By Carlie Ladinsky
Carlie Ladinsky, a Walton High School junior, has spent the spring semester studying in Israel through Jewish National Fund’s Shirlye Kaufman Birnbrey Alexander Muss High School in Israel Impact Fellowship Program. She visited Poland in April.
Poland was what I expected it, but it was also completely different. I never thought Poland would be downright devastating. It unleashed hidden sadness. My class and I found ourselves torn up about stories that did not affect us before and instances we never knew existed.
Even when we toured the happier parts of Poland, I could feel a pit of sadness inside me. Most of my classmates felt the same way and assumed it was death in the air from the Holocaust.
The Holocaust’s numbers were so huge and the circumstances so catastrophic that the whole thing is ungraspable. I often found myself forcing emotions but later realized it was OK if I didn’t cry — that did not mean I didn’t feel sad. Events of pre-Holocaust times and the Shoah prove that the Holocaust is heartless, not me.
In the Yad Vashem museum, we went to an area that displayed videos and pictures of Jewish life before the war and then life in the concentration camps. Before the war, children ran up and down the streets, parents frantically ran after their laughing sons and daughters, and grandparents watched contently from a distance. Life was good.
Far too quickly, the laughter and smiles turned into cries and frowns. Everyone looked the same: frail and distraught.
I remember a little girl with pigtails who was shown jumping rope during the prewar times. Later she was merely skin and bones and had no family, or even her jump rope, to keep her company.
When I was younger, I always jumped rope in front of my house, trying to learn tricks to show my neighbors. It is crazy to imagine that two little girls who loved to jump rope were set on completely different paths — one to suffer, the other to thrive. I could see myself in that little girl; thus, I felt a more personal connection to the destruction.
As soon as we got off the plane, we were thrown headfirst into the darkness of Poland.
We started at a Warsaw cemetery from before the Holocaust. The people buried there established a Jewish culture, a common ground for Jews to express themselves publicly, socially and religiously.
Y.L. Peretz, for example, was a Yiddish and Hebrew writer who was born to a prominent family in a multiethnic Polish city (at the time ruled by Russia) that was a stronghold of the Jewish Enlightenment. Ester Rachel Kaminska traced the future path of the Yiddish theater.
This collection of graves was sad, but I also felt comforted that the people did not die in pain and did make a huge contribution to the Jewish community. Right before she died, Kaminska wrote in her diary: “It is not the first time that I start my life from scratch, but these words are written by a person who, after decades of frenetic work as an actress, director and playwright, finds herself without work, without a home, without a country.”
Another pre-Holocaust place is the Poznanski Palace. Izrael Poznanski put his palace close to his factory in Lodz. He decided to hire only Jewish manufacturers so that the Jewish economy would flourish. Because of his devotion to the factory, he made a huge contribution to the industry of Lodz. He gave to the city and to the community, and 230,000 Jews prospered in Lodz. The Holocaust left only 20,000 of them.
Poznanski made miraculous efforts to keep the Jewish reputation high, but I think he threw away his money to build his colossal home and monumental grave. There comes a point when a house becomes flashy, not functional; excessive, not livable; wasteful, not appropriate. I did not feel sadness here except for the numbers: the 210,000 people lost.
We spent Shabbat in Krakow. We went to the Isaac Synagogue — the men going to the right, the women to the left. Most of the girls went up the stairs to a ledge that looked over the entire shul. People were celebrating Shabbat in peace. This is what shul was like before the war; men and women were able to follow their Shabbat traditions with freely expressed prayer.
I am not too fond of shul. I am pretty secular, so prayers and chants are not appealing to me. Nevertheless, it was nice to see Jews united in prayer in the same place where they were banned from practicing more than 70 years ago.
The funeral home was stunning. There were beautiful stained-glass windows on the back wall. The sun shone through the colors and lighted up the sole table in the middle of the room. Before the war, people in the community cleaned bodies on that table and buried them in the Lodz cemetery.
The room seemed holy and special, so I felt disheartened that these traditional preparations were not used in the Holocaust.
A huge portion of the Lodz cemetery was set aside as the ghetto fields. The 44,000 victims who died in the Lodz ghetto were fortunate enough to receive individual graves. But most remained unidentified and unclaimed.
