This piece is dedicated to all those lives impacted by the Holocaust, and, in particular, to the three survivors who participated in the May 2019 Living Legacy Experience: Irene Kurtz, Faigie Libman and Sol Nayman. www.thelivinglegacy.ca
In May 2019, I traveled to Poland with my husband, our two sons, two sisters-in-law and one brother-in-law. Our small family group was part of the larger Living Legacy Experience group that was organized under the auspices of Aish HaTorah Toronto. Our group included 140 Canadians in multiple age groups, three Canadian Holocaust survivors and three educator guides from JRoots.
We pass farm after farm, forest after forest, day after day. The countryside is so lush and green. I never imagined that Poland would be this pretty, but it is. And yet.
The Lodz cemetery is the most beautiful cemetery I have ever seen. It is serene and green, peaceful and quiet with leafy green trees standing tall. It seems like the perfect place to have a picnic. And yet.
Chelmno, one of the first extermination sites, is buried deep in a forest, a vast clearing containing three large pits covered over with sand and gravel. No buildings remain; only the remains of slaughtered Jews remain. Chelmno is so hidden from the road that if you did not know that Jews are buried there, you would think that is just another clearing in the woods. And yet.
During our visit to the Warsaw cemetery, our Living Legacy group learned what it means to die of starvation. One hundred and forty people will never again utter the words, “I’m starving.” And yet, those who died from starvation were the “lucky” ones, for they had family left to give them proper burials and to recite Kaddish (prayer for the dead) for them, unlike so many other Jews who once lived in Poland. And yet.
We take another afternoon drive along another country road through another thick dense forest. It is pouring rain as we stream out of the bus and into the rain soaked forest. Pouring as we march through the woods, treading the same path that so many others took before us. We arrive at another clearing and although there is a memorial to the thousands who died at Treblinka, there is absolutely nothing left of the Treblinka death camp. Nothing. No buildings, no gas chambers, no crematoria. Just an empty field that stretches in the distance. A memorial now, with stones bearing names of 1,400 towns engraved. Towns that Jews once called home. Towns that are now Judenrein. The torrent continues as Sol, one of the survivors who accompanied us, tells us about one such town, the town where he was born. The Polish town his family fled. As Sol is finishing his story, the rain shower slows and the sun reappears, and suddenly, miraculously, a spectacular rainbow stretches across the entire sky, reminding us that the world should never again witness such destruction and devastation. And yet.
Another day, another forest. This time, we visit the village of Tikotin, a once vibrant home to 2,400 Jews, all of whom were marched out of the village one afternoon. We follow their path out of the town and it’s raining again as we descend into another clearing in another forest. An afternoon of sport for the Nazis and the whole town is now Jew-free. And yet.
Three days; three rainstorms; three thick forests; three clearings; three massacre sites. No ruins remain at any of these places; nothing, not a shred of evidence to document the atrocities that occurred here. It is no wonder so many Holocaust deniers exist. It is as