Poland by the Great-Granddaughter of Survivors
Updated: Sep 18, 2022
By Maya Shavit
Features and Games Editor
Barrack Students in Danny Stein's Core Class at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel were asked to write a personal reaction to their week in Poland, using a number of quotes revolving around the Holocaust. The quotes were given without the author's names or full context.
Our journey through Poland during my trimester at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel allowed me to connect to the Jews of the past by standing in their place for the first time. By the end of the first day, I truly felt the insanity of the Holocaust’s inception. I had always tried to tie a ‘why’ to the Holocaust, but “it is sacrilegious to attempt to assign meaning to the Holocaust. It exists outside of meaning.” When I stood inside of the Lodz Train Car, all I wanted to do was run. I wanted to escape the rickety cattle car as swiftly as possible. It felt wrong to enter a contraption that Jews, like me and my classmates, were once thrown into to be sent to their death. It felt wrong to know that as soon as Gavriel, one of our Core teachers, finished humming, we would board a bus to take us to dinner and a comfortable place to stay. I could not allow myself to sing in that car; I burst into tears instead; but I forced myself to stay, since the Jews of the Lodz Ghetto did not have the choice to exit. The cattle car made me feel like an animal, a spectacle that could be watched from outside by meeting my eyes through the barbed wire windows. That car made my Poland experience begin to feel concrete and real. There, in that car, it was clear to me that this trip would impact me for the rest of my life.
The next place I felt tied to was the Bukzina Forest. At the sight, I connected with the quote, “All that is required for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” I thought of the masses of children that were trapped under the ground I walked on. When I thought of my memories from childhood, I turned my attention to the memories the kids of the Holocaust never obtained. The children were utterly helpless, oftentimes babies without knowledge of what was happening. When I read that my mother was proud of me for experiencing Poland for my family that did not have the choice to leave it, I broke down in tears. I read the names of all of my family members that perished in the Holocaust. I made eye contact with Lexi Schachter ‘21, my childhood best friend, and we held each other in the field. I stood there clutching someone who helped shape my childhood, while looking out onto the death site of many unfortunate children, while we listened to the voices of young Jews from around the world shaded by the autumnal trees.
After having to imagine the horrors that took place in the Bukzina Forest, the next place that majorly impacted me was Auschwitz-Birkenau. In Plaszow (another former concentration camp), I was in disbelief at the horrors. I felt disgusted, with the same pit in my stomach that originated in the Lodz Train Station. When I entered Auschwitz 1, the only place that deeply affected me was the gas chamber. It simply felt wrong to go into a gas chamber. Auschwitz-Birkenau was a shocking place. I wore the Israeli flag with pride the entire day, and it truly comforted me in the camp where so many people, including my ancestors, died. I sat on the tracks leading to my Hungarian family’s death and the suffering of three of my great grandparents and broke down on Madeleine Rosenthal ‘21. I felt deeply upset and hurt, as well as angry -- angry that people did what they did to my relatives. “In Auschwitz, there weren’t devils and human beings; there were human beings and human beings.” The Holocaust is a unique tragedy becuase we can point a finger at the evil that concocted it.
I felt similarly in Majdanek to how I felt in Auschwitz. Majdanek made me see that “[t]he Holocaust was not simply the moral failure of the German people. It was the moral failure of the world.” I saw the shoes of so many dead people in one room and the actual ashes of victims. I felt compelled to write about my family when I saw the horrors. I barely touched the ovens that turned my relatives into ash and I felt a shock -- more concrete evidence. I felt a physical and an overwhelming feeling.
While walking in the concentration camps I felt sadness, but standing and speaking to my classmates on the remnants of 18 Mila Street made me proud. I was upset to lay stones for my family who died, but I felt honored to stand there and be a living example that “it is better to die on one’s feet than live on one’s knees.” I felt connected to my fighter blood. Overall, listening to the stories of great-grandchildren of survivors in the place where their relatives were supposed to perish was incredible. I felt so proud of, and connected to, my identity in the Warsaw Ghetto. After I laid rocks in place of graves for my relatives and said Kadish with the fighters and survivors in mind, some of my classmates came to me to say that I impacted them. The raw emotion that bled through my voice was uncontrollable. I wept in front of my grade tears of hurt and pride and I did not realize I had done so until I finished. In my Core class, months before, in a letter about my hopes and dreams, I said that I wanted to be remembered for giving someone a feeling or helping someone through something. It was miraculous to know that my family’s story, my story, gave some of my friends their “Poland moment” the same way they gifted me with mine.