When my wife Cari and I checked into our hotel in Krakow, Poland, on Friday, June 29, we were stunned to hear these words from a very friendly hotel clerk: “Would you like a massage, or perhaps a trip to Auschwitz?”
As we came to learn during our travels in Poland with Ramah Seminar, and as we discussed repeatedly with our teen participants (110 campers graduating from all the Ramah camps), key Holocaust sites have become magnets for tourism here. On the one hand, we want more people to bear witness to the horrible atrocities committed by the Nazis and their collaborators. On the other hand, we cringe at the mention of Auschwitz as one of many interesting tourist sites in this region.
This was my first visit to Poland. I now understand much better why Jews who have come to Poland in recent years urge others to make this trip. The richness of the Jewish past here is well documented, together with the horrors of the death and destruction of the Shoah. It is not just about seeing the place where the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto rose up against their Nazi occupiers, or coming to Auschwitz to see first-hand evidence of the murderous Nazi network of death camps. Those were indeed powerful experiences. But our time spent visiting the sites of the rich and glorious history of Jews in Poland was equally powerful.
Rabbi Alan Goldman, David Berman, and Moshe Gold, the three Ramah educators who led our groups, were amazing. Under the direction of Devora Greenberg from Ramah Programs in Israel, our educators and six madrichim prepared and guided our Seminar participants very well through this journey of sharp contrasts.
It was indeed unique to see Poland through the eyes of our Seminar participants. These 16- and 17-year-olds had not yet been born when the film Schindler’s List, which includes the story of the murder of Krakow’s Jews, was produced. We watched some of the film and then went to the Umschlagplatz, where the ghetto’s Jews were rounded up and arrested. We passed Schindler’s factory and then visited Pleszow, the death camp overlooking Krakow that is now no more than a grassy open park with a couple of memorials.
Our teens had their own families’ stories to tell. Laurenne Kaufman of Ramah Canada visited Pleszow a few years ago with her grandfather, who survived this camp and the Shoah. She movingly told the group how her papa’s father was shot and killed, along with most of his family, and how her papa was forced to removed burnt bodies from the flames of Pleszow. Previously, in the cemetery behind the famous shul of Rabbi Moshe Isserles of the 16th century, Matthew Fidel of Ramah Canada found the grave of a direct ancestor, Baal Tosfot Yom Tov, a great rabbinic leader of centuries ago.
The constant transition between witnessing places of horrific destruction and celebrating the glory of centuries of Polish Jewry is jarring and at times confusing. After our visit to Pleszow, we spent a joyful Ramah Shabbat in Krakow. Krakow’s grand synagogues are mostly museums now. But they come to life, as in the past, when Jewish groups visit, and Ramah Seminar didn’t disappoint.
In the Isaac Shul on Friday afternoon, we sang and danced a special niggun associated with Krakow, followed by an emotional outburst of “Am Yisrael Chai, the Jewish People Live!” On Friday night, we prayed in the Hoch Shul. Rarely have I heard our young leaders’ voices more powerful and joyful, certainly a testament to their determination to keep Judaism thriving. “I now appreciate Camp Ramah more than ever,” one girl commented. “Creating communities where Judaism can thrive and be fun must be our response to the madness of the Holocaust.”
On Shabbat morning, many of us, together with a USY group, attended tefilah at the Tempel Shul. A large delegation from Israel and other parts of the Jewish world had come to Krakow for its annual Jewish culture festival, so on this Shabbat, some world-renowned hazzanim and a choir led the davening. Most powerful for me was the moving rendition of the prayer for the State of Israel and the IDF. There we were, Ramah and USY-our future leaders all together, praying for our people’s future in a place whose past had been destroyed. As I stood with USY Director Jules Gutin and others, there were tears in my eyes as the hazzan sang out, “May God protect all the soldiers fighting for Israel and the future of the Jewish people.”
For havdalah, we all gathered in the main square of the busy Jewish quarter. We stood arm in arm in a large circle, and prayed for a sweet week and a redeemed future. After havdalah concluded, our Seminar teens continued to sing and dance late into the night (including “This week in Jerusalem!”). Their spirited singing attracted many onlookers, including one older man who commented that it was heart-warming to see Jewish joy resume here.
On Sunday, July 1, we made our way to Auschwitz. The previous week, our group had been joined by Marta Wise and her granddaughter, Dalia, who live in Jerusalem. Marta, a survivor of the Shoah, has come with Ramah Seminar to Poland for the past five years to add an eyewitness account, and she was amazing. She has an extraordinary story. Marta survived Auschwitz as a young girl, reunited with most of her family after the war, settled in Australia, and made aliyah in 1998. She now has many children and grandchildren, and has a remarkably positive view of her future and a love for our teens.
As we stood in the barracks of Auschwitz, Marta told us of her survival and the plight of so many who were murdered. She recounted clearly the rampant disease, the filthy conditions, the cruelty of the guards, and the extraordinary efforts made by so many just to stay alive for one more day, one more hour. Then, in the Auschwitz museum, she stunned us all (including the Polish guide) by pointing herself out in one of the main photographs of children in striped uniforms standing behind barbed wire. These photos were taken by Soviet troops when they liberated the camp, and are now in the Yad Vashem archives.
Again, our teens also recounted their own family narratives. While standing near crematorium #5 in Auschwitz, Aaron Zell from Ramah Wisconsin told everyone the story of his great-grandparents’ miraculous escape from the Nazis to the U.S., through Europe, Moscow, and Japan.
Getting to know Marta Wise as a new friend was one of the most important components of our trip to Poland. She touched us all with her willingness to share her painful past, but also with her joyful participation in our praying and singing during our time together. After Cari and I said goodbye to Marta and the Ramah group on Sunday night, we once again passed the Tempel Shul, which was hosting a cantorial concert. At the same time as the beautiful prayers for Israel and the IDF were emanating from the shul, we also heard the shouts from across the street as the Italians scored a goal in the finals of the Euro Cup soccer competition. Indeed, life goes on. The incredible contrasts we felt during our time in Poland will stay with us for a long time. I believe that the experience of these contrasts significantly strengthens the Jewish identity of our Ramah groups, and of all who come here.
Our Seminar group is now in Israel for the rest of the summer. Their anticipation for being there was enormous after their week in Poland, and as many remarked to me, they expected that their exuberance upon arriving in Israel would be beyond imagination after this most recent experience.
The contrasting emotions will continue for me throughout the summer as I now have the privilege, happily, of visiting all of the Ramah camps. As I thought about Marta, the millions who didn’t survive the war, the glory of the Polish Jewish past, and the now empty shuls, mikvehs, batei midrash and town square of the Krakow Jewish quarter, this past Shabbat at Ramah California, where my Ramah career started 33 years ago, was perhaps even more special.
A trip to Poland, to the place of our people’s past, is highly recommended. Most important of all, however, is to strengthen and grow our Ramah camps and other critically important places of Jewish inspiration to ensure that our future is bright. It is indeed comforting to stand here now at Ramah in Ojai, to watch 900 campers and staff joyfully celebrate Maccabiah, and to know that Ramah programs are thriving throughout the world. As our kids cried out in Hebrew last week in Poland, “Am Yisrael Chai!”