Saturday, May 31, 2008
Monday, May 26, 2008
But a few short hours ago, we were at the gates of death, Treblinka. I sit in the rebuilt Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people. Driving into the city, it is clear that the Holocaust did not mark the end of the nation of Israel. As dawn broke, we made our way down the holy streets until we reach the Kotel. My heart swelled at the sight of the last remnants of our Holy Temple. I prayed with all my heart and marvelled at the beauty of our city.
The contrast between here and Treblinka is amazing. In Poland, I was an unwanted stranger, a foreigner, someone hated and loathed. Walking the streets of Jerusalem, I am home. This is where I belong. The sound of Hebrew and the familiar sight of living, breathing Jews makes me giddy. For a week I had seen nothing but traces of a glorious Jewish past and scars of a terrible destruction. The nation of Israel lives.
Kibbutz Ramat Rachel is set in the scenic Jerusalem mountains. A full Israeli breakfast awaits us. I almost cried with joy at the Israeli salads, eggs, borekas, teats, veges, etc. After a week of eating packaged deli meats in Poland, fresh food is a mechayeh.
Still early, we drove to the Dead Sea. I floated, took a mud bath, tanned, swam in the sulphur pool and showered. The sun on my skin is such a great feeling. We ate the most delicious grilled pita pizzas.
That night was Yom HaZikaron. On a hill overlooking all of Jerusalem, we had a memorial ceremony. It was extremely touching to realize that the only reason why I can walk freely in Jerusalem is because of the sacrifice of these young soldiers. Their ages were astonishing. So many feel so young and now lie coldly in the ground just so I could raise my head proudly as a Jew. This legacy of both pain and pride is written on the face of every Israeli.
We started the day off at the by saying the Shehecheyanu prayer overlooking Jerusalem. I am so thankful to G-d that He has preserved me and brought me to this moment. Afterwards, we explored the ancient Jewish Quarter. Spending so much time in Poland, it boggled my mind to see a city entirely designed for Jews, and suited to our unique needs. There were kosher restaurants, synagogues, mezuzot and all the Jewish paraphernalia everywhere. We searched for shawarma and devoured it with great gusto.
At night, we had a ceremony marking the end of Yom HaZikaron and the beginning of Yom HaAztmaut at Mini Israel. The transition was overwhelming. We went from the depths of sadness and loss to complete joy. We danced and sang, celebrating 60 years of Israel’s existence and miraculous accomplishments. We took part in the largest simultaneous anthem singing ever, joining Jews all over the world in singing HaTikvah.
Today is Yom HaAtzmaut. We celebrated by marching through the streets of Jerusalem. It began with a concert in the square outside of Jerusalem’s city hall. We then proceeded, accompanied by music, down the streets, around the walls of the Old City and finally to the Kotel. Imagine how many thousands of generations of Jews only dreamed to see Jerusalem and how I have been privileged to fulfill their aspirations. While our first march between Auschwitz and Birkenau was solemn, this march celebrated our survival and thriving.
We visited Latrun, the tanks museum and military memorial. It was extremely interesting. We had an MOL mega-event with 6000 people. It was an outdoor concert and show in an amphitheatre. Shai Gabso, one of Israel’s most popular singers, performed. It was so much fun.
Posted by Avi at 6:14 PM
Thursday, May 22, 2008
Having posted my experiences in Poland, before I post about Israel, I feel that it is important to draw some lessons from the horrors of the Holocaust. Clearly, the Holocaust was the worst crime ever perpetrated by humanity. It is our duty to ensure that it never occurs again, either to the Jewish people or to any other nation. Did we learn anything? Is the world any different? Is there hope?
As Hitler intensified his persecutions of the Jews, culminating in the pogrom of Kristallnacht in 1939, the world decided to close its doors to those who needed asylum the most. During the war, when Allied intelligence reported the extermination of European Jews, the world still chose to keep silent. Allied airplanes even bombed a factory attached to the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex yet didn't feel that bombing the gas chambers or crematorium was an important goal. There was a conspiracy of silence against the Jews: half of the world tried to wipe us out, while the other half prefered to sit silently and watch. Only once the war was over did world leaders open their eyes to their complicity and began to realize how they could have prevented such a tragedy. If only we had known before! If only we saw! Never Again, they cried as they cried crocodile tears for the murdered Jews. They beat their chests in anguish and pledged never again would they be apathetic in the face of hatred and genocide. Unfortunately, 63 years since the end of the Holocaust, their words ring hollow.
