By Eitan Meisels
This year’s YULA Poland Experience was nothing short of remarkable; in fact, it exceeded every expectation I had for the trip. Nineteen YULA students, accompanied by two rebbeim and two fathers, spent a week in Poland to process both the magnitude of the Holocaust, and to gain a stronger appreciation for Poland’s rich Jewish history. Whether it was dancing with the Torah and learning in Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin or visiting the gravesites of great Tzadikim, we all came away inspired to be better and proud Jews.
After months of planning, including studying the history and preparing ourselves emotionally as much as possible, we departed on Sunday, November 17 for Warsaw, Poland, where we began a seven-day journey never to be forgotten.
Traveling from one region of Poland to the next, we, along with our rebbeim, Rabbi Sufrin and Rabbi Rosenbluth, two fathers, and our rabbinic scholar, Rabbi Eli Marcus, made it a priority to absorb each and every sight, sound, and smell. Of the many places we visited, I was impacted most deeply by the Majdanek Death Camp, Auschwitz- Birkenau, and Treblinka. These three camps, surrounded by trees and the ever-so-suggestive smell of smoke, truly struck me at my core.
Majdanek Death Camp is in the center of the Polish city of Lublin. It is surrounded by trees, tall office buildings, and apartments. It is now used for recreational purposes by many of its neighbors. Some poles use the perimeter of the camp as a running track, while others walk through the camp as if it were a park. The fact that the site, a former extermination camp, is treated this way is quite unsettling.
Likewise, Auschwitz Birkenau is located in the southern tip of Poland. It is surrounded by dark birch trees and a tall, looming, electrified gate. The camp extends as far as the eye can see, and is lined with many, many wooden barracks. The camp is more of a tour site than anything else. Auschwitz I now features a gift shop and numerous concession stands. The camp is no longer a memorial to the thousands of men, women, and children who perished there, but is a disturbing and unattractive museum. Zachary Schoen described his reaction to standing in the gas chambers where so many Jewish men, women and children perished: “I entered into a room about 20-30 feet long and maybe 10 feet tall. I was not aloud to enter the gas chamber in Majdanek so this experience was quite different. I was standing on the exact spot thousands died within minutes. I could see the holes where the gas pellets came out of and the scratches on the wall (although our guide said that many of those were made by tourists over the years). It was an incredibly powerful feeling standing in that spot and one that I may never feel again. We then entered the crematorium next door where many were tragically burned and treated with no dignity, even after death. Again, the feeling was eerie and indescribable. I do not think I will ever forget Auschwitz.”
Lastly, Treblinka is one of the oldest concentration camps in Poland but was burnt down shortly after the War. The Nazis destroyed it so as to abolish evidence of their wrongdoing. The camp is now an expansive field with more than 17,000 rocks lining its perimeter. Each rock represents a city, town, or village whose members were sent to their deaths at Treblinka. To me, the most frightening thing about Treblinka was its silence.
After witnessing the pain, destruction, and silence of the camps, it was inspiring to join my fellow classmates and rebbeim in beautiful Divrei Torah, Tefillah, and singing. According to Rabbi Arye Sufrin, who helped organize the trip, “For me, the highlight of the trip was the intense learning and emotional singing that took place at the gravesite of the holy tzadikim we visited. Whether it was the Reb Chaim, Netziv, Kotzker, Chozeh, Rema, Bach or R’ Elimelech of Lizensk, it was powerful for everyone to connect to these great tzadikim who have left an everlasting impact on the Jewish people. Standing at the kever of the Chidushei Harim at 4:00 AM in the freezing cold, singing and learning famous Divrei Torah he has brought to the world is an experience I will never forget.”
All in all, the trip was very inspiring. It allowed me to connect with the past, become a witness to history, and also gave me a desire to grow spiritually and be more connected to Torah and Mitzvot.