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Washington State

Poland: Both living and dead

A year ago today, Poland was a strange concept in my mind. I know that there were once millions of Jews in Poland, yet I had heard nothing but horror stories. I didn't know anything about the lives of the Jews living in Poland, nor did I understand the weight of the lives lost in the Shoah.

My entire life I have learned about the Holocaust. Holocaust, 6 million, Aushcwitz. In my mind, this is all there was in Poland for the past 16 years. When I thought Poland I thought dark forest filled with bodies, and gloomy remains of concentration camps that used to billow smoke and ashes. For 16 years my imagination, I didn't see Auschwitz as a place that died in 1944, but a demon that constantly tears at the Jewish soul and memory. My expectations getting on the airplane to Warsaw was the same as what it had been my whole life, I was going to hell. I knew the Shoah was over but I still expected to see ghosted images of the deceased Am Israel of Poland.

I also expected to see Poles using the concentration camps and other Jewish sites as tourist attractions to make a fortune off of. As there are almost no Jews in Poland anymore, I knew that there are not that many people over there to protect the sites. I didn't expect to have any antisemitism targeted towards our group, but I knew the Poles were probably going to give us dirty looks. I didn't expect to cry much at all in Poland. When I was thirteen I had gone Yad Vashem and cried my eyes out. But ever since then, I hadn't really felt sad about anything Shoah related. Learning about the Shoah in the classroom and through books had expanded my Holocaust knowledge but hadn't made me feel much at all. When we went to Yad Vashem this was affirmed even more. I wasn't sad, in fact I was antsy from the boredom. I was scared that I was going to feel the same thing in Poland.

In the end, Poland wasn't what I expected. The trip started out with me having stomach flu, and I saw this as a curse from G-d in a way. But after the first couple hours, I discovered that Poland is a beautiful memory of Jewish history. It had its ups and downs, and unfortunately the final down was it's greatest depression that could have possibly happened. But that doesn't take away from the amazing history and the resilience of the community.

The Poland trip was absolutely unforgettable. It forced so many emotions out of me that I have suppressed for years. In Poland, I was happy to be with my friends at many times, we explored the streets of the cities and markets, and enjoyed the fun, European culture. Yet there were a few times when I felt the most vulnerable I have this entire program. I was quick to both tears and anger throughout the Shoah sites. I had so much hatred for the Nazis and so much love for the Jews I knew had been murdered, whom I had never even known. At both Majdanek and Auschwitz I found myself randomly slamming on the walls of the barracks, crematoriums and gas chambers. At Majdanek I thought I was starting to go insane, but at Auschwitz I realized that it was because in the back of my mind, I wanted to destroy the hatred that was trapping my kin in memory of loss. When we had initially set out for Poland I was expecting the same thing I learned about European Jewry for the last 16 years of my life.

But after coming back, I know now more than ever that Judaism, especially Ashkenazy Judaism, is not defined by the events of the Holocaust. The Jews who were lost should not be defined by how they died. They need to be remembered for the way they lived. I believe that nowadays many Jews in America only look at the pain and suffering of the Holocaust. But we need to realize that we are continuing the lives and legacies of our descendants. And this is exactly the greatest success of the Jewish community in Poland that we met throughout the trip in Lodz, Warsaw and Krakow. They remember the past, yet they are trying as hard as they can to continue were the Jews from before the war left off. When I come back to America, I will live the same way by continuing the legacy of the fallen Jews of Eastern Europe