Since 2003, Arab janjaweed militia backed by the Sudanese government have been systimatically murdered, raping, torturing and killing black Darfuris. They have massacred entire villages and destroyed food and water sources to exacerbate the drought and famine. About 400 000 thousand lives have already been lost. While some may claim (erroneously) that the Holocaust was hidden from public knowledge, no such thing can be said about Darfur. The horrors of ethnic cleansing, massacres and rape have happened in full view of the international community. Endless parades of diplomats, world leaders and officials have visited Khartoum with sporadic, unclear and incoherent messages. Diplomacy has failed the people of Darfur as thousands are slaughtered each day. We are our brother's keeper. It is not enough to build museums and monuments after the genocide, but to stop it or prevent it from happening in the first place.
Neither has the world learnt the dangerous and deadly results of unchecked anti-semitism. In recent weeks, violent attacks against Jews have taken place in Los Angeles, New York and London. In LA, a 58-year old man wearing a kippah was attacked by two men who called him a "dirty Jew" before punching him and beating him down. The police report a steep rise in anti-semitic attacks, including vandalism and a improvised bomb at a Jewish community center. In Germany, an Arab man was sentenced to three years in jail (only?!) for stabbing a rabbi repeatedly. Walls, shops and sidewalks outside four synagogues in northeast London Clapton Common and Stamford Hill neighborhoods were desecrated with anti-Jewish graffiti last week. The slogans called for 'Jihad to Israel' and 'Jihad to Tel-Aviv'. A 16-year old Jewish boy was severely beaten and mugged last week. A Jewish man living in Ireland last week had his home defaced with Nazi symbols and swastikas, with the slogan "Go Home, Jew". In fact, anti-semitic incidents are up almost 400% worldwide in recent years. It is actually the most worrisome increase in attacks since the Second World War. Violent attacks and desecrations of synagogues and cemetaries is commonplace in much of Europe. Jewish communities, such as those of Paris and London, feel as if under siege and live in constant danger. In Western Europe, fanatical imams incite their flocks against the Jews and the Zionists, the source of all of their problems. In the East, where the Muslim population is insignificant, neo-Nazi groups are undergoing a revival. During the first year of the commemoration of Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, it was defaced with swastikas five times.
Once Iran bombs Israel, G-d forbid, the world will be quite to realize its fault. Leaders will beat their chest in sorrow and cry bitter crocodile tears at their willful blindness. Surely, monuments will be built to commemorate the now-extinct Jews. International money will pour in to build museums to memorialize the tragedy and people will use this blood money to atone for their collective guilt. No! This is not enough! Now that there is still a chance, Ahmadinejad must be brought to justice for inciting hatred against the nation of Israel. We do not want another Yad VaShem or a Holocaust memorial day. What we want is for the world to wake up and to make good on its promise of never again. As Jews, we must know that the world will never realize until its too late and that we cannot go once more like sheep to the slaughter.
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
After a 3 hour bus ride from Lublin, we finally arrived in Warsaw. We visited the immense cemetery of Warsaw which dates back to medieval times and contains hundreds of thousands of people. The richness of the ancient city’s Jewish community is outstanding. The cemetery is full of old monuments and tombs of famous rabbis, scholars, professors and writers. We toured the cemetery and read the incriptions, until we noticed a large empty space marked by black lines. The tour guide explained that this is a mass grave for those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto. 70 000- 80 000 bodies are buried in that little space, without even a tomb marker. They are nameless, without monument or identity, unmourned with no kaddish or shivah. I was asked to recite the El Maleh Rachamim prayer and a surge of emotion came over me as I pleaded with HaShem to remember and have mercy on those poor souls who died.Later on, we toured the ghetto, little of which is left. Only a few fragments of the walls survive. The ghetto best captures my feelings in Poland: constricted, restrained, trapped. I am not wanted here.
Walking into Umchlagplatz, the train depot from which 300 000 Jews were sent to Teblinka, I was in awe. It was the last stop for hundreds of thousands before the gas chambers, and I could walk out freely. I cried when the madrich said that we would not be going to our deaths but priviliedged to fulfill the dream of thousands: going to Eretz Yisrael.
It is astonishing to see Poles living in formerly Jewish areas. Next to the remaining ghetto wall are apartments and the Poles living there yelled at us for trespassing. At the heart of the ghetto, the Poles felt the need to erect a huge crucifix in honour of one of their saints, and a huge church sits on the main street. Not only were the Jewish bodies desecrated but the Jewish soul is spat upon. Cable cars with Kitkat advertisements run on the same haunted tracks as cattle cars used to. Have the Poles simply forgotten or chosen to forget? I think the little Jewish figurines holding money bags, sold at the hotel giftshop, answers my questions.
Treblinka means death. It is but a short distance from the trains to the gas chambers. Arrivals were greeted by an orchestra and were given postcard to send to their loved ones. Deceived, they were sent to the gas chambers.
