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Why Go To Poland?

Why Go To Poland?

Although my daughter's trip boosted the economy of the very people who wished us dead, it was worth it.


When my daughter was accepted to a girls' seminary for a year of study in Israel, we were all delighted... until I found out that a trip to Poland was a required part of the curriculum.

My husband's entire family, with the exception of his parents, maternal grandmother, and a cousin, had been murdered during WWII. All but his maternal grandfather (who had been shot and killed while escaping over the border) had been sent to death camps in Poland. I know that anti-Semitism in Poland continues unabated, and I couldn't bear to think that such a trip would boost the economy of the very people who wished us dead, even to this day.

I spoke at length with Jews who had made the journey to Poland. I was especially moved when I heard Rabbi Paysach Krohn speak about his experiences there when he led a tour of the yeshiva communities of Eastern Europe. But I remained unsettled, uncomfortable, unconvinced, and not a little resentful that my daughter was "forced" to participate in the trip, and we parents were compelled to be supportive, both emotionally and financially (though the seminary's trip was heavily subsidized due to a generous sponsor).

In the coldest part of winter, my daughter and 180 other girls left Israel for Poland. They merited being in the yeshiva of Rabbi Meir Shapiro in Lublin during the worldwide Siyum HaShas (completion of the Talmud, a seven-year cyclical event), which was especially significant since Lublin is where Rabbi Shapiro began the page-a-day Talmud study program known as Daf Yomi that today has hundreds of thousands of participants around the world. They visited the grave of Sarah Schenirer, who founded the Bais Yaakov educational system for girls, in Cracow on her yarzheit. They visited former yeshivas and death camps. They had excellent guides, including Rabbi Hanoch Teller, whose gift of narrative brought history and shtetl life alive.

As anticipated, anti-Semitism was also still very much alive. While the group was gathered in a former synagogue, several Polish youths surrounded the shul from outside and peered into the windows, jeering and running their fingers across their necks, pretending to slit their throats and then pointing to the girls inside. In another gathering in a different city, Poles made their hands into a "gun" and pretended to "shoot" them. The girls were repeatedly heckled. They were told by the trip organizers never to walk in groups in smaller Polish cities and towns lest they call attention to themselves; that their lives might be in danger.

Yet two very different things stood out.

Jews of the pre-War shtetl were poor and living conditions were primitive. Often there was no electricity, no running water, no indoor plumbing; the streets unpaved and muddy and the food inadequate. But the synagogue was the center of every community, and any money the residents had went towards its beautification and upkeep, because it, and all it represented, was so important to them.

My daughter commented that it was a waste to use color film when photographing Poland in winter, since everything is so grey and bleak. In its countryside of grey -- grey sky, grey landscape, grey buildings (and many bars), and grey existence -- the few shuls that had been restored with historical accuracy by survivors' organizations shone like precious jewels. Many were decorated with beautiful hand-painted designs in bright colors, lit by polished lanterns and framed with magnificently carved woodwork.

Despite their abject poverty, Polish Jews prioritized, and their synagogues and yeshivas were their mainstay, in both a physical and spiritual sense.

As my daughter stood at the barbed wire of a death camp, she thought, "What gave these Polish Jews the will to live?"

Life in Poland, with its physical deprivation and anti-Semitism, was a constant challenge. Even before the war, there was hunger, disease, and pogroms. Why would one want to be Jewish in such an environment? Those "normal" conditions would deteriorate to an absolute nadir during the Holocaust, when cruelty peaked; fear, beatings, torture, starvation and the death of one's children and parents were the new "normal."

As my daughter stood at the barbed wire of a death camp, she thought, "Why go on? What gave these Polish Jews the will to live? Why did they fight so desperately to survive? And even if they did manage to survive, what was the point? What were they going back to? The same hatred and fear and danger and deprivation, only this time, without their loved ones?"

And my daughter thought of those beautiful, restored shuls in the shtetls. Of her own family, and her many nieces and nephews, who have arisen from those very ashes of the death camps.

Since she was a little girl, she had learned Ethics of the Fathers in school: "Moses received the Torah at Sinai and handed it down to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the Men of the Great Assembly..."

Standing at the wire, the words of that Mishna came alive. The Jews of Poland, and Jews throughout history, no matter how grim their situation, fought desperately to survive. Not for themselves, but on behalf of Am Yisrael, the Jewish people. She understood with newfound clarity: "I matter. The smaller picture may look bad, but I am part of a way bigger and very important picture. I am a link in this great chain. Despite attempts to cut this chain throughout history, through hatred or assimilation, despite all the odds, it is up to ME to carry on and make sure this chain continues intact."

