them. Outside of the crematorium now lies a large mound of ashes of the prisoners, sitting under a cement dome. Seeing the remains of the victims was very impactful to me, and was very difficult to see.
Going from the yeshiva to the camp showed us two very different sides of the Jewish people, from life to death. I will remember this day for a long time, and will continue to share the stories of the Holocaust so that we may never forget what happened here.