Reflections on Poland: Dr. Eitan Schuman, father of three students in Ohr Torah Stones Shavei Rachel High School for Girls, accompanied his daughter, Aviva, and her twelfth grade class on their recent trip to Poland. Following are some of his reflections on the journey.
Prof. Yaffa Eliach, in her timeless book Hasidic Tales Of The Holocaust quotes Rav Yisrael Spira, The Bluzover Rebbe. Every day, every child, after studying the daily lessons prescribed by our sages, should learn about the Holocaust, for it says in our holy Torah Then it shall come to pass, when many evils and troubles are upon them, that this song shall testify before them as a witness (Deut. 31:21)
Recently I had the privilege of being on just such a learning mission as the only Shavei Rachel parent to accompany the 12th graders on their pilgrimage to Poland. I was only slightly nervous. I am used to being around a lot of girls, just not quite that many at one time.
There was a tremendous sense of anticipation. The excitement for the impending discovery of our Eastern European heritage as well as the anxiety of seeing the aftermath of the utter annihilation perpetrated. As we settled in on the plane for the flight to Warsaw I immediately dozed off, as is my want. Some time later I was awakened out of my slumber by a terrible screeching noise. My first thought was perhaps they forgot to grease some parts of this plane and I was relieved to discover that it was the girls, many of whom were experiencing their first plane trip and were reacting to the rush of the acceleration and lift.
The girls were academically very well prepared for this journey through their history classes. The names, dates and places were all very familiar to them. I also know that they could not have been better prepared emotionally for the ghostly world we were about to enter. We were all very wary about what we would discover there.
We arrived in Warsaw in the wee hours of the morning and boarded the bus, our home and refuge for the next seven days. We were given instructions as to what, where, and how to do by the very professional and expert staff. The coordinator Ezra Hartman, guide Meir Shilo, security guard Eyal (provided just in case the girls get too rowdy) and of course the effervescent Yifat Breuer and Principal Rav Danny Epstein, who I am convinced really wanted to be a cheerleader but settled for a career in education. His boundless energy and a true passion for his profession are obvious as he takes a personal interest in each and every one of his pupils and is sensitive to each girls individual needs. I cannot overstate how pleased I am to have my children in his school.
Since my daughter, Aviva, was most concerned that I sit as far from her as possible (fortunately the baggage compartment was already packed solid) I sat at the very front of the bus often, next to Rav Danny. The girls, from three schools, almost 60 in all, are great singers and we were beautifully serenaded our entire trip. I noted in my journal that with eyes closed this journey feels and sounds more like a Venetian gondola than a Polish tour bus. No MTV, Smashed Pumpkins or Moldy Cantaloupe present here. Only Shirei Am, Dudu Fisher, Avhraham Fried and Deveykus were heard. I was continually impressed and amazed at the intelligence, maturity, sensitivity and faith of these girls.
Our first stop was Warsaws Nozick Shul for Shacharit. We all gasped at the splendor that was once Jewish Warsaw and the desolation it is today. This was a theme, which would resonate for the rest of our trip. The Warsaw Cemetery contains approximately 750,000 graves in addition to 50,000 in a mass grave victims all, of the infamous Ghetto. Who can forget those pictures of naked bodies being pushed down a slide into an enormous pit? Most impressive also is the diversity of Yiddishkeit represented in the cemetery. Separated by only few short steps are the graves of the Brisker Rov and the Nitziv and I.L. Peretz. It is an awesome feeling indeed to stand at the graves of our Gedolim and say a kippitel tehellim, a Kel Moleh Rachamim and leave a Kivettle. We know them from their writings and reputations but this is the closest we will ever get to them .in this world at least. For us the cemetery is truly a Bait Hachayim. A place to revisit previous lives. As the Talmud says Tzadikim even in death are alive.
We begin, through pictures, to get a sense of the incomprehensible loss suffered in Warsaw alone. The books, institutions, music and culture and of course the lives, all brutally obliterated. Can we begin to imagine the suffering of the inhabitants of the Ghetto? Not hardly. Standing in a cold drizzle at Umshlag Plaz, the departure point where the Jews were brought for transport and relocation, I was certain that this site is equally chilling even in warm weather. I will confess that after a minute or so I did walk away. I couldnt help but picture the thousands of fathers who stood in this very place and delivered their Gerotene Techter, prized daughters, into the jaws of the German savage. This would be another recurring theme as we stood on the selection ramps in Treblinka, Birkenau and entered the gas chambers of Majdanek and Auschwitz. Visiting the Bait Yaakov School in Krakov where 93 girls took their lives rather than submit to their captors certainly elicited a stunned reaction from our group.
This visit to the past has been taken by thousands of Jews over the years but I can tell you it is a different experience indeed to go with your child. When we speak of the incomprehensible number of 6 million it gives me pause to think of the number of mothers and fathers that were tormented by futile attempts to keep their children alive or the 1.5 million children who were consumed by this inferno. The girls had difficulty retaining their composure at the mass grave in Tarnov where 800 innocent children were murdered, many buried alive.
This was a trip of recurring paradox. Of loss and gain. Around every corner, it seems is another magnificent, abandoned shul supported by columns and quadripartite arches with beautifully illuminated prayers painted on the walls. Some, like in Tykocin, are museums today and can be explored freely while others are warehouses or under reconstruction as in Krasnik, which we explored in the middle of the night by flashlight. Many are yet to be discovered. We were struck by the richness and beauty of once vibrant communities and in the same breath their current desolation. It is not difficult to imagine the hundreds of families that worshiped in these now forlorn places.
