Thursday, July 18, 2013

Have they not learned a thing?

So I'm home now for over a week and I've still not been able to get the trip to Poland out of my head. Thoughts about what I've learned, what I saw are at the forefront of my mind even while doing something as mundane as grocery shopping or laundry.  But yesterday, as I sat down to my morning decaf, I read an article in the comments and features section of the Jerusalem Post and what I read scared me.

It was an article called 'Poland and shechita'.  You can look it up online in the web version of the JPost....

Polish lawmakers have decided that ritual slaughter is now illegal.  This includes religious slaughter - or shechita - as well as dhabiha - otherwise known as halal.  
Clearly this ban is not motivated by any type of concern for the animals' feelings and we know this since they didn't bother banning hunting.  If they had done their homework, they would have learned that shechita is the most humane way to kill an animal. The shochet's knife must be incredibly sharp with no nicks.  The animal should not feel the cut and since the carotid arteries, which bring blood to the brain, are severed with that swift cut, the animal is rendered unconscious within seconds.  

But I suppose gathering a hunting party and blowing the animal's brains out with a shotgun is not only a sport, but fun as well.

And we wouldn't want the Poles to not have their fun.

Why this new law is scary is because of this:
(and be ready to be sickened...)
One of the fist things the Nazis did when they rose in power in 1933, was to pass extensive animal protection legislation.  Germans would face prison time for neglecting or abusing an animal. And while millions of Jews were being slaughtered in more horrific ways than one could possibly imagine, Nazis were obsessing over the suffering of lobsters in Berlin's finest restaurants.

Does Poland have that short of a memory span that they have forgotten that it was the Nazis who originally banned ritual slaughter in 1933?  And if their motivation is to keep the Muslims out of Poland (I didn't see a single Muslim in Poland while I was there....) it is a terrible decision.  

For a country that has tried to distance itself from the permanent bloodstain of millions of Jews that covers their land, this decision is a blatant move towards anti-semitism and not a move towards tolerance and religious freedom......

Thursday, July 4, 2013


So two odd things happened on our route home (Yitzi and I to Israel, my parents and brother Zvi to Toronto).  We flew from Krakow to Frankfurt and had a couple of hours before our respective flights home.  My dad checked out a map of the area and realized that Worms is only 40 minutes from the Frankfurt airport, so we grabbed our carry-on luggage, rented a car and headed to Worms.

Those of you who don't know about Worms, it is a quaint town that at one time had a large Jewish population. One dating back to 1023. And if that's not amazing in its own right, it's also the place where Rashi lived and learned for a few years before moving to France.  When we finally got to the small Jewish square that houses the shul, the oldest mikve in Eastern Europe and the house where Rashi lived (called Rashi Haus).

The man who runs the museum (which according to him gets a minimum of 300 visitors every day) was extremely excited to tell us facts about Rashi and the shul.  So excited that he was like a little boy, bouncing up and down on his heels waving his hands around animatedly.  

The shul is used twice a month for Shabbat and every chag. And although I would NOT want to get within five feet of that kosher mikve, there was still water in it.  The shul had once been destroyed (way before the Holocaust) but had been rebuilt using authentically old stones that mimicked the original interior and there is one original stone covered with plexiglass still located in the study room adjacent to the shul - a study room that Rashi himself studied in.  The funny occurrence was when we were leaving and he followed us out, wishing us well and then told us that he was the local "Shabbos Goy". And he said it with such pride.  

How times have changed.

We also walked in the pouring rain to one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe and visited the grave of the Maharil, whose direct descendent, Liv Sperber, was with our group in Poland.

The second ironic thing that happened was when we were going through security before boarding El Al.  The security measures that Germany takes in the airport are nuts. You have to remove nearly everything except the basic clothes on your back and then they give everyone a personal body search.  They x-ray everything AND open up your carry-on.  The woman who was looking at the x-ray of Yitzi's bag stopped it, called a supervisor over and pointed to the screen. We knew nothing was in there but we were curious as to what she suspected was in his bag. The supervisor opened his bag and poked around in the area of the suspected item.  Right there was Yitzi's velvet bag of Tefillin. 

