Two of our best friends are currently leading a NFTY group through Prague and Poland and then on to Israel. My wife and I did this twice in the past few years. Here is a recall of my first trip to Eastern Europe.
Dear Friends and Family:
It's unusual for me to find myself in our Beit T'fillah (outdoor chapel) at 10 p.m. on a Friday night in October, all by my lonesome. But, as I returned, last month, from a UAHC (now URJ) Camp Directors' trip to the Czech Republic and Poland, I didn't feel I had reached my destination until I arrived at our Beit T'fillah.
We took off on a grueling, six-day, experience, stepping back into the distant and cerebral past of the middle ages, and to the not so distant, emotional past of our Eastern European Jewish history. It was quite a personal voyage for me. You see, three of my grandparents came to America in the early 1900's from Prague, Czechoslovakia. Czech was spoken at our family get-togethers around tables filled with Bohemian foods. It just wasn't Thanksgiving if we weren't all at my Aunt Lill's on Chicago's West side, digging into the goose, dumplings, and cabbage along with the newer traditions, turkey, stuffing, and cranberries. The beer was Pilsner Urquell. We belonged to B’nai Jehoshua, a synagogue made up of mostly Czech families. Enough said. I knew I was a Czech Jew.
At several stops along the way that week, the realities of our Jewish past stepped up to splash their ice water in my face. The first was in a small synagogue in Prague where the living had honored the names of all Czech Jews deported by the Nazis, by listing them on the synagogue walls and ceilings. I stood there under the names of my Mother's family, the Steiners, who I would never meet or know. These were the relatives after which my Aunts and even my Grandfather were named. Until that moment I had never felt so related to our enemy's victims. I felt a deep connection to that family I would never know, but eternally miss. The names on that ceiling drew me right into the horrors of that time.
We left the Technicolor Prague for a black and white Warsaw and Krakow. Warsaw is a gray, cement block city where most of our Jewish presence has been erased. But, I did stand on Mila Street to honor the well-known Mordachai Anielewicz, leader of the ghetto revolt against the Nazi monsters. Standing on that street also gave me the opportunity to honor the not-so-well-known Moshe Pashtan, z"l, who, born on that street, escaped the ghetto as a child to Germany (of all places) and then to Israel, only to wind up sharing a tent with me for a summer as my Assistant Tzofim Unit Head at Olin-Sang-Ruby in 1969. Moshe and I took a bus to New York after camp that summer. I was leaving for a year (due mostly to Moshe's summer-long prodding) on my first pilgrimage to Israel. For me, Mila was Pashtan's street. It was one of the many spots I stopped to whisper the Kaddish.
I prayed again at the Jewish cemetery of Warsaw. It's overwhelming to stand amid the 250,000 Jewish graves, to read the Hebrew on the tombstones, to understand the poetry of their old words. It's another strong connection. This is where the enormity of our loss starts to become real. Kaddish seemed inadequate to me. But it was all I knew to say, a way to thank God for giving me life, to remember and to continue. In retrospect, Kaddish was the perfect Jewish memorial.
After a " From Russia With Love" style train ride to Krakow, thirty miles or so from my Father's family's hometown (The Klotz's came from Tarnov), we bused to the emotional apex of our trip, Auschwitz and Birkenau, Nazi work and death camps. Passing under that wrought iron sign "Arbact Macht Frei" (work will make you free), walking through a gas chamber, seeing the ovens, strips away the distance and protection the filters of film, printed word, even personal testimony of survivors affords. Being there makes it real. Very real. The impact is so deep it takes the breath away.
Finally, it's Birkinau. This is where the train tracks end; the camp built solely for the purpose of killing Jews. A million and a half of our grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins stepped out of their cattle cars and departed this world at that wrenched place. Men to the left, women and children to the right. Being there brings the inescapable thought that it could have been me. It could have been you. Then the reality, it was me and it was you. To the left and to the right; stripped, gassed, cremated, ashes dumped into two small pools of water. All that remains are those pools. We were numb standing by the water. We neither cried nor screamed. Just numb. Rabbi Allan Smith, our guide that day began our ascent from those depths with a worship service in the area adjacent to the water pools filled with ashes. We shared some of our thoughts along with the prayers. Then he led us in the opposite direction the 800,000 women and children took as they marched to their deaths down a half-mile brick path. They are in the pools. We rise from the place of the ashes to carry on and do our work and live as Jews. I stopped and dug up a few pieces of brick from that path. So many children had stepped there. I needed something in my pocket to hold on to. When my group talked a bit about the experience I told my colleagues that, after the sadness and the anger, I felt an intense sense of pride and confirmation. Pride in carrying on our Jewish heritage. Pride in my ethnicity, my faith, my membership in Am Yisrael. This was an experience that confirmed all of the above and even more, the work we do, not only here at camp and in NFTY, but in every synagogue, and in every home where our kids learn to sing the Shabbat blessings and light the Chanukiot. I've always maintained that it is sacred work, teaching kids to love Judaism and strengthening their Jewish identities. But now, after having been in this place, I felt I was carrying home the blessings of those who walked that brick path. I'm honored to carry the torch into the future.
So, I returned late on a Friday night, exhausted after over thirty hours of travel. On the way home from the airport I took a left instead of a right and wound up at camp (just a minute out of the way). Closed and dark, it's still GUCI. I took ten minutes to sit in our Beit T'fillah imagining and remembering the voices of our campers and staff, singing our prayers, fanning away the heat with prayer cards. That's how I completed this extraordinary trip.
And so, I headed home, my pockets lumpy with pieces of brick.
AM YISRAEL CHAI!