I can’t help but feeling the same way I did when as an elementary school kid, when I began the year by writing a composition on “My Summer Vacation”. Things that were vibrant and electrifying in real time became wooden and boring a few weeks down the line.
Poland was a different kind of vacation. It was like visiting another planet.
I had been to Eastern Europe before, but I still felt that I was in the same world as the one that I left behind. I assumed that Poland would be more of the same. I was wrong. Poland is modern; the people are well dressed, trendy and very at home in their own skins. Warsaw was not heavy and Stalinesque . It looked more like Tel Aviv than it looked like Kiev. The street scene was replete with pastel stucco high rise residential buildings sprinkled with glass and steel office towers. The shopping was classy, and the ads were in Polish, which told me that they didn’t have to pretend to be anything that they weren’t. The Jewish cemetery is smack in the middle of it all. The surrounding modern buildings are post-war construction, but the city sprawl existed before the war. The ghetto wasn’t far or isolated. That told me that the “normal” people knew everything. Their city was 1/3 Jewish before the war. They couldn’t be unaware that burials were taking place constantly. The cemetery couldn’t accommodate the continuum of corpses that flowed from the ghetto; they had to resort to mass burials. There is a mound of dirt about ten minutes into the vast burial grounds. I assumed that it was a mass grave, but it wasn’t. It was the underground “home” of people who survived by crawling through the sewers. When I left the area and looked around at the city in all of its 2017 harsh beauty, I found its normalcy grotesque.
We arrived on Thursday. That night we left Warsaw for the next leg of the trip. We slept in a hotel that was (rather surreally) named the Auschwitz (Oświęcim) Imperial. The staff was unfailingly courteous, the rooms were spacious and clean. Rabbi Fried the unflappable and unbelievably gracious organizer of the Nesivos Tour that I was on made sure that the food was tasty and plentiful. Life was good at the Auschwitz Imperial… The next morning our group set out for the seven minute walk to the most infamous concentration camp of them all. The government turned it into a museum (yes, its official name is the Auschwitz Museum). It “commemorates the evils done by the Germans to Mankind.” The Jews are not presented as the target, or the Poles as their enthusiastic hangmen. In the midst of all the darkness of Poland there were three brilliant flashes of light. We travelled from Auschwitz to Cracow for Shabbos, and that’s where I saw the first ray of light.
A small group of clearly non-Jewish people entered the hotel. They sat down at one of the tables. One of the young women in our group stood up from her place at the table, and told us that she is alive because of the Polish family who are her guests. Her grandmother was friendly and loved people. When she saw where things were heading, she asked one of her favorite customers, a gentile woman who frequented her store, to hide her and her family for six weeks. Ultimately the six weeks stretched into two years. The Polish family dug a large hole under their barn. They told the neighbors that they were digging a basement for storage, and invited them to come and help. Once the work was over, the father of the family told them what its real purpose was, and warned them, “If we are caught, I will be tortured. I will end up telling the Nazis who helped me dig the hole. If you want to live, you better see that I won’t be caught”. It worked. They neighbors were afraid to talk. His twelve year old son was in charge of bringing down the food. He made friends with his Jewish mirror image, The two boys would break the monotony of their lives with an occasional game of cards. Today they are both men of 82. The Polish “boy” came to meet the descendants of “his” family, and to see the results of the choices and sacrifices his parents had made. The 82 year old “boy” couldn’t stop weeping for joy. His daughter in law looked deeply moved, but the rest of the family wore inscrutable expressions, leaving me to wonder what they were thinking and feeling at that moment. There was real darkness threw, but nothing could blind us to the great light that was in that room.
Cracow is a beautiful city, reminding very much of Prague. The ghosts of the Jews who once populated its core, the colorful market area, felt very present. They were very much part of the scene. We davened in the EIzik shul at night, and the Rama shul in the morning. Both had seen hundreds of years of history. On the way back to the hotel, we visited the building that had once been Sara Schneirer’s Bais Yaakov Seminary. Today it is a kosher catering facility. The large rooms that were no doubt once classrooms were filled with Chassidic men who were in Poland for the yartzeit of the great Rebbe Elimelech of LIzhensk, about whom I will tell you in a few more paragraphs… There was still something about the staircase and the dark wood bannisters that I found indescribably evocative of what Bais Yaakov once was. It may be because they resembled the stairs I had climbed in Bais Yaakov of Williamsburg which was founded by Sara Scheirers devoted student Rebbitzen Vichna Kaplan. I felt as though I was in two places and two time frames at the same moment. I felt Sara Scheirer’s presence very intensely. After Shabbos we went to her gravesite in the new Cracow cemetery. She had asked for “the same old verses” (her words) to be engraved on her tomb. “Serve Hashem with joy”, “the beginning of wisdom is fear of G-d”, “Set Hashem before you always”, “Hashem’s Torah is whole” and finally, “Teach us to number our days”. There was amazingly powerful light in the darkness of the cemetary. I stood there speechless as I took in her greatness and resolved to make these psukim my own.
The next day was the day that I had thought of as being the only reason for my trip. I had come to Poland to visit the tomb of Rebbe Elimelech, to pray there, and to feel something of who he was. It was magic! There was awe, joy, and somehow the light I saw there made the rest of the trip make sense. We are all here to bring light to dark places.
Have the best time as you do it