For the girls however, these sites, whether tragic, like the mass graves of Lupochova forest, the site of machine gun executions, or joyous, as the grave of Rebi Elimelech of Luzansk, were left behind by returning to our bus and to their beautiful &spiritual singing.
Lomzeh, although almost completely devoid of any suggestion of a Jewish past, save for a metal plaque on a building and a few rough stones in the public park which used to be the cemetery, was particularly meaningful for me on a personal level. My Zaddie, Charles Gordon of Worcester Massachusetts. used to proudly reminisce about his association with the Lomzeh Rosh HaYeshive, Yechiel Mordechai Gordon. There apparently was a familial connection as the Rov bore the same name as Zaddies father, Yechiel Gordon. Additionally The Lomzhe Rov, Yedhuda Leib Gordin, was accompanied to America in 1921 by a young Lomzher talmid chocham. They would remain in America, the latter settling in Baltimore to head the oldest and for three decades the only Hebrew day school outside of New York, Talmudical Academy Of Baltimore. Rabbi Hyman L. Samson would guide the school with great skill, patience and wit for over 50 years and produce thousands of talmidim, many of whom now reside in Israel and a good number can be found in Efrat. Rabbi Samsons grandson is the renowned Rabbi David Samson of Mercaz HaRav. It is my understanding that it was Rabbi H.L.Samsons invitation to Rabbi YaakovYitzchak Ruderman in the early 1930s that led to the establishment of the Ner Yisrael Yeshiva whose impact on the American Jewish community cannot be overstated.
Rabbi Samson was given to explain the American boys passion for playing ball by its phonetic similarity to the idol Baal. Once after his retirement to Yerushalayim he was asked how is it that he was so successful in the position for over 50 years and his successor left after only two. His response was typically sharp - Two roshei yeshiva in 53 years is not bad! With this historical perspective, I was somewhat consoled that Lomzhe, which was almost entirely Jewish before the war, may be gone, but its ambassadors still carry high its banner in many locales throughout the world.
Shabbat in Krakov is certainly an experience. So much of the Jewish quarter, Kazamish remains. Only the Jews are missing. So many magnificent communal buildings and shuls. Is it possible that on a Kol Nidre night they were once all full? There were at one time over 65,000 Jews in Krakov. Friday night services were beautifully led by Rav Danny, as we davened in The Ramah shul and the girls performed as we came to expect beautifully, filling the small shul with sonorous Shabbat melodies. In the morning I was honored with the Musaf and -- since he rests just outside the back window -- it was very eerie indeed to daven faren umud in the shul of a Gadol like the Ramah. I was however completely comfortable with my havareh Ashkenazis since I suppose the Ramah, the codifier of minhag Ashkenaz, would be most upset with Sephardit. Later in the day we visited the home of the great Yiddish poet, songwriter and woodworker, Mordechai Gebertig who was murdered by the Germans in 1942 while boarding a transport to one of the extermination camps. With me was a gentleman whom I met in shul in the morning. He is a native of Krakov, a survivor of Birkenau and now divides his time between Krakov, where he works as tour guide and California, where he is a film maker. As we entered the building, Bernard confessed that although he is fluent in Yiddish, he knew none of Gebertigs work. I said surely you are familiar with the poignant song Moishele Mien Frient? He replied no I am not, can you sing it? So in Gebertigs hallway with its great acoustics, I proceeded to sing his tragic Yiddish song of two old men who havent seen each other since childhood. The following is a rough translation of the first verse, which is all I would get to sing.
Oh how can we take back the years
Moishele My Friend
Oh the beautiful years of youth are now so distant from us.
I was completely caught off guard when Bernard began weeping. I stopped and asked what the matter was. He responded I had a little friend Moishele here in the Krakov Cheder and I still remember our Rebbe, with that kanshik [stick] in his hand.
After hearing that I lost my composure and could not complete the song. Bernard made me promise him that I would make him a tape of it upon my return to St Louis.
As we spent our last days in Poland the questions still loomed larger than the answers. How and why. Didnt they hear Hitler in 1933 and 4 and 5 and 6 and 7 and 8? Did they not believe him? Did they not learn of Kristalnacht? Was it simply just not imaginable? Perhaps it was the desire to be lulled into complacency and NOT believe. Maybe that is what motivates a large segment of Israeli society today in its refusal to believe Arafat and his gang of murderers. It is simply easier to sing and dance about peace than it is to ensure it. Do the Arabs really want peace? Do they have an Arab Peace Now movement? I think they make no secret of their true intentions. It is we who refuse to listen. They want Jerusalem, Jaffa, Ramle and Haifa and us into the sea. From there we can swim wherever we want.
As we landed at Ben Gurion and breathed the warm night air of Eretz Yisrael, I know some of us considered kissing the ground but that is no longer fashionable, although tempting.
For final closure and consolation, the girls, independently, had elected to visit the Kotel before returning to the warmth of their homes and families. We all said a quiet, personal Kipittle Tehillim if not a Shehecheyanu for the opportunity and good fortune to live here, in this time and in this place.