This was the first place in our trip where many students felt the impact of the Holocaust and cried. I did not cry, but I felt extremely uneasy. I was angry and uncomfortable when I saw my classmates sitting and journaling in the middle of the cemetery. To me, it was an inappropriate place to record their thoughts. My friend Sophia said to me, crying, “I just want to know their favorite ice cream flavor, their hobbies, their first love.”
Those questions seem simple, but standing in that field, I knew it was a privilege to be able to answer even the simplest of questions.
Our first Holocaust location was the train station in Lodz, where Chaim Rumkowski was appointed by the Nazis as a Jewish wartime business leader and head of the Council of Elders. This ghetto was the last to be liquidated in Poland because of its notable productivity, but its residents eventually were deported to Auschwitz and other extermination camps.
When I walked into a train car, I saw half my classmates squished together on the right side, so I expected to go to the left to have extra room. When I was directed to the right, I caught a glimpse of the reality of the Holocaust: A train car that would comfortably hold 20 people instead trapped 100 victims at a time.
The experience was terrifying. I barely had room to move; Jews 70 years ago scarcely had space to breathe. The only shred of safety was the light from the sorry excuse for a window. When a working train passed us, we were all startled and jumped in our places. We all experienced five seconds of fear, but I cannot imagine the years of fear Jews felt under the Nazis.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was the most lethal camp in World War II. Walking around in the freezing cold was close to unbearable. I kept thinking how fortunate we were to have our layers and our knowledge that we would be able to walk out in a couple of hours. I put myself in the shoes of the victims and concluded that I most likely would have given up because of the cold alone. I didn’t even take into account the work or the other brutal conditions.
I thought of a man on the train tracks who had refused to take off his tefillin. It is amazing that he held on to the religious flame in his heart; I would have succumbed to any request.
I stepped on each plank of wood on the train track. The planks seemed to never end, but when I reached the camp gate, I sighed. I knew I could walk out and return to my reality, but for the deported men, women and children, Birkenau was their reality.
The most common mode of mass killing in the Holocaust was the gas chamber. I learned about the gas chambers in history classes at home, but stepping inside one was nothing like the textbooks. There were smudges of blue on the floor and walls from the Zyklon B poison tablets. The walls had scratch marks from people trying to pull themselves up for a last gulp of air.
With the exception of one young girl shielded by a larger woman, no one survived the gas chambers. Jews went into showers thinking they were gas chambers, and they went into gas chambers thinking they were showers. Life for them was one giant question mark.
I looked at my shoes and thought to myself how hundreds and thousands of bodies were beneath my feet. Death was right below me. And it was one of the smallest gas chambers: It killed only 700 people a day.
I couldn’t process how I was feeling. I was not sad; I was not numb. It was all just too much, and it got worse from there.
“Majdanek — it was the worst thing I experienced during the war.” These were the words of Alf Knudsen. I read his story in the Majdanek Museum. His picture looked so innocent, but behind that face was a history of barbed wire, torture and no escape.
Majdanek was much more than a death camp. The couple who ran it invented murderous techniques such as dragging a body behind a motorcycle and skinning women to create art canvases.
I still could not connect with the stories we were told, but it all became real when we were taken to the mountain of ashes. Those were Jews. Those were victims. Those were the tortured. Those ashes were once human beings. The relatively small mound of dust and bones represented countless human beings — unidentified and unclaimed.
I could not and still cannot fathom how those ashes used to have arms, legs and heartbeats. Right before we went back to the buses, I looked down and saw scattered bones. I finally felt the devastation of the Shoah.
Throughout the week in Poland, two questions kept running through my mind: Why Poland, and why those people?
Poland is a beautiful country. Its destruction physically, socially, economically, culturally and in other various ways awful. Its beauty is no longer appreciated because it is associated with the Holocaust. It truly is a shame. And how did the universe, G-d or whatever is beyond us decide those Jews were to be subjected to such torture?
I also wondered how I am so privileged in life. Why wasn’t it me 70 years ago spending days in the train cars or catching my last glimpse of light in the gas chambers or having my head shaved, being stripped of my warmth, beauty and dignity?
I do not know why events turned out as they did, but it is unfair.
I would not repeat my experience in Poland, but I am glad I went once. Everyone should go at least once. It is unforgettable.
Stepping back into Israel gave me a new appreciation for a Jewish state. As my teacher proclaimed hundreds of times: “Never forget; we are still here.”