By Esther M. Schonfeld, Esq.
Our life-changing trip to Poland with Project Mesorah, PartÂ 2
The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest of all the Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II. While there are not many physical remains, there are a few. Various memorials include the historic Jewish cemetery with the hidden bunker where some children hid to survive, the Nozyk synagogue, the fragments of the ghetto wall still remaining, the moving memorial at the Umschlagplatz, where the mass deportation of the ghetto inhabitants took place, the small memorial at Mila 18, which was the site of the Jewish underground headquarters during the uprising, and a new beautiful modern museum.
These sites were all disturbing and heartbreaking reminders of the destruction of our people at the hands of Hitler. It was there where I learned more detail about the Warsaw Uprising which took place in early 1943, when a small group of armed Jews attacked German soldiers who were in the ghetto overseeing the deportations of the remaining Jews. This was the first instance of open revolt. Their success was such that the deportations stopped as the soldiers temporarily withdrew from the ghetto.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is remembered as one of the most important moments in a long history of independence struggles. It was a dramatic act of resistance and a miracle in and of itself. The courage of the fighters remains a defining memory which stands for a nation willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for freedom.
We also visited Krakow, which was one of the largest Jewish communities in Poland. The Krakow ghetto is the only historical Jewish district in Europe that was not completely destroyed during the war. During our visit, we walked through the old Jewish ghetto, which is one of the most beautiful and well-preserved that I have ever seen. We saw the old Jewish houses, including where Helena Rubinstein lived, and visited the many ancient synagogues. Most interesting was visiting the Rema Shul and the adjoining cemetery where the Rema is buried. We walked through the ancient cemetery at 3Â a.m. with our flashlights, an experience I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
On the south side of the former Plac Zgody Square stands the Apteka Pod Orlem (a pharmacy under the Sign of the Eagle), whose owner was a non-Jew who resisted resettlement and remained within the ghetto. His pharmacy became the center of resistance against the Nazis, and now is the site of a small museum. This entire square, now called the Plac Bohaterow Getta (the Ghetto Heroes Square), has been turned into a moving memorial to the victims of the Krakow ghetto. The memorial consists of about 70 scattered illuminated oversize metal chairs that represent old furniture being thrown out and left in that square. In that exact spot, furniture, luggage, and other belongings were abandoned by the Jews due to mass deportations to death camps and beatings and killings. It is one of the most artistically moving memorials. We also visited Oskar Schindler’s factory, where many Jews were employed in an effort to save them from the horrors of the Nazi death camps.
In Lublin, Poland, we visited Yeshivat Chochmei Lublin, which was established by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the creator of the dafyomi, a regimented undertaking to study Talmud each day. This yeshiva was one of the first of its kind, and housed thousands of Jews studying Torah. The idea that Jewish men would live in a yeshiva and learn Torah was revolutionary at that time.
Visiting the grave of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk was a most uplifting experience, as we sang and danced together with a young group of tourists from Israel who were visiting at the same time. Rabbi Elimelech was the devoted student of the Maggid of Mezeritch, who was the successor of the Ba’al Shem Tov and the main disseminator and advocate of chassidus of his generation.
The gravesite of Rabbi Elimelech is considered a place where prayers are heard, and Jews from across the globe come to pray at this holy site and derive inner strength and spiritual growth from there. The promise that whoever visits the gravesite will not die without repenting attracts thousands of visitors each year. One of Rabbi Elimelech’s writings, the No’am Elimelech, has become a basic chassidic composition. This visit was especially rewarding for me personally since my son-in-law, Rabbi Tal Zwecker, translated the Noam Elimelech in a book titled Mipninei Noam Elimelech.
While this experience of visiting Poland was especially compelling and moving, especially in light of the close connection I have to the Holocaust and the many family members of my parents and grandparents who perished in the very concentration camps that I visited, I cannot imagine any individual, even those without a familial connection to the horrors that occurred, not being moved and shocked by the setting. Despite having grown up hearing stories about the cruelty that went on, I could never fathom the sight of this area and the emotional impact it would have on me. We all cried together every day on the mission. Unfortunately, we are on the brink of losing those survivors who lived to tell their stories. For this reason, it is so important to keep the memories alive by telling their stories and witnessing those artifacts that are left to help illustrate their hardships. The haunting words of Elie Wiesel in his famous autobiography, Night, remind us that “to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
I would like to give special thanks to the presenters at Project Mesorah. Rabbi Paysach Krohn, the “Maggid,” is truly a gifted storyteller. At every site, he had our undivided attention, telling us riveting stories of what occurred there. He is truly the raconteur of our generation. Rabbi Krohn’s words of wisdom that those of us on the trip, most of us strangers, would become family were so true. At the airport upon our arrival home, we all embraced each other as family, crying in each other’s arms and looking forward to seeing each other again soon.
Rabbi Shlomo Cynamon, a Jewish historian, elevated the experience with his deep insight and knowledge of minute details of the Holocaust. I would also like to thank Rabbi Yaakov Landau, who nurtured us and made sure all of our needs were met during this emotional journey. Finally, without the ingenuity and creative foresight of Rabbi Ari Scharf, this trip would not have occurred. Not only did he launch the Project Mesorah Mission to Poland, but while there, he shared with us his extensive knowledge and expertise of Jewish history and the Holocaust and instilled insight and lessons throughout the trip.
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I have always been proud of my heritage and have always identified as a child of Holocaust survivors. I am proud that despite the Nazi’s exaggerated brutal and cruel attempts to eliminate the Jewish people, our people were resilient and endured. Human spirit is so resilient and people can move on despite the loss and suffering. We cannot compare those atrocities to our lives, and their experience does not diminish the loss and pain that people suffer, but we can learn from the past and gain strength from the resilience that our people have proven.
The words “Never Again” spoken in connection with the Holocaust are not a promise; they cannot be. They are a hope. And, in our hoping, we must pledge always to maintain the memories of the murdered and the means of their murder. We must teach our children and grandchildren to remember the Holocaust so that we and they may hope at least that it will never happen again.
The words of Shimon Peres rang clear to me as I walked through the concentration camps, as he stated in a speech on Holocaust Remembrance Day: “The Holocaust will not sink into the dark hole of history. It is here with us, burning, real. It resonates as we step on the stone of the ghettos. It floats like a ghost in the barracks of the camps. It cries from the prayer shawls, the hair, the shoes that we see with our own eyes. It whispers from the tears that dried before we said goodbye. It is reflected in the photographs of the babies in their mothers’ arms.”
Part 1 of this article was published in the July 17 issue (pp. 85—88) and is available at http://www.5tjt.com/we-must-all-bear-witness-auschwitz-70-years-later/.
Esther Schonfeld is an attorney and partner in Schonfeld & Goldring, a law practice specializing in matrimonial and divorce law. She wishes to thank Alexandra Schonfeld, Esq., and Drew Berman for their invaluable research and assistance with this article.