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An Israeli School Boy Faces the Atrocities
of Jewish Life in Poland

Our son, Aviel, is currently on a visit to Poland with his class. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, leading to a new, easy access for Israelis to Poland, this journey has become a right of passage before the end of high school, especially for the Religious Zionist community. Over the last few years, the educational aim has shifted from just confronting killing fields and the extermination, murder sites, largely situated by the Germans in Poland, to also visiting sites, encountering first hand, the rich Jewish life that existed for centuries in Poland.

This visit was intentionally timed to take place now, during the nine days of national morning. The students will be saying kinoth, lamentations, on the night of Tisha b'Av in Poland, and will complete them the next morning in Yerushalayim, overlooking the Temple Mount from the south at Armon haNatziv.

I have never been overly keen on our youth travelling to Poland, not just because it gives recognition to Polish nationhood without any real remorse on their side to what their nation did and allowed to happen on its sovereign territory to over four million of what they should have considered their own countrymen. They always considered their Jews as outsiders, strangers, no matter how much richness they brought Poland in cultural and economic terms. I don't want the Poles to feel control over our youth, who are dependant on them for their security and other services in this country where even today, after decades of almost complete absence of Jews, openly displays its anti-Semitism. Many groups of our youth have reported anti-Semitic encounters during their visits.

When our older sons, Yisrael and Elisha, considered making the pilgrimage, I made clear my opposition to the concept, while at the same time saying that I would not stand in their way should they decide they really felt it important for them to go there. I told them I believed they would absorb more re the Nazi Holocaust, by visiting Yad vaShem, the Jerusalem Holocaust Museum, with my mother, who spent her time in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Both boys in turn did decline to make the trip, claiming that it was not [only] my opinion which effected their decision.

Michal, when she was in eleventh grade, also toyed with the idea of travelling to Poland with her class. For technical reasons, she never had to make a final decision, as the trip that year did not take place.

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Honi, however, really wanted to go to Poland. I suggested he speak to my mother to see what she thought. In the past she was not keen on her grandchildren visiting there. "I already spent enough time there -- they don't need to go!"

Surprisingly, this time she told Honi that she thought it a good idea for him to make the trip; she even offered to cover half of his expenses. I can only assume that the fact that she herself had made a return trip to Auschwitz a few years earlier may have changed her mind. Or could it have been a realisation that the Holocaust generation was disappearing, and it was important to see the cursed places while they still existed.

I remember that visit well. My mother and husband were on a tour of central Europe. They decided to make a one day, private side trip to Auschwitz. I thought she was crazy. "What! You forgot some detail of what happened to you there?!"

My mother's second husband was from Lodz, Poland. He managed to escape to Russia in the wake of the German blitzkrieg against Poland. As a result, he was the only member of his family who survived. He wanted to see, first hand, the fate of his family who were murdered in Auschwitz. "And I, as a good wife, have to go with him."

I again expressed my objection to her making the trip. But of course she did go. I asked her, when I next spoke to her a couple days later, how the visit effected her. "I cried all the way there and all the way back."

On the other hand, my mother's cousins, who also spent time in Auschwitz before being sent elsewhere as slave labourers, return annually with Montreal high school children, to tell them first hand what happened in that cursed place at the hand of a cursed people. God should give our cousins the strength to continue this practice for many more years.

When Aviel's turn came, there was basically no discussion. Perhaps I have mellowed, perhaps because my mother is no longer with us, unable to relate her narrative . . . I even suggested to him that if there was room for parents, I would accompany him.

In the event I did not go. But unknown to Aviel I sent him a letter to read on Friday night in Poland. Below is the text of that letter. I decorated the exterior of the envelope with grey pictures of the camps -- Arbeit Macht Frei, chimneys, barracks, smoke -- overprinted with Blue and White Israeli flags.

Shabbat Hazon, 5771
The wretched land of Poland

Hi Aviel,

By the time you read this, you will have been wandering around a land that at once was the region which presented the Jews with perhaps the greatest freedom in the Galut and at other times, the land in which more Jews were murdered in the shortest time possible time in all Jewish history. And the shoa was not the first instance of their persecution. A land whose people who, though the butt of persecution by the German invading power who came to enslave them, nevertheless welcomed them with open arms as it gave them the opportunity to "legally" kill Jews, a desire they always harboured, a craving they never hid. A nation which even now, in the absence of Jews for over half a century, never fails to present its anti-Semitic face.

But we Jews are a tough people. Everywhere around Poland today, Jews are coming out of the woodwork, a phoenix re-emerging in the desert remnants of Jewish Poland. I hope you also see some of this revival, a revitalisation that will only have a future if aliya is a part of the equation.

Your grandfather was born in this cursed place, in Warsaw. He was fortunate to leave at the age of three, before the Nazi era, to grow up in Erets Yisrael. His remaining family were murdered, simply for being Jews.

Your grandmother, with her sisters, were brought to this wretched place, forced into cattle cars, a long journey from Slovakia or Hungary -- the name continuously changes, the people do not. Fortunately they were taken away from there after five months, to work as slaves in a German aeroplane factory. However their parents, their sisters and other close relatives, their friends and their neighbours too were brought here -- by now you've witnessed their hell -- to be sent immediately to the gas chambers, the remnants of their bodies rising high through the chimneys you have seen in Birkenau. Some of the buildings are still there. Missing though is the continuous burning smell, the SS dogs, the freshly dead bodies in the snow, the shivering of the inmates in their inadequate clothing. It's summer today. There may even be flowers and greenery where you are, but the winters there are still bitterly cold. Undernourished and inadequately clothed, hours of backbreaking work for no purpose, took their toll alongside the constantly stoked ovens, now standing there merely as a quiet reminder, a mere shadow of the horror of this place.

You've visited the remnants of the rich Polish Jewish life. You'll experience it tomorrow on shabbat. Just know that Poland was covered by thousands of beautiful wooden synagogues, each one a tribute to the true God by its community. Each one burnt down by the accursed Polish people, often with the screaming congregation locked inside, the Poles rubbing their hands with glee at the site, then looting the remaining Jew property.

If the sky is not grey today -- it often is -- then know that the ground on which you stand is soaked in Jewish blood, blood that continues to cry out to be avenged. Do you hear it? Stop and listen, look around you.

The fact that you and your friends are there today, carrying Israeli passports and protected by Israelis, is our victory, our celebration. You can probably see the overall poverty of the Polish countryside. This I believe part of their reward for believing that life would improve without the Jew in their midsts.

Aviel, have a great shabbat. Use this experience to become stronger as a human being and as a Jew. Understand the past and learn from it -- from our rich Galut culture to what happens when you are dependant on the nations. But even more than the past, understand the future. For two and a half thousand years we wandered the planet. Be thankful that you live in a generation where you can walk as a proud Jew, in your own Land, fight as a Jew in our Land, something that our fathers were not privileged to do, something they could not even dream of.

Yes, we have problems here too, and not trivial problems, but they are our problems, of our nation, of our Torah in the Land God promised to our fathers but gave to us to inherit.

Shabbat Shalom

See you soon -- we love you a lot!

Love Aba and Ima

Menachem Kuchar, 7th August, 7th Menachem Av, 2011    

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