The supervisor smiled at us, nodded knowingly and said, "Oh, it's ok" in his broken English.  The woman obviously didn't understand or know what this peculiar item was and he quickly explained it to her and then turned to us. "It's fine, sir, you can go ahead.  Have a good flight."

Again, how times have changed....

And still, I can't explain how comforting it was to step onto the El Al plane, and be greeted in Hebrew by my fellow countrymen.  While times may have changed, we can't ever forget about the fact that history has the unfortunate tendency of repeating itself and I, for one, was relieved to step off that plane and place my feet on Israeli soil...

The inside of the shul in Worms, built in 1023...

A view from the outside of the shul

Rashi's house

Rashi's house
A gate leading to the mikve

The mikve 

A window in Rashi's study room

Rashi's study room

The maharil's kever

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Paying a shiva call in Auschwitz-Birkenau

If there ever is an unlikely place in the entire world to be menachem avel, it's here, right in front of the last remaining cattle car on the tracks of Birkenau.  
The place where Leslie Kleinman lost his parents, his sister and his brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles.  Out of 60 family members, Leslie lost 57...

I don't think that any of us realize what a zchut and a gift it is to be able to bury our loved ones, to mourn them in the way that they are meant to be mourned, to have the closure we need in order to move on and to have a physical place to come to on the anniversary of their death or when we simply need to remember. We are so often filled with endless grief that we often take that for granted. 

On a personal note, I know that my husband takes great comfort in knowing that his parents are buried in Israel and that they are buried side by side as they would have wanted.  And when we pull up at the side of the road at the Eretz HaChaim cemetery with our children on the anniversary of their death, my children hop out of the car and know exactly where to go, where they are and where they will always be.  
This summer, we are visiting Toronto B"H to celebrate two smachot and my children, not having been back to Toronto in more than five years are super excited. I asked them what they want to do there, what day trips they want to plan, what parks they want to visit. My son, Ezra, 17, said that one of the places he wants to visit first are the kvarot of my grandparents, both holocaust survivors.  

He's planning on preparing a passage of tehillim to say while we're there.  I can't tell you how much that moved me, that his list of places to see didn't begin with Canada's Wonderland, or Costco for shopping, but to a gravesite of his ancestors.

This is what Leslie and so many more survivors did not have the zchut to have. So we set up a chair right in front that last train car - the last place he remembers seeing his family - and each and every one of us paid a shiva call.  We all said those words that every single one of us has said hundreds of times to grieving people all over the world. 
And we gave him the closure he needed.

....המקום ינחם אתכם 

I think this says it all...

Auschwitz I

When you think of the holocaust, you think of Auschwitz.  And you think of the famous sign that "greeted" the Jews as they entered the gates of a hell they could not possibly imagine.  

Instead of writing about those horrors, I will write about the amazing spirit that our people had while they faced their biggest nightmare.  

After being on a train for days in intolerable conditions with no water to drink, no toilets and barely any air to breathe, a father turned to his daughter seconds after the train pulled up to Auschwitz and asked her to get him water.  He pressed something into her hands to trade for a bottle of water. She managed somehow to get her father that bottle, but instead of drinking it as she thought her parched father would do, he poured it over his hands and said the Bracha of netillat yadayim because he hadn't had a chance to pray that morning when he was dragged from his home. And he refused to pray until his hands were washed.  

When the Jews were told to bring one suitcase with them, they were so worried about keeping kashrut in the place that they were being "resettled" that they brought both meat and dairy pots with them to ensure that they would be able to keep that mitzvah.

When some Jewish inmates were found to be saying Kol Nidre in their barracks, the Nazi SS forced them to stand outside and sing Kol Nidre over and over again before they shot them. A survivor witnessed this and heard the SS say, "A people who can still pray in a hellhole like this...we will never beat them."

Standing right outside the gate of Auschwitz while Leslie Kleinmen, the survivor who accompanied us on our trip, told us about his experiences...

The incredibly far reach that the Third Reich had....from Oslo in the north all the way down to the Greek Islands in the south....all the dots on this map were ghettos, work camps or transit lines that led directly to Auschwitz.


Prosthetic limbs, crutches and canes




A view of some of the building blocks

The men in our group standing with Leslie (in the center with his cap and blue shirt) in front of the block where he spent three months before being sent across the road to Birkenau.

