A few years ago every book I read was about the Holocaust. I needed to see it for myself, to try to understand what happened. I set a goal to lead a JUF Mission to Poland, to visit the death camps and learn about the Holocaust, and then to Israel to feel the Jewish people's rebirth. This October I finally went.
In three long days we visited Auschwitz, Birkenau, Majdanek, and Treblinka. Each camp presented its own story, its own sadness. Coming into the experience, I feared Auschwitz the most. I'd read and heard the most horrifying stories about what happened there. Besides the murders, I'd heard about harsh work conditions, punishments, and human experiments.
In Birkenau, the first thing we saw was the long train tracks, the end of the road, and the end of life. Walking into the camp and entering the buildings, we saw how the prisoners lived and died. The remains of the gas chambers and crematoria remain in the midst of a moving memorial.
We visited Majdanek on a dreary day, which seemed fitting. The camp remains eerily as it looked during the war. We stood on the land under which our families' ashes lay buried. For me, this camp presented a gut-wrenching picture of what had occurred.
The final death camp we visited was Treblinka. Set amidst a beautiful forest, in the middle of nowhere, the buildings that saw the camp's horrors no longer remain. Just an enormous memorial to the towns of the 800,000 Jews that perished there. Built solely to exterminate Jews, a person's life expectancy at Treblinka lasted but a few hours. At the end of the war, the Nazis used bulldozers to destroy the camp, and covered it with soil to create a big field for cattle grazing. The absence of the actual camp represented the absence of all of the murdered Jews. A huge void, it sucked us in like a black hole and took our breath away.
We learned about the rich Jewish history and culture that flourished in Poland before the war. We saw the ghettos our ancestors inhabited, and introduced us to righteous gentiles who saved Jews during the war. Finally, we witnessed the rebirth of Judaism and the Jewish communities of Krakow and Warsaw. The JCCs and their incredible staffs, with the aid of our JUF dollars, are helping Jewish life return to Poland. A phoenix from the ashes. The hope and excitement refreshed our group, and soothed some of the scars created while visiting the camps.
Our last stop in Warsaw was the last remaining wall of the Warsaw ghetto. We arrived in Israel at 4 a.m., and went directly to the Western Wall. We traveled symbolically from wall to wall. It was an incredible way to arrive in our homeland after visiting the land of our attempted extinction.
While in Israel, we met with Anat Hoffman, the determined and progressive leader of the Women of the Wall movement. We visited Etgarim, a JUF-supported agency that helps young adults with disabilities develop life skills and self-confidence through sailing and other sports. At the JUF-supported project, the Tzahali program, we learned about young Orthodox women who want to join the army and how they transition out of one realm and into another. In Sderot, we visited the indoor playground created so that children could play and be safe outside of their homes and schools. At the trauma center there, we learned about their rehabilitation processes, which are on the international forefront of care for trauma victims. We were guests for Shabbat dinner at the home of Chef Atalya a fantastic Israeli chef, with lone soldiers.
At the IDF counter-terrorism training facility in Gush Etzion, one of the heads of the program made one of the most profound statements of the entire trip , as he prepared to teach us to shoot Uzi's and 22's. "You just came from Poland," he said. " We will make sure that what happened there will never happen again. If there is ever any Jew anywhere in the world who needs help, we will be there. They will not
We should never again experience the helplessness and horror of the Holocaust. We will do everything in our power to make sure it doesn't happen again. Trips like the one led by our JUF Missions Director, Naomi Fox, and taught by our Judaic scholar, Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko, will do that. Our education and understanding of our past and present will help us control our future.
It was the trip of a lifetime and a mitzvah for us all.
Debbie Winnick, of Highland Park, is a director on the Women's Board and currently serves as a LOJE (Lion of Judah Endowment) chair. She is also co-chairing the End of Year Campaign with her husband, Adam.