The Year In Israel
By Max Fruchter
Years of speakers, assigned reading material, and school presentations for Yom HaShoah have been an integral part of every year in my life for as long as I can remember. Yet despite the inspiring lectures and uplifting films, I was in no way emotionally prepared to enter the country in which six million innocent Jewish lives were taken with unimaginable cruelty. Immediately after landing in Warsaw, Poland, my friends and I noted the dark and gloomy setting of rain clouds, cold wind, and light rain. The ominous weather was only exacerbated by deserted streets, run-down buildings, and graffiti-stained stores. Before our trip throughout the country officially began, we had already sensed a disturbing presence of foreboding.
Arriving on Sunday, our Yeshiva group started our tour in the city of Lodz. The abundance of churches and absence of Jewish life reinforced our menahel’s remark that this heavily Polish city at one point consisted of thousands upon thousands of Jews but today consists of a mere one hundred total. Our menahel and tour guide proceeded to lead us through this outdated city and shared the sad truth about a Jewish presence no longer in existence; pre-World War II, Lodz had been the home of thousands of wealthy, influential Jews such as Izrael Poznanski. His massive estate, in which he ran a highly successful textile business, has been transformed into the largest mall in all of Europe, known as Manufaktura. We stared in bewilderment at this village of a mall and wondered why the historical and cultural value of such an estate would be disregarded and instead substituted with a massive shopping center. Still our first day in Poland, we had not yet realized that logic and rationale were not a part of the Polish dictionary and left many legitimate, mind-boggling questions unanswered.
Following an intense first day, our Yeshiva continued on to Warsaw, Krakow, and many other cities. Each day seemed more powerful and emotional than the next as we spent hours at cemeteries, mass graves, museums, and camps such as Majdanek and Treblinka. At each site we recited Tehillim, sang a variety of songs, heard moving stories, and took respectful moments of silence for reflection. By Wednesday night, as drained as we all were, no one could sleep with the thought of spending our last day in Poland at the same camp that had served as a life of terror for many of our grandparents, Auschwitz-Birkenau.
I’m not sure words can properly convey the overwhelming sense of horror and joy that befell each of us that day. The sights of Auschwitz-Birkenau only furthered our inability to comprehend how human beings could be capable of committing such heinous, inhumane acts. Although this unanswerable question persists, the Jewish people, too, persist, as displayed by our singing and dancing out of the camp with our sefer Torah in hand, showing the conflicting feelings of sadness and thankfulness to Hashem. Seventy years ago, no one would imagine such a feat possible, but all sixty of us from Torat Shraga defied what once was perceived as an “impossibility” and carried on the Jewish flame lit by our ancestors long ago.
Following an emotional visit to Birkenau, we made our way toward Auschwitz 1. This labor camp currently serves as a museum in which the cruelty perpetrated against the Jews is presented through various exhibits. Confiscated tefillin and talleisim, hair cut off the heads of thousands of Jews and used for German clothing, and disturbing photographs were only some of the upsetting views presented to us. Perhaps the display that resonated most with our group was the enormous “book of names.” Spanning across an entire room and amounting to thousands upon thousands of pages in length, this book contained the names of approximately four million Holocaust victims, many of which were identical to our own. Personally, I vividly recall running through hundreds of “Fruchters,” many from Romania and others from Czechoslovakia as well as Poland. We slowly looked through the towering pages, sifting through the seemingly endless list of those who suffered, only to find hundreds, if not thousands, of our own names inscribed.
Minchah just outside the walls of Auschwitz and a bus ride back to the hotel for dinner began the conclusion of our final day in Poland. After dinner, we sat in a unified circle and proceeded to share with one another, over the course of an hour and a half, some of the invaluable lessons we have taken from this trip. Needless to say, no one left Poland with the same mindset or perspective he had entered with.
Finally, before making our way to the airport in Krakow, we visited the house of Amon Goeth, an evil German SS officer who personified evil. A black sky and chilly breeze accentuated the already terrifying aura surrounding the house of this cruel, abominable individual. Yet, despite this frightening setting, we huddled in the basement where unimaginable atrocities were committed and sang in unison some of the most powerful Jewish songs ever composed.
With mixed feelings of relief and anguish, we entered the airport in Krakow and boarded the plane back to Tel Aviv. This life-changing trip had left everyone in a pensive, contemplative mood and allowed for a most meaningful travel back to Israel where we all spent Shabbos together, beginning with a special Friday-night davening at the Kotel.
On Friday afternoon we settled into our respective hosts’ homes in Ramat Eshkol, the location of our Shabbaton, and took the quick bus ride to the Old City. Once off of the bus and walking toward the Kotel, my mind was drawn into a state of happiness, pride, and joy. After a week of endless nightmares and frightening sights, I could not have felt happier being at the exact place that our ancestors wished, with all of their hearts, to daven at. A Jewish identity never felt so real or special before. In a similar way, my appreciation and love of Israel jumped to an entirely new level. As difficult as it is to capture the depth of emotions in a few sentences, I think our menahel put it best with his pre-Minchah address to our yeshiva. Standing over a bima just before the Kotel wall, he said, “Just last night we davened Minchah in one of the most horrific places in the entire world, a place where millions of our ancestors were murdered. Yet tonight, only twenty four hours later, we will be davening Minchah at the holiest place in the world, a place where the Jewish legacy is continued and the terrible loss of so many lives has not been in vain.” These powerful words set the perfect mood necessary for a meaningful davening and set the stage for an unbelievable Shabbaton.
Standing before the Kotel HaMa’aravi on Friday night, my mind raced through countless thoughts, yet dwelled on one key idea–once I understood, but more importantly, saw, what millions of Jews had died longing for, I was able to fully internalize the message of those school presentations, books, and speakers: The future of Judaism lies in our hands, and it is our responsibility to ensure that Jewish heritage and pride are passed on to all future generations, unconditionally. v
Max Fruchter, a recent graduate of DRS Yeshiva High School in the Five Towns, is now attending yeshiva in Jerusalem.