Auschwitz Birkenau

If you read my post on Madjanek, you'll remember that I was in a bit of shock as to how large this camp was.  Well, compared to Birkenau, Madjanek is tiny.

Birkenau encompasses an enormous area that is mostly surrounded by trees. Mostly flat, it stretches farther than the eye can see and I could not see its borders. It hit me at some point that there could have been whole families here that would never see one another despite being in the same camp.  

Everything in Birkenau was - and I quote Zvi Sperber - a machine of death. This is what this camp excelled in. And those unfortunate enough to be sent here didn't just suffer a physical agony but the agony of humiliation. Of acute degradation. Their sole purpose was to strip an entire nation of its dignity and self worth, of their religious pride and of their humanity.

I could get seriously morbid here and give you some of the gruesome details of what I saw, what I HEARD firsthand from a man who had been there but I won't because hearing it from me is not the right thing to do.  

Each and every Jew has a duty to their commitment as a Jew to see this for themselves.  And when you see this for yourself, you will understand the grave importance of what it is to have faith in a time of blinding darkness and you will learn to be thankful for the fact that we as Jews have never before lived in an era where we can live freely as Jews, out in the open without fear of being sent to our deaths for our beliefs as we do today. And you will come to be everlasting grateful for our modern-day miracle of the land of Israel, for a homeland which will embrace us, fight for us, protect us and will prevent a holocaust from ever happening again.

I cannot impress upon you how important this is, and after this trip I've come to believe that this is not just a duty but a mitzvah.  

On Pesach we are commanded to remember our time in Egypt and teach our children about both our suffering and our redemption.  
....והגדת לבנך

My brother, Zvi, wearing the Israeli flag I brought with from home standing on the train tracks at the gates of Birkenau...

"Cattle car"....

The women's barracks. There were three levels and ten women per level...

Davening mincha outside one of the barracks. The buggy was used to collect the dead bodies of prisoners who had died in the middle of the night...

At the far end of the camp in front of where once stood the furnaces and the crematoriums.  The Nazis tried to bomb the furnaces when the allies came in and you can see the half bombed rubble still standing.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The glory of Krakow

Krakow was a city bustling with Jewish life before the war. When the city of Krakow came under Austrian control on 1796, Krakow's Jews were ordered to resettle in Kazimierz and the area was slowly redeveloped.  In 1857 the first gss lamps lit up their streets and by 1888 they had their first train station.  By 1910, the Jewish population stood at 32,000 and in the years between WWI and WWII, that number nearly doubled.  The Jewish quarter boasts some of the most beautiful Shuls in eastern Europe.  Approximately three to five thousand Jews survived the horrors of the holocaust, a large number of them were saved by Oskar Schindler.

One of the bridges that leads to Kazimierz

The Ramah shul 

The Temple Shul

Oskar Schindler's factory 

Pictures of the survivors that he and his wife saved during the holocaust 


There are almost no words to describe what it means to visit a death camp. I've been contemplating what exactly I would put in this blog and I've come up empty. There does come a point when you search and search for words that can describe what you need to say and cant find a single word that really fits.  And with a language that is as rich as ours I shouldn't be having this difficulty but there it is....
Our guide, the amazing and incomparable Zvi Sperber, said one thing about Madjanek that sums it up better than anything I could have come up with.
As we stood at the entrance of this vast - and I mean freaking enormous - camp, with bunkers lined up for as far as they eye can see with a large smokestack at the far end of the camp, I was speechless.  And what he said as we stepped into the entrance of the camp was that we were about to enter The Empire of Evil.
And there are no more words. 
Just tears.

Our group...

Just a glimpse of the barracks lined up...there were only a fraction of barracks left in the museum (if you can call it that...) but there were hundreds if not more covering an enormous area. Now those empty fields were covered with green grass but during the war the entire area was mud, mud and more mud.  A survivor who had gone back to Madjanek said that had there been grass, every blade would have been eaten by the jewish prisoners...

Showerheads in the disinfecting bunker

Zyklon B cannisters that were found by the allies after they liberated the camp...

