Rabbi Gelb’s Reflections From Poland
Rabbi Ed Gelb just returned from the Reshet Ramah Poland Journey for Adults, a week-long trip to Poland organized by the National Ramah Commission and run by the Ramah Israel Institute.
“You don’t happen to have an upgrade, do you?” I asked in Munich as I was rushing to make my connection from Krakow on my way home from visiting Warsaw, Majdanek, the Children’s Forest, Auschwitz, Birkenau and other sites in Poland. I had just seen a replica of a cattle car that 100 or so Jews were crammed into on a six-day journey through extreme cold. “I wonder if there will be internet on the plane” I thought as I boarded. I wonder if every time I stand in line again, go a few hours without eating, or decide not to buy something I cannot afford, I will think of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. I suspect this experience was so powerful that at times I will. At other times, I am sure I will complain as usual.
On our tour of Poland, our tour guide tried to emphasize how we lost a whole world of rich Jewish culture. The new film produced by Yad Vashem that is shown in Auschwitz and the 250,000 gravestones in a Warsaw cemetery certainly proved that point. Our last stop was the JCC in Krakow. It seems Jewish life is not completely dead in Poland. I learned that after Communist rule ended, tens of thousands of Poles have discovered that they have Jewish roots.
All of this is interesting. All of this I understand from books I have read, films I have seen and history I have learned. And all of it, all of it, pales in comparison to the pain and suffering that people experienced.
The stories of young mothers having to decide whether to leave their young children behind and volunteer to move to a new work detail or to stay with their children and most likely die with them. The testimony of how the bodies in the gas chambers had to be pried apart to separate families holding each other through the agony of being gassed. I saw the selection square. I walked the path to the crematoriums. You could almost smell it. Parents knew they were going to their deaths. Their last energy was spent making it a little less scary for their children. Throughout my trip, I would tiptoe up to the emotional window. I would think about my children. What would I do? What would I say? How could I watch their pain? I let some of that pain in, but I had to retreat. I had to retreat back to my safe place.
There is a part of me that lost faith in God and humanity on this trip. Why bother keeping Shabbat? Why help others? Take care of your own and have as much fun as possible. It just doesn’t matter because look what happened. In the middle of a war, Nazi Germany committed tremendous resources to destroy all Jewish men, women and children. The effort might have cost them victory. By and large, the world stood by, went along, or actively participated. Really, there is just no explanation that doesn’t damn God, man or both.
Yet, I cannot accept that answer. It cannot be all in vain. We sat one night and listened as Paulina, an 89-year-old Polish woman, told us how she and her parents saved about a dozen Jews. They saw other Poles killed for helping, but they still did it. “Why?” I asked, “What did your parents tell you as to why they did it?” She said her father told her that Jews were people and this is what human beings do for other human beings. That is the revolution of Judaism. The idea that every individual counts. That we are all created in God’s image. The Nazis went after us because we represent a civilization that values life.
I am on my way home. I cannot wait to hold my children. I suspect I will have nightmares in the coming days and weeks. I hope we are never faced with the choices Holocaust victims were forced to make. Perhaps if we make a lot a little decisions better. Volunteer a little more, speak a little more kindly, give a little more tzedekah, and let our voices be heard when we learn about suffering around the world. Perhaps then we can be a light unto the nations and influence others to value every human life. I hope there is heaven for those poor victims. The children, the adults, the moms, dads, old people, and those who tried to save others. I don’t know if there is, but I hope so.
I went to Poland. It has changed me. Maybe not as much as I hoped, but it has changed me. I recommend you go and you go soon. Soon, there won’t be survivors or righteous among the nations left to give their testimony.
Rabbi Ed Gelb, Director
Photo of the selection plaza at Birkenau: