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The past week in Poland was definitely the most intense and emotional experience of my life...

The past week in Poland was definitely the most intense and emotional experience of my life and it is one that I will remember forever. In one short week, we saw, learned and experienced so much, not only about the Holocaust but about Jewish life in Poland throughout history. Every day was long and filled with traveling, notes, sites, and many emotions. In our journey through Polish Jewish history, we spent a lot of time in cemeteries, and through this trip, I learned what a truly special place a cemetery is. Previously, cemeteries were always solemn, slightly uncomfortable places for me, where you pay your respects and don’t raise your voice. But last week we visited all different kinds of grave sites, creating a wide variety of emotional experiences. 

On the first day in Lodz, we saw the old Jewish cemetery. Some of the graves were maintained, but most of them were overgrown with ivy. I learned that in Judaism, there is a concept that a person dies a second time when all who carry their memory are gone from the world. I thought about this a lot in Poland and it is an idea that will continue to affect me. In this spirit, we pulled the ivy off some graves, re-exposing the names, we even found someone who’s Yahrzeit was the previous day. We also visited the Lodz Ghetto field: an expansive field of the graves of those who died in the Lodz Ghetto. Unlike the other Ghettos, in Lodz, they buried everyone individually and later, the IDF marked the graves with small plaques. After just learning the importance of marked graves and proper burial it was incredibly powerful knowing what lengths the Jews of the Lodz Ghetto went to preserve the memory and dignity of those who died. This is in contrast with the Warsaw cemetery’s Ghetto mass grave, where thousands were buried in three huge pits. At the Warsaw cemetery, we also got to learn about the richness and diversity of the Jewish community before it was decimated by the Shoah from all of the different influential people buried there.

We also had an entirely different graveside experience at the grave of Rebbe Naftali of Ropshytz, where we had a Tisch: a celebratory meal with stories, singing, and dancing. Previously I would have been horrified at the idea of eating, singing and dancing in a cemetery, but I learned in Poland, that Jewish cemeteries are not necessarily sad places. They are where we go to learn about and remember our history, where we go to honor the dead. And honor can come in the form of celebrating life. For me, this celebration went beyond just Rebbe Naftali, but also that we, American Jewish teenagers were able to return to Poland to learn, sing, dance and be Jewish. It was meaningful and also really fun.

The most emotional experience of the whole week for me was in the Lupochovo forest. We visited the village of Ticochin in North-Eastern Poland, which had been the lively Shtetl Tichtin before the Holocaust and learned the story of what happened to those people. In 1941, the entire village, men, women, elderly and children were led into that beautiful forest and murdered; shot by the Nazis into mass graves. This was the very first act by the Einsatzgruppen, the first massacre of the Final Solution. This was a very different cemetery. There were no graves, no records of memories of the thousands of Jews who were murdered there, just some fenced off land covered in Israeli flags: a memorial. Similarly, at Majdanek, there was a memorial to the countless people murdered there. A giant stone basin full of the human ash that was found when the Soviet Army liberated the camp. I truly don’t have the words to describe what I was feeling at these sites. Within those fields, that ash, there were thousands of individuals who had families, lives, hobbies, secrets, and stories and now all that is left is a faceless memorial. There were millions of other victims who weren’t even given that scrap of dignity.

Everywhere we went in Poland, I could feel the echo of the Shoah: the beautiful synagogues empty of Jews, cemeteries with graves destroyed and lost, the actual death camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek, but also with the modern Polish Jews. Although none said that they “felt” the Holocaust in their daily lives, it was impossible not to brutally compare the thriving Jewish life and culture in Poland before the Shoah, illustrated by the Shuls, graves, and museums, to the struggling communities trying to rebuild. The message of these communities was one of survival and hope for the future: they are growing, Jews are returning to Judaism after decades of hiding both from the Holocaust and Communism. But all of these cemeteries, some for discovery, others for celebration, and too many for mourning, showed just how much, we, the Jewish people, lost.