A bunker filled to capacity with shoes.  You can't possibly imagine (try, but you can't until you've seen this with your own eyes) how many shoes there are.  All kinds - dress shoes, children's shoes, men's shoes, white shoes, red shoes and black boots.  I walked in, lasted about 45 seconds max and walked straight out.  This hit me so hard and I just couldn't take it. I sat outside and talked with Leslie, the most amazing survivor that came on this trip with us.  He is a man with a constant smile, a zest for life, a storyteller par excellence filled with the kind of energy that belied his age and finally, the best possible revenge that we have in the face of that evil.

Reb Noam Elimelech....

Right after Madjanek, we visited the kever of Reb Noam Elimelech. He was a mystic and chassidim from all over the world come to sing and dance by his grave.  He believed that God could be served in more ways than praying in a synagogue.  He also believed that there were many different ways to pray and they need not always be via a siddur.  He created the idea of niggunim, songs written to serve as a gateway for prayer along with dancing and the idea of being joyous in the name of Hashem.  After being in Madjanek, it was a bit of a relief to sing and dance and pray and find that small ray of light after the darkness of Madjanek.....

What a way to end the day...

There's something decidedly spooky about walking en mass into a forest with 60 odd people all holding candles at 1 AM.  Besides the local dogs barking their heads off, we were a silent mass of people moving slowly along an unlit dirt path into a dark forest with only our candles to light the way to a place where the impossible a town not far from Tarnow (where my great grandfather on my Dad's side was born) there is a forest just beyond a residential neighborhood.

We know that almost 100% of Jewish children died in the holocaust. If you were not between the ages of 16 and 40 you were a dead man walking.  Older men and women along with the sick and disabled were sent almost immediately to the gas chambers.  

But what about the children? 

Unless you were lucky to get on a kinder transport or hidden by a non-Jewish family or given to the church, as a child, your chances of survival were virtually non-existent.  In this unassuming town, the Nazis grabbed every child, every baby, every newborn they could drag out of their parents' arms and they shot them dead, dropped them into a massive pit they had dug in the middle of this forest.

There is now, amongst the tall shady trees and the overgrown grass, a matzeva marking this mass grave of children.  No names, no headstones, and no way to possibly know who these children were.  Babies who had barely begun to live - gone in an instant.  

Historians say that most of these Nazis who carried out these types of orders were not 18 year olds. These were officers who had commendations, who were experienced. And who were probably grandparents themselves. 

You can ask yourself over and over again how any man could take the life of a child - taking any life is horrific enough, but there's something viciously evil about taking the life of a child.  But there are no answers.  None at all...

Lublin: The Jerusalem of Poland

During the war, Lublin becomes the capital city of Poland because of its proximity to Russia. Rabbi Meir Shapiro - who was the rabbi of Lodz decided to build a different kind of yeshiva in Lublin and changed the way yeshivot are run today. Before he built the Yeshiva Chochmei Lublin, yeshivot were generally small, terribly underfunded and had no dormitories for the boys. In fact, they slept in the ezrat nashim on wooden pews.  They were served two meals a day of bread and jam and were farmed out to different families in the kehilla for dinner - often to poor families who couldn't afford to have another mouth to feed at their table.  
Rabbi Meir Shapiro changed all that. He collected money from all over the world in order to start a yeshiva that would give each boy a bed, three square meals a day, a garden to get fresh air and even laundry service. But not every boy could attend this yeshiva.  You had to know 200 pages of Gemara by heart... 
At its height, there were 220 boys that went to this yeshiva and changed the Jewish world.
But the most amazing thing about Reb Meir Shapiro was that he was a forward thinker.  He wanted every boy who COULDN'T get into his yeshiva to have a yeshiva education. So he started the first vocational yeshiva school which shocked Jewry worldwide.  He stayed determined despite the opposition and the controversy and managed to raise millions of dollars and created a school that had learning on the morning and taught a vocation in the afternoon.  
Unfortunately, this gadol of his generation did not have any children and died before the war at the too young age of 44.
I'd like to think that the boys he taught, the boys he cared for and educated were the children he never had and that hopefully some of them survived the Shoah and kept his legacy alive....

Reb Meir Shapiro 

The yeshiva as it looks today...

My dad reading from the Torah in the shul of the yeshiva...