I still don't feel comfortable with the idea of going to the vast Jewish graveyard that is today's Poland. I would not consider a trip there for myself. But in these increasingly difficult times, my daughter knows why she is here, with a newfound sense of conviction.

That is why my daughter went to Poland.


August 5, 2006

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Visitor Comments: 53

(40) Beverly Kurtin, July 23, 2013 10:52 PM

Jong is wrong

Jong tries to make Poland sound like a paradise for Jews. Granted, many Poles did their best to protect their Jewish neighbors. More, however, told the Germans exactly where Jews were hiding. The majority of Poles to this day hate Jews with a passion.
My maternal grandmother hid under a pile of wood and saw what nobody should ever see: Her entire family was brutally killed by...not Germans...Polish people who stole whatever they could from the poor shtettle, but first they murdered the Jews, then they stole.

Poles are humble? Oh yeah. Pretending to cut Jew's throats or shooting them? Very humble of them.

I'm certain that there are decent Poles, I've met some, but the majority? They're still ignorantly saying that Jews killed Jesus when the facts say that Jesus was executed for the crime of sedition by his buds calling him King of the Jews when Cesar was the King of all areas conquered by the Romans.

What kills me is that the so-called "New" testament is so filled with stuff that never happened and was never said. I've read the Christian books in several versions (the worst being the KJV) in English and in Greek. We didn't do it .

There is only one country I wish to visit: Israel. It will never happen as I'm not wealthy, but I wouldn't go to Poland on a bet.

(39) Anna, July 23, 2013 8:11 PM

Why meek and weak? Lack of calories

I went to Warsaw and on the general city tour we stopped at the Ghetto memorial and the guide told us, with tears in his eyes, that the residents were living on only 300 calories a day. I was a bit surprised that he was so upset about this. Until I got home and went on a diet. After only a few hours without proper food and water, your energy and enthusiasm evaporates. On top of this add life's major stresses, no job, moving house, no doctor, no education, no prospects, stress of danger and uncertainty, death of friends. After hours, days, weeks, months on a starvation diet your will and enthusiasm to fight evaporates. Hard to understand when you have a home, a job, a meal, a drink, a diet, a gun and a future.

(38) Jong, May 4, 2013 12:24 PM


It aches me to see this groundless antisemitism story about Poland. I hope some well known truth will wake you up.
1. Before WWII Poland had the largest Jewish population on earth. Why? Poland was the most tolerante country on Jews in Europe. Catholics and Jews coexisted peacefully before the war for about 1000 years.
2. Count the number of righteous people with their trees in Israel. You cannot deny Poland is No.1. So many Poles got killed to help Jews survive while the majority of Jews in England, and the US did nothing to save their fellow Jews. They knew exactly what was going on in Poland then.
3. WWII broke out by the attack of German Nazis to Poland. Poles and Polish Jews equally suffered. It was NOT a war broken out to kill Jews, but a war to eliminate Poles and Jews. It is German Nazi who made Poland Jewish graveland, not the Poles. Besides, the biggest Jewish graveland is NOT Awshubitz, but Treblinka. In Awshubitz, Poles and Jews were killed, while in Treblinka only Jews were killed.
4. Polish people are the most humble, unassuming people I have ever encountered. They strive to restore their precious part of Jewish history. Look at the Jewish State Theater, Look at the multi million mostly Polish government-funded Museum of History of Polish Jews, recently opened and look at the young and old Poles floicking together to two major Jewish festivals in Warsaw and Cracow every year. The Jews should be grateful to Poles and appreciate Poland more. This groundless hatred and ungratefulness towards those who did best to save Jews will only aggreviate the anti-semitism among world citizen.

(37) Bernie Rosenberg, May 3, 2013 5:13 PM

you have to be kidding! poland?? to this day, there is as much anti-semitism as in saudi arabia. the best thing that could be done is to dismantle all the art work & put it in either israel or the u.s. poland is nothing but a dead country with a nation of knucle draggers. these kids are still told that we are the "christ killers" if you believe that times are changing, well i have a bridge to sell you in brooklyn.

(36) Resal, April 30, 2013 11:29 PM

Not worth the trip

After reading the article I would refuse to go there. Signs of slitting the throat and fingers made to look like guns shooting? NO!. The very ground is made of Satan's stones and the blood is still flowing, though invisible. These people are not humans, but just look like they are. I think they deserve to be taken a picture of and justifiably put on display at Yad Veshem with the heading, " Sometimes a person is not really a person, but a Satan posing as one." Such are those who still have such murder on their mind. may they have a revenge from God that is befitting of that ugly display.

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