I Went To Bear Witness At The Camps; Poland Was Disgustingly Beautiful

Poland is disgustingly beautiful in the spring. I went to bear witness where my people were annihilated, but I never expected to see plains and hills so deep and richly green. I never saw such vibrant rows of yellow flowers. The weather was perfect. I wanted to mess it up, spit on it, hack at the grass to see the dark dirt underneath. I wanted the ground to take responsibility, to testify to the Jewish blood it soaked up. During our visit to Majdanek we learned that the Nazis didn’t stop at death. After the bodies were cremated, the ashes were sent around Poland to be used as fertilizer. I wanted to vomit. The grass was enriched by Jewish remains. In Egypt, God made the Nile testify. During the first plague, its deceptively pristine waters faded back, and the blood of the Jewish babies it held was finally revealed. In Poland, there was never such a reckoning.

I never realized quite how similar the Holocaust was to our slavery in Egypt until I visited  Poland with my seminary right before Pesach this year. Both atrocities contained physical subjugation: back-breaking labor and brutal murders. In both instances, there was resistance. In Egypt, the midwives, Shifra and Puah, disobeyed Pharoah’s command to kill the Jewish baby boys on the birthing stool. All of the midwives subscribed to this defiance, according to the Netziv. Their scheme was not successful, as Pharaoh ordered that all the baby boys be thrown into the river, but their rebellion is etched into the annals of history. In a strikingly similar fashion, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the largest resistance of Jews in the Holocaust, began on erev Pesach. Unfortunately, thousands of Jews least were killed fighting or hiding and tens of thousands were captured and taken to concentration camps, but the heroism of these fighters will never be forgotten.

How did our physical slavery end? In both cases, I believe it was us taking responsibility for ourselves which triggered God’s renewed responsibility toward us. In Egypt, we are told: “And it was in those days Moshe grew up and he went out to his brothers and he saw their suffering.” (Shemot 2:11) Rashi comments, “Moshe focused his eyes and heart to feel their pain.” We can only free ourselves from our communal suffering when we take personal responsibility for the suffering of the community. Moshe heeded the pain of his brothers, and Hashem reciprocated in the form of the Ten Plagues. As a Father defending His child, God fought our battles for us and we were commanded to remain silent (Shemot 14:14). In fact, as Rabbi David Fohrman explains, the name that Hashem introduces Himself with to Moshe at the burning bush is His name of “with-ness.” God rescued us from Egypt as God of אהיה איתך, “I will be with you.” In Poland, freedom only came after the Holocaust in the establishment of the State of Israel and the formation of our own army. Our freedom was defined by our vowing to protect the suffering people around us. God’s Hand in the establishment of the State of Israel and the IDF is hard to ignore. 

Confronting the gruesomeness of the Shoah filled me with agonizing questions. So I turned to the Seder for answers. The Mechilta Divrei Yisrael wildly redefines the Four Sons. The Wicked Son is often brought as the antagonist to the Wise Son, even though they’re not actually opposites. The opposite of a wicked person is a righteous person and the opposite of a wise person is a fool. Says the Mechilta Divrei Yisrael, perhaps the Wise Son’s counterpart actually the Simple Son and the Righteous Son’s counterpart is actually the son who doesn’t know how to ask. Why, then, is the one who doesn’t know how to ask compared to the righteous son? The son who doesn’t know how to ask personifies the value of “Naaseh V’Nishmah “we will do and then we will learn” the words the children of Israel said when they accepted the Torah. A wise person asks questions, as he should. It enriches our religious observance to gain a sense of understanding as to why we believe and why we do mitzvot. But, there are certain questions that the wise son will never get answers to. Why were our people enslaved in Egypt for over two hundred years? Why were our baby boys brutally drowned? Why were the Nazis so evil? Why did six million Jews need to die in the Holocaust? Why did some survive and not others? That’s when the righteous one says, “Naaseh V’nishmah.” We do not have the capacity as human beings to understand what took place in Egypt and in Poland. 

According to Jewish law, it is forbidden to recite Hallel (prayers of praise) at night. We don’t give Hashem praise when it’s dark outside. However, there is one night a year that we feel Hashem’s light shining at night, and it feels as if it’s the day. On seder night we are enveloped in an overwhelming and spontaneous urge to sing to God for the blatant and revealed miracles that He performs for us. The Song of the Sea (from Hallel) begins with the words “so Moshe sang.” In a moment of utter emotion, at the splitting of the Red Sea, Moshe began to sing. For me, in Poland, it came after an entire day spent in Auschwitz. My body and my head hurt from crying and screaming and shaking. It was one of the worst days of my life. But when the day was over, my friends and I were able to leave. Over one million people never got to walk out of those gates. My friends and I linked arms and leaned on each other’s wet faces and began to sing. We got louder and stronger. The locals Poles stopped and stared. We sang Psalm 126, describing our return to Tzion, the reward you get after sowing in tears: reaping with joy. We sang “Hashem yimloch l’olam vaed.” And I was angry at Hashem. I don’t know if I’ve ever been angrier. But I got to leave Auschwitz. So I couldn’t stop myself from singing. 

It’s been hard to process what I saw. It’s been hard to talk about it. But I’ve never believed so strongly in our people’s ability to survive. The day after we got back my friend and I went to Ben Yehuda to get some new clothes for Pesach. I remember getting off the light rail,  and I couldn’t stop staring at all the Jews around me. Men in hasidic garb, old Israeli women, babies, families walking together. Pictures of pre-War Europe started flashing in my head. There were men in hasidic garb, old women, babies and families walking together. And then I saw piles and piles of bodies. And shoes. And hair. And teeth. They were all dead. I walked through the gas chambers. I saw them all dead. But somehow, here, they were all alive. 

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  • Avatar photo Bruno Lany says on May 8, 2024

    Does Adina feel the same way about Germany?

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on May 9, 2024

      She hasn’t been.

  • Avatar photo Rachel says on May 8, 2024

    Last spring my family went on a trip to Poland, back to our family’s hometown. We had an amazing meaningful shabbos there. My son kept remarking how beautiful the landscape was and how jarring that was with the history of the country. At the airport we were met by the airline agents with blatant antisemitism (I’ll skip the details) clearly aimed at my yeshivish looking sons. When we finally boarded my son said that in a way he was glad of this incident, bec now he saw the true Poland, and otherwise he would have remembered a beautiful trip, and perhaps forgotten our true history in that country.

    • Avatar photo Michael says on May 10, 2024

      Out of the mouths of babes….


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