Monday, May 19, 2008
We began our day at Majdanek at the huge monument of 6 scarred pillars, symbolizing the 6 million, with steps leading down through a valley of jagged rocks, representing the valley of the shadow of death. We then took the same path as the inmates of Majdanek took upon entering. The accursed villa of the commandant stood mocking the pain adjacent to it. We read testimony of survivours describing it as a lovely house, complete with a white picket fence, a garden, pets and a loving family. The banality of evil shocked me.
At the entrance to the camp, with a sign reading “Bath and Disinfection”, are the experimental gas chambers. When we entered the gas chambers, where so many went to their deaths, I broke down. The walls are stained blue from the Zyklon B and covered in scratches. I touched the walls and jumped back from shock. I was crushed by the pain of those gasping for their last breathe of life. The cruelty of our enemies is outstanding. Amazingly, as we left the gas chambers, alive, unlike thousands, we were hugged and comforted by our survivours.
The last sight was the enormous mountain of ashes, in a domed monument outside. I cried as I thought of how many people vanished into smoke and dust, leaving nothing but ashes in a mound. They have no tombstone, no yarzheit, no name. Nobody sat shiva for them or recited kaddish for their souls. Tearfully, we said kaddish for them and sang the Shemah, indicating that the Jewish faith has not died.
“Shemah Yisrael, HaShem Elokeinu, HaShem Echad!”
Shabbat in Lublin was an interesting experience. Our hotel was located directly opposite the seat of German occupation government during the War. We lit Shabbat candles Friday night and then had dinner. Spontaneously, we broke out in song and dance for well over an hour. Broken from our morning visit to Majdanek, we all somehow felt the need to greet the Shabbat with joy.
Shabbat morning, we had an upbeat service in a room above the lobby, ironically looking out on the building where the cruel plots against our nation were hatched. 63 years later, we prayed with all our might and sang the Shabbat praises. As one of our Holocaust survivor was called to the Torah, I felt a wave of emotion. The Torah is still alive.
Sunday, May 18, 2008
With the goal of perpetuating the legacy of the Holocaust and of describing the incredible miracle that is the State of Israel, I will share excerpts from my journal. I will post some more every few day
April 31st, 2008
We landed in Krakow late morning. We drove to the Placzow labour camp in the outskirts of the city. Nothing remains of this torture facility and mass grave. Across the streets from this place of evil are restaurants and shops. Without the stone monuments commemorating the murder that went on there, the Polish sunbathers might tempt you into believing that this is nothing but a lovely park. One of the survivors who accompanied us on our trip, told us about her experiences in Placzow and how her little cousin of 6 was shot by the Nazis on the very ground on which we sat, and how his resting place is unknown. It was extremely moving.
We toured the Kazimicz region of Krakow, the Jewish Quarter. We saw the synagogue of the Ramah, and the medieval cemetery attached to it, full of legendary rabbis. The stories told of the amazing feats and miracles that they performed were quite amazing. Krakow had such a rich Jewish history; everything remains he same, with lovely synagogues, cemeteries and Jewish symbols- except there are no more Jews. It is incredible to this that an entire community of tens of thousands of people just vanished, gone. We saw the remains of the ghetto and were witnesses to how this most vibrant community was forced into such a small area. Jewish life in Krakow has disappeared. And the Poles continue to live, unabated.
Auschwitz, the most evil place on Earth, is a museum. Gone are the trains, the snarling dogs, screams, ashes rising from the chimney. It is cleaned up, sanitized, almost plastic. It was very difficult to imagine the horrors that went on there through the crowds of marches and giggling girls. Auschwitz left me cold as we rushed from exhibit to exhibit with barely time to process. It was very disturbing to see a place that was literally hell on Earth, behind glass, with signs and displays.
The March itself was not what I expected. It was hard to maintain the mood because of the enormous mass of people. It was inspiring, though, to see 15 000 Jews draped in Israeli flags marching the same march of death between Auschwitz and Birkenau.
Birkenau was an unsettling sight. One enters the accursed gates to see a line of trees, train tracks, barracks and ruined chimneys. At the end of the camp, we had a ceremony with survivors, the IDF chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, chief rabbi of Tel-Aviv, HaRav Meir Lau, and a choir. Ashkenazi, as head of the IDF, vowed that never again will Jews be weak and powerless and that never again shall we allow Jewish blood to be spillt cheaply. The chazzan led us in a moving prayer and I’m sure that he pierced the heavens with his cries.
Finally, we stood in a cold and dark barrack and lit yarzheit candles. Survivors shared with us their experiences. It was chilling to be in the very place where they endured such torment. Afterwards, we prayed a quick minchah in the barracks at Birkenau. Imagine the beauty and absurdity of the scene: Jewish prayer continues in a place where our foes tried to wipe us out but 63 years ago.