A few weeks ago, I joined my grade on a trip to Poland and Israel—we spent six days in Poland and two days in Israel. It was certainly a very different experience from the classic “senior trip”; instead of going someplace fun and relaxing, we journeyed to a country filled with history and meaning, both joyful and sorrowful.
I could talk about my trip in a general sense, but there would be far too much to cover and I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. I also don’t think there are any general, overarching themes of the journey; we saw and learned so much that no single idea would be able to summarize it. Thus, in this article I’m not going to talk about the entire trip, but rather about one of the days of the journey that affected me the most. (A warning: Some of the following may be disturbing to some readers.)
The third day of this journey, for me, quickly became a whirlwind mixture of the past and present, of the upbeat and the sorrowful, of life and death. It was the day that I saw Poland both as a place of beauty and yet also as a land of unimaginable horror.
Our first stop that day was the town of Lezhask, which holds a special place in Jewish history as the home and resting place of the Rebbe Elimelech. Rebbe Elimelech was a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, and he helped to spread the Chasidic ideals of connecting to God through passion and spirituality, as opposed to the rote practice of ritual. Visiting his tomb gave us a chance to reflect on how we connect to God and to leave letters on his grave with our requests. The former felt worthwhile to me, but the latter raised some questions. Did we need to use the Rebbe as a conduit for our prayers? Or is leaving the letters a way of simply tapping into the Rebbe’s merit even as the prayers are directed squarely at God?
Our next stop was Lancut (pronounced “Lands-zot”). We walked through a leafy park and came to a gorgeous red and green castle. This building was the palace of Count Pototzki, a Polish nobleman who built the town and invited the Jews to live there for economic reasons. We delved into why the Jews came to Poland in the first place; they saw it as a place they could find refuge and rest. But the Church was not happy with the newcomers and often incited violence against them.
We then visited the Lancut Synagogue, which is centuries old. The shul’s caretaker addressed us in Hebrew, explaining how he maintains the shul (which no longer has a congregation). Then we descended into the main sanctuary, which was a wonder to behold: massive marble columns, inspiring artwork and prayers emblazoned on the walls, and a centerpiece bimah more ornate than any I have ever seen. As we sat down and sung in this venerable place, it felt almost as if we had crossed the gates of heaven.
Just like Lancut, our next stop tied into the complex mechanics of Polish-Jewish relations, but in a much darker sense. Our destination in the village of Markowa was a memorial to three families murdered by the Nazis, two Jewish and one gentile. The gentile family, the Ulms, were hiding the Jewish families from the Germans at great personal cost, and lost their lives because of their noble sacrifice. Yet we also learned there how many Poles informed on Jews or participated in the violence; one town even tricked its Jews into entering barns that were then set aflame.
Our final stop was not only the toughest of the day, but also the toughest stop during the whole experience for me.
We came to the town of Zbylitowska Gora and walked through a residential street coming to a forest. There we learned that in this forest, people from different towns were brought in trucks and killed by the Nazis, buried in mass graves. I say “people” because it was not just Jews, but gentiles as well—and children and babies. The victims came face to face with the perpetrators; Poles testified about seeing Nazis dumping children into pits from trucks.
The forest contained a stark, gray memorial (a Communist installation) emblazoned with swords, and then a collection of mass graves. I walked by the Jewish mass graves, then the gentile ones, and ended up at a large grave lined with blue fences—the mass grave of the children murdered in this place. My heart was in my throat. Children were not in any way a threat to Nazi supremacy. Killing them seemed senseless in a way I couldn’t comprehend.
Our group’s main guide had us gather for a small commemorative ceremony. He exhorted us to connect the tragedy to our lives, to think of those we care about who also could have perished.
When our guide said, “Think of the cousin you always hug,” the image of my young cousin flashed through my mind. Then, as the guide continued talking, I looked around and saw all of my friends, my classmates for nearly four years, and in my mind’s eye saw them vanishing, one by one, until none of them were left and I was alone.
All of a sudden I found myself consumed by my worst nightmare: my fear of losing those whom I love, my friends and my family. I could suddenly vividly picture them all gone, just as all of these children and babies had met their end in this chilling place!
That’s when the tears came, for the first time since we had arrived in Poland. I had felt numbed and hollowed out by the camps and the other Holocaust sites. But now it became all too real to me. This was not because I comprehended the scope of the murders; I’ll never truly understand the magnitude of how many people were killed. But it became real for me when my mind made it personal, when it made the tragedy of the children shatter my facade and reveal my darkest fears—and then I mourned the children who lived that nightmare.
By Oren Oppenheim
Oren Oppenheim, 18, is a senior at Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan and lives in Fair Lawn, NJ. This coming fall, he will be attending Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem; he will start college at the University of Chicago in 2017. He spends his free time writing and reading, and hopes to become a published novelist and a journalist. You can email him at [email protected]