Emotionally drained. Inspired.
by Rabbi Spinka
We just returned from our annual trip to Poland. I’m not sure how exactly to encapsulate an experience so moving and gut wrenching to those who have never been. We visited Hell. We experienced Heaven. We felt some of the darkest moments of our people’s history. Nearly every step along the way we encountered the utter indifference and lack of respect from locals and tourists. From selfie sticks and death camp comic books, to young children biking through mass graves in the forrest and couples taking pleasant walks through sites of mass extermination. Auschwitz 1 has been turned into a museum. Coffee shops and all. Tourists groups come by the hundreds taking pictures smiling, laughing and joking around. It’s a place on the map to see. History that makes Poland famous. Not real human suffering. The tour guide we are forced to use speaks in a cold, matter of fact way. Not once did she acknowledge that our group is Jewish. She speaks about the Jews as if they are a random group that happened to be on the wrong side of Nazi ideology. But for us, this place is different. It is not a museum.
We also saw some good on the side of the locals. A elderly man who made it is his life’s mission to preserve a beautiful synagogue in Lancet. He has even learned Hebrew fluently! Paulina – a 91 year old polish woman – whose family built an underground bunker in their house and saved over 20 jews. She has been honored by Yad Vashem and given the title of Righteous Amongst the Gentiles.
And yet through all the darkness, something remarkable happened in 8 days. People were able to be real. Real with themselves. Real with each other. When confronted by death, you are forced to analyze life. What are we living for? What truly is important? The pettiness of our daily lives seems so insignificant. Small talk was almost non existent. Meaningful conversation the norm. Many people asked me how I can keep going back to Poland year after year. Where else can you encounter such authenticity and be given a chance to press the restart button on life? We discovered true bonds of friendship that will last a lifetime. We discovered ourselves.
We brought life back to ancient synagogues and towns. We danced. We sang. The happiness at these moments was indescribable. Perhaps, being dragged through the lowest of lows enabled us to access the highest of highs.
The trip ended in the famed Talmudical Yeshiva of Chachme Lublin. For most people this historic building is now just a hotel and museum. But we were different guests. Not guests at all. The walls of the Yeshiva once again reverberated with the sounds of our ancient texts as 30 Jewish students engaged in passionate conversation over The Ethics of our Fathers. Who is wise? One who learns something from everyone. Who is strong? One who can exercise self control. Who is wealthy? One who appreciates what he already has. Who is honored? One who honors others. The Nazis took each and every last yeshiva bachur (students), killed him and made the Yeshiva building into their headquarters. Well, we took it back! We began the process of restoring the Crown of Torah learning. Jewish vengeance in it’s finest form.
G-d tells us in Deuteronomy (30:11-14) : “For this commandment (to study Torah) that I command you today, is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in the heavens (for you) to say , “Who can ascend to the heavens for us and take it, and let us hear it, so that we can perform it?” Nor is it across the sea (for you) to say , “Who can cross to the other side of the sea for us and take it, and let us hear it, so that we can perform it?” Rather, the matter is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to perform it. See – I have placed before you today life and good, death and evil…and you shall choose life”. How we live our lives is an active choice. Sure, what happens to us may be out of our control, but in each situation we can choose how to respond.
Choose life? Oh yes, we chose life.
Emotionally drained. Inspired.