Monday, August 26, 2013

Guest Post: Reflections on the Young Israel of Scarsdale’s Heritage Mission to Poland by Beverly Rosenbaum

We began reading the fifth book of the Torah, Devarim, a few weeks ago and will be reading from it through the holidays that begin in just a few weeks.  In Devarim, the people of Israel have just completed their 40 years of sojourning in the wilderness after leaving Egypt.  They stand on the threshold of entering Israel, on the verge of achieving their dreams and beginning a bright future in the promised land.  But Devarim begins with Moses painstakingly reviewing and retelling the people all the events of the last 40 years.  This is a new generation of people who are entering Israel and in order for them to benefit the most from what their future there holds, they must understand the past.

As Jews, we all know and understand the importance of our past and the imperative of “zachor”- of remembering.  I just returned from my synagogue’s, Young Israel of Scarsdale’s, Heritage Mission to Poland two weeks ago, and the imperative of remembering has never been as clear for me.  I am still decompressing from this very difficult but incredibly important and meaningful experience.

Young Israel of Scarsdale Heritage Mission to Poland
Thirty-six of us (pictured, right) went on this mission led by our rabbi, Rabbi Jonathan Morgenstern, and a fabulous historian and scholar, David Bernstein, the Dean of Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, organized and coordinated by Michael Berl, the Director of Heritage Seminars based in Jerusalem. I was a co-chair of the mission with my friend and fellow synagogue member, Arlene Smith, and we had actually started planning the mission more than six years ago with Rabbi Morgenstern’s predecessor, the Young Israel of Scarsdale’s beloved rabbi, Rabbi Jacob Rubenstein, z”l, who had been born in a DP camp, and who died so tragically together with his wife Debbie in a house fire a week before Passover five years ago when his house was struck by lightning. We were planning to do this mission that summer but shelved it for obvious reasons and decided to do it this summer in honor of the Rabbi and Debbie’s fifth Yahrzeit.  It was a very special trip for all of us.

For me, the trip was also very personal.  My mother was a survivor of the Shoah who was in eight or more different concentration camps over a four year period and lost her entire family during the war.  I had felt a need to do this trip for a very long time in order to honor the memory of my grandparents, and aunt and uncle whom I never knew.
Synagogue in Tykocin
We spent a week in Poland, visiting both the sites of the rich and wonderful Jewish life that had flourished in Poland for more than 900 years, as well as the sites of the horrific brutalization and destruction of the Jews in the Shoah.  As one example, we went one morning to the town of Tykocin, that had been a typical shtetl, located about two hours from Warsaw.  We first visited the beautiful baroque style synagogue (pictured, left) that had been built there in 1642 and has many of our prayers painted on the walls since the synagogue was built before prayerbooks were being used.  We walked from the synagogue to the town square just a couple of blocks away. On August 25, 1941, all 2,000 Jews of Tikocyn were assembled by the Nazis on the town square, women and children on one side, men on the other.  The women and children were put on trucks and the men followed by foot, forced to sing the Hatikvah as they marched. They arrived at the Lupachowa forest to which we then drove, just a few miles away, where three pits had been dug and all two thousand Jews were shot to death and thrown into those pits (pictured, leftt).  Hundreds of years of thriving Jewish life in this shtetl were destroyed in a matter of hours. And this is just one example of many.  Today, 250 members of the IDF travel to Poland and visit Lupachowa each month - they sing the Hatikvah and say the memorial prayer there to ensure that these precious souls will always be remembered.

We, of course, went to concentration camps as well – to Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz.  As much as you read, see on TV or in the movies, and for me – as much as I heard from my mother, nothing can prepare you to see firsthand the scope and enormity both of the richness of Jewish life that had been and of its destruction.  Of the six million Jews killed in the Shoah, three million were Polish Jews.  We learned the chilling statistic that at the beginning of 1942, 80% of Polish Jewry was still alive and 20% had perished – one year later, by the beginning of 1943, the reverse was true and 80% of Polish Jewry had been decimated.

Davening at Auschwitz on Tisha B'Av
We spent the last day of our trip which was Tisha B’av at Auschwitz (pictured, right) and Birkenau and for as many times as I’ve seen pictures of the gate with the writing “Arbeit Macht Frei,” when I was actually standing there, walking through that gate, and standing on the rail tracks leading into Birkenau, I was beyond overwhelmed at the enormity of it.  There are simply no words to adequately describe the vastness of this horrific place of evil.  And we were there on a beautiful summer day when the sun was shining and we were walking on the green grass seeing the beautiful trees all around us and felt physically sickened by the contrast between nature’s beauty and this monstrous place of hell, thinking about what these trees must have witnessed.

I am back now for just two weeks and am still processing everything I saw and experienced. The trip had a profound impact on all of us and for me, I view it as one of the most important things I’ve ever done.

Thinking back, there were many difficult aspects of this trip but one of the most painful for me was to see the extent of the degradation and humiliation to which the Jews were subjected and their total helplessness and powerlessness.  This is difficult for us to fathom since we are lucky enough to live in a time when we are not powerless, when we can be and are activists who have loud voices and can use our voices.  And, thank G-d, we now have a state of Israel where no one will ever again be able to control our destiny.  My husband and I were lucky enough to go to Israel after the mission and for as many times as we have gone there in the past, this tiny country never felt more precious. If Poland represents the incomprehensible pain of our past, Israel represents the beauty and richness of our future.

Making an Israel connection at Auschwitz
I began by speaking about the importance of looking back and understanding our past in order to have a more meaningful future.  Just as Moses spoke about the past to the new generation as they were about to begin the next phase of their lives entering Israel, we are the new generation after the Shoah and are the legacy and continuation of the six million Jews who perished in the Shoah.  It is up to us to ensure that they will never be forgotten as we move forward working to ensure the safety of Israel and of American and world Jewry.

We are just beginning the Hebrew month of Elul as we prepare to celebrate the New Year in just a few weeks.  This is a time of promise and of hope for the year ahead, but it is also a time of reflection looking back at the past year.  As I said when I began, we are a people who know and understand the importance of remembering and embracing our past in order to have a rich and meaningful present and future.

Shana Tova U’Metukah!

Originally presented by Westchester Jewish Council Board Member Beverly Rosenbaum at the 2013 summer board meeting.

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