How Poland’s Holocaust Sites Helped Me Find the Beauty of Judaism
I grew up with many positive Jewish experiences: I had lots of Jewish friends, I went to Jewish summer camps, and I attended a Jewish Sunday school. I even went to Israel several times. Growing up, I connected culturally to Judaism, but it wasn’t until I was 20 years old that I truly felt connected to my Jewish identity.
I went on a trip to Poland and visited four different concentration camps: Majdanek, Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau. I was so nervous about the emotions I might feel when I arrived. Would I cry and not be able to control myself? Would I feel anger or horror? My stomach was in knots the whole bus ride there. I turned my head to look out the window. It was dreary and bitterly cold outside; I couldn’t even imagine what it was like when the Jews walked for hours without winter jackets to keep them warm. Those Jews would be shot if they stopped walking. I complain of being cold when the temperature drops below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Today, our society in general has such a low tolerance for pain and suffering.
The Warsaw Ghetto
Our group visited the Warsaw Ghetto first. The Warsaw Ghetto was a completely enclosed, walled-in area that the Nazis forced the Jews to build in order to exclude the Jews from the rest of society. This ghetto held around 450,000 Jews in the most devastating conditions. There was barely any food; starvation was rampant as the Jews were only given one-tenth of the daily caloric intake needed to sustain human health. Jews experienced severe overcrowding, which led to the spread of diseases and death. Many people shared rooms, and there was no such thing as personal space.
After we left the Warsaw Ghetto, my group went to a death camp called Treblinka. There wasn’t much left of the camp to see besides a memorial site. To me, this was disconcerting. Roughly 900,000 Jews were killed at this death camp. There were six gas chambers and bodies were cremated as well, yet nothing was left. It was as if the Nazis were able to obliterate everything they did and get away with murder.
Our group continued to Majdanek, which was another death camp near the city of Lublin. This concentration camp was kept intact. At the time that it was active, the camp could be up and running in 15 minutes. That was so scary to me. I saw the ovens that burned the bodies and I saw the crematoriums.
I was in disbelief. The city was visible from the camp, and I couldn’t fathom what people who at that time lived so close and knew what was going on were thinking when they chose to ignore it. The people living in the city could see the smokestacks from the crematoriums and smell human flesh burning and still, they remained silent.
Over the next couple of days we went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was really one camp split into two. We saw and felt what was left of the barracks. We saw the wire fencing and the train tracks that brought Jews from all over Europe straight to their deaths. Most of the Jews who were sent to Auschwitz were taken off the trains and gassed immediately. If the Jews weren’t gassed, they were tortured, beaten or executed in other ways. Many Jews were used for heinous medical experiments.
The things I saw left me in shock; my mind couldn’t comprehend how horrifying it was to be Jewish during the Holocaust. I was silent for a while and, surprisingly, I didn’t cry at all.
I don’t think any human can grasp the reality of what happened in the Holocaust. What was I to do with all this information? I couldn’t just go back to my life as it was. The experience forever changed me.
My Promise to Myself
After processing everything I experienced in Poland, I was overwhelmed with one feeling in particular: for the first time in my life, I was so proud to be Jewish. Adolf Hitler and his allies tried to exterminate all the Jews and he failed; all the people I know and love and I are still here. After Poland, I felt that I was part of something much greater than myself; a single link in a big chain.
Throughout our history, people have given up their lives to keep practicing Judaism. Would I do that? Would I assimilate to the culture around me or be strong and not give up something that is intrinsically part of me, my family and my heritage? I wondered if I had the inner fortitude.
This began my journey into exploring my Judaism. I made a promise to myself that my family and my children would stay Jewish and understand the beauty of their heritage. It was my responsibility to ask questions to learn why my Jewish identity is important.
Every nation has tried to oppress us, convert us, or exterminate us as a Jewish nation. Throughout history, we have experienced relentless anti-Semitism from the Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Germans, Russians, Persians, and Spanish. The whole Arab world wants the Jews and Israel to die. All of the countries that surround Israel want us gone.
What is it about Judaism that the world can’t tolerate? Historically, how have we survived as a tiny nation? It is purely a miracle. Thinking about this has led me to ask many questions, learn about the beauty of Judaism, and try to connect to it even more.
Almost 20 years have gone by since my Poland trip. I married Jewish and have four beautiful children who attend Jewish schools and camps and live in a Jewish community. I did a lot of soul-searching throughout the time period since then, and I decided how I wanted Judaism to play out in my life. It wasn’t an easy journey and many people tried to steer me in other directions along the way. However, the more I questioned and learned, the more connected I became. I know that today, Jewish identity may not be a popular choice. Still, it is mine.