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Rabbinic Mission to Poland and Germany: Part 1

11/10/2015 10:28:04 AM


Rabbi George Gittleman

I was quite anxious when we lifted off from SFO for an eleven-day rabbinic mission to Poland and Berlin with the Northern California Board of Rabbis. To me, Poland was the graveyard of the Jewish people. Only 350,000 of the 3.5 million Jews who lived in Poland survived the war. Just thinking about the trip overwhelmed me.

We started in Warsaw, going straight from the airport to the recently opened Polin Museum, an amazing historical and educational center dedicated to 1,000 years of Polish Jewish history. (“Polin” is not a misspelling; rather, it is a transliteration of the Jewish folk understanding of the name: po/here (the Jewish people can) lin/rest).

The Museum is housed in a beautiful contemporary building. Rather than focus on artifacts, it uses various forms of interactive multi-media to tell the story of the Jewish experience in Poland. When we arrived, the place was packed full of ordinary Pols – school children on field trips, families, pensioners – all making their way through the various exhibits of the museum. This was my first encounter with a surprising phenomenon: many Pols, in spite of their long history of anti-Semitism, have a great interest in Judaism and Jewish life.

The next day we descended into the horror story of the Warsaw Ghetto. After the uprising, the Nazis destroyed the ghetto and by the war’s end, 88 percent of Warsaw had been reduced to rubble!

This means that almost any trace of the ghetto is gone. What’s left is a network of markers and memorials that tell the brutal story of the forced concentration and eventual liquidation of the 450,000 Jews imprisoned there. I cried a river that day.

Of all the things we saw and heard the thing that moved me most was touching the rough, hard surface of one of the metal boxes Emanuel Ringleblum used to store and bury evidence of their experience in the ghetto. Ringleblum was an historian. Sensing that a new, horrific Jewish story was playing out in the ghetto, he and his colleagues sought to secretly create an archive of their experience. They met over Shabbat and thus called the secret archive “Oneg Shabbat.” They collected everything they could get their hands on that would help document their experience: diaries, paintings, drawings, signs, German documents, poetry, sermons, Torah commentaries, etc. The gross magnitude of the Shoah is soul-numbing, yet seeing documents from the archive and reliving the valiant story of how the collection was secretly gathered and then buried just before the ghetto was destroyed, cracked my heart wide open.

From Warsaw we traveled by bus to Krakow. The bucolic Polish countryside was in sharp contrast to my (and many of the other rabbis on the trip) emotional landscape. As I surveyed the rolling hills, farmland and forests, I couldn’t help but remember a poem by the early Zionist poet Uri Tzvi Greenberg called, “Under the Tooth of their Plough.” It’s too long (and too harsh) to share in full here;the first two stanzas are more than enough to set the mood:

Once more the snows have melted there…and the murderers now are farmers.
There they have gone out to plough their farmlands, all of which are my graveyards.
If the tooth of their plough, rolling skull-like over the furrow, should churn up
A skeleton of mine, the ploughman will not be saddened or shocked,
But will grin and recognize it, recognize the mark where his tools struck…

Spring anew over land: bud and bulb and lilac and warbling birds.
By the shining stream of shallow waters, the resting place of herds, 
The roving Jews are no more: no more with their beards and side-curls.
They are no more in the inns with tallit and tsitsit over their shirts;
They are no more in the grocery store or the clothing store,
They are no more in their workshops and train cars now,
They are no more in the synagogue, even, or in the marketplace,
They are all under the tooth of the …plough…

The next morning we went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was another beautiful fall day; honey-strained light filtered through the trees, their yellow, burnt orange, red leaves fluttering in a light breeze. A raptor circled above us and then perched on one of the curved steel posts of a once-electrified barbed wire fence that surrounds the camp as far as the eye can see. My jaw dropped. The scale of the place is unimaginable.

Our guide, Thomas, one of a number of non-Jewish Pols we met who is committed to remembering and telling the Polish Jewish experience before, during and after the war, explained that Auschwitz-Birkenau was a very efficient industrial complex essential to the Nazi war machine. First, all the property of the Jews and others deported there was taken. Those who could work were forced into slave labor camps (the complex included 40 factories!). Those murdered were also used; their hair woven into textiles, their gold fillings extracted after they were gassed, their clothes sent back to Germany, etc.

We were in Auschwitz-Birkenau half a day, mostly walking from one site to another. We started where the trains unloaded their human cargo. As our guide was talking I noticed a placard, a memorial to the Hungarian Jews deported and killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau. There is also a black and white photograph which I recognized as Lillian Judd and her two sisters! I have the same picture hanging in my study at Shomrei Torah. The photo was taken moments after they had exited the train. Her father had just been beaten to death…

We move on. Here was where the prisoners “lived”. A small percentage of the barracks was re-created. What you see is a few structures and then a city of brick foundations. Here was one of the killing sites; here was one of three crematoria; here is where their property was sorted, and on and on. At the back of the complex there are open fields, woods and memorials to the ashen remains of the hundreds of thousands of people buried there. I walked to the edge of the woods, momentarily transfixed by the fall colors, and then I lay down with my face in the dirt.

Mon, July 13 2020 21 Tammuz 5780