Wednesday, October 9, 2013

My son in Poland...

This week, Ner Tamid, the yeshiva where my son learns, took their 12th graders on their annual "Masa Polin" - trip to Poland.  Since I was there this past spring, I was excited for him - I knew firsthand a little bit about what he'd be experiencing and although his trip is a few days longer than mine was, he is seeing a lot of the same historical landmarks that I did.  
As far as my many gripes with Misrad Hachinuch - the Ministry of Education - the one thing that I've always admired is their insistence in not only Holocaust education, but in visiting Poland as well.  It's not just the Ministry of Education that stands behind these trips, but the IDF as well as many larger businesses and organizations which plan and execute trips to Poland throughout the year.
But I've come across many people who are totally against these trips to Poland.

"Why should we pad Poland's tourism industry with Jewish money?"
"Why are we always looking behind us at our past instead or forward towards our future?"
"Why are we okay with our teenage boys and girls having to see such horrific images at their age?"

These questions are valid and their views justified.  

I'll answer the first question: Truth is, when I was there, there were so many buses and groups from Israel - as well as other countries - but it wouldn't surprise me to discover that the bulk of tourism is coming from Jews.  Does this disturb me?  A little.  But not enough to stay at home.  My grandfather died about 4 years ago at the great old age of 96.  He was a young man in his early twenties when the war broke out.  So there are not many survivors left to give firsthand witness testimony to what happened to our people.  Every year on Yom Hashoa (Holocaust Memorial Day) I'm amazed that we still have survivors to light the six torches at the yearly ceremony.  And I know that one year, soon, they will not find enough survivors to fulfil that task.  And that means it's up to us, the next generation, and it's up to our children, the generation after, to keep that knowledge alive.  If not, the Holocaust will become a footnote in history and it's our duty to make sure that doesn't happen.  If Poland is raking in the bucks because I spent six days there using a local tour guide, their hotels, their buses, their gas and their food, then I'm okay with that.  Because what I got in return was so much more valuable.  

About the second question: Our entire religion is about looking back.  Our prayers are filled with remembrances of our forefathers, our foremothers, and the lessons we learned from them.  Sometimes, we're even commanded to remember, and we receive merit in the remembering and the telling of our shared history.  For example: the ritual of the Passover Seder is all about remembering.  And through that process, we not only remember that God took us out of Egypt, but that He brought us to this land.  The act of remembering here is a way to remind us to be thankful.  Another example: we are commanded to remember our enemy Amalek.  Not only are we required to hear the reading of that chapter in the Torah, but in listening to it, we are reminded by God not to forget who our enemies are, not to have compassion for those out there who wish to destroy us.  If the Nazis are not a modern-day version of Amalek, then I don't know who is.  Going back to Poland and seeing the concentration camps, the mass graves and the beautiful yet empty synagogues that once stood full is - in my humble opinion - the fulfillment of remembering all that Amalek has done to us.

The third question is a more difficult one to tackle:  I, for one, has a difficult time even going to Yad Vashem.  I don't know if it's because I am one step closer to the Holocaust, having grandparents that went through it, or because it's truly terrifying for me to imagine regular and ordinary men committing such heinous crimes against a group of people for no other reason than the fact they were Jewish.  My son was nervous about this, about whether or not he'd be able to "deal" with it.  There were things that even I couldn't see - for example, we walked into a large barracks in Majdanek that was filled - and I mean FILLED (filled floor to ceiling with only a narrow aisle to walk down left open) with shoes.  I did walk in at first because I wasn't sure what was in there, but the second I saw what was in there, I sucked in a deep ragged breath, did an about face and walked out.  Even in those five seconds, I saw way more than I could handle.  Baby shoes, red high heel shoes, black loafers - every shoe belonged to someone who likely was murdered within a couple of feet where I stood.  I sat outside and waited for the rest of the group - and I wasn't alone.  The Holocaust survivor that came with us on our trip was also sitting outside with his wife.  She told me that he, too, couldn't handle the shoes.  And he'd been in Birkenau.  So, no, it's not easy.  And I'm a grown woman, so I can't imagine how difficult this experience will be for my almost-18 year old son.  But I know that he's with his friends, and a well-equipped staff of teachers and adults and that they have experience dealing with boys who might find it too difficult to cope.  Do I feel that this might be too much for a teenager to handle?  Probably.  But next year he'll be going into the IDF.  In a way, he'll be leaving his childhood behind and entering the very real world of being not only an adult, but a trained soldier.  This experience in Poland will no doubt make him understand the importance of having a Jewish country of our own, but in addition to that, I'm hoping it will give him strength and a real purpose to WHY he's asked to serve his country, and WHY he NEEDS to stand up in defense of our small nation.  

I'm hoping he'll stand tall and proud that he's chosen to defend his people when not 75 years ago, the thriving Jewish population of Eastern Europe was all but decimated while the rest of the world stood by and watched.  

For this reason alone, his trip to Poland will have been worth it all.

Above is a barracks in Majdanek filled with shoes...

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