2016 1st place: Shir Bach

Annual Holocaust Remembrance Essay Contest

School: Cedar Ridge High School

Here God Lies: My Poland Story

On October 9th, 2014, I boarded a plane to Poland, something no one in my family had ever done before. When my family came to America in the 1800s, they cast of their old world attitudes and embraced their new identity. Of course, people in my family have traveled, all over the world. To Thailand, to South Africa, to Spain, but never to Poland, never to Ukraine. I felt a sense of wrongness. Why go back to the place where my people starved and were killed, so many miles away from where we prosper? Before I left, my father told me he had many opportunities to visit Poland, but he had always been too scared. On October 9th, 2014, I swallowed his fears, and my own– and boarded a plane to Poland.

Our massa to Poland was built explicitly on the dichotomy between life and death. In the morning, we explored the rich tradition of Jewish life, in the afternoon we saw it destroyed. When we arrived in Warsaw, one of the first things we did was visit the newly opened Polin museum of Polish Jewry. It had just been opened a week before, and was bustling with life. In my head, I took note of every language I heard; Polish, English, Hebrew, French. I doubted most of the people in the museum were Jewish, in fact we may as well have been the only Jewish group there. Even so, I felt the energy of life. People wanted to celebrate the thousand year long tradition of Judaism in Poland. As we traveled through, however, the museum started to feel more and more like a bandaid over a cracked rib. Even in a museum dedicated to Jewish life, the Holocaust creeps in at every corner. It is an inescapable fact: every artifact belonging to a family murdered, every beautiful synagogue only a reconstruction. Still, it was the closest to life I felt in a country dead to my people.

If the Holocaust was a bruised rib in the Polin museum, a constant ache from below the surface, it was a knock-the-breath-out sucker punch in the Lopuchowo forest. We approached the area in silence, and I had no idea what to expect. When I was met with mass graves, holding over a thousand bodies, I could not bear it. The death of 6 million was no longer a distant discomfort. It was visceral, it was the blood pumping in my head and the tremble in my hands as I tried, unsuccessfully, to light a memorial candle. Here, I felt the horror. I took no impression but a very real despair I did not know I was capable of. On the bus ride away from that stain on the earth, I wrote this poem. “i stand in this forest / indescribably beautiful / and unimaginably horrible. / i do not know how the trees come up from that earth / with leaves of green and not crimson red / when we walk around / with six million bloody stains on our hearts.”

Another important part of our massa was learning about acts of resistance against Nazis. We learned about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Saunder Kommander revolt in Auschwitz, but the most impressionable stories for me were those of iberleben, everyday acts of resistance. The tale that impacted me the most was of Janus Korczak, the Polish Jew who operated an orphanage inside of the Warsaw ghetto. When we saw his memorial in the Warsaw Jewish cemetery, I jolted. I had heard that name before. After a few minutes, I realized that when I was young, I played the role of one of Korczak’s children in a reader’s theater of his story. I must have been ten years old. Performing that play was the first time I really, truly weeped for the 6 million. Even now, the stories of Korczak’s dedication, his decision to accompany the children to Treblinka even after being told he could be spared, tug deep inside me. A revolution does not have to be an armed resistance. It begins simply with humanity, with the refusal to turn into animals when treated so. Those are the true stories of Jewish resistance, and every Jew should learn them.

After returning to Israel from the Poland trip, I’ve had time to reflect on my identity as a Jew in the 21st century. Rabbi Fackenheim famously said that the 614th commandment should be the refusal to “hand Hitler a posthumous victory”. This can be interpreted in many different ways; that we should learn about the holocaust, that we should continue to succeed as Jews, in more hostile terms it could mean that secular/atheist Jews are playing into the hand of Hitler. Personally, I despise that interpretation. Hitler did not just hate religious Jews. The most assimilated, German-speaking Jews were still systematically oppressed and murdered. By existing as a Jew, even a non-observant one, we defy Hitler’s wish, that the entire world be Judenfrei. Whenever I participate in Jewish customs (going to services, celebrating the chagim, speaking Hebrew/Yiddish/any other Jewish dialect, learning about Jewish history), I am existing in direct opposition of Nazi ideology. And that is a very powerful thing to me. Every person has a responsibility to know where they came from, but Jews of the 21st century have a moral obligation, only three generations removed from the institutionalized slaughter of the Jews of Europe.

My life was changed decisively the moment I stepped into the gas chambers at Auschwitz, and when a few minutes later I walked out. So many other Jews had taken that path. They did not come out. Being a Jew has never been easy, but now more than ever I feel the weight of a multiple millennium long civilization resting on my shoulders. 75 years ago, that civilization was almost destroyed. Now, we all work together to remember, and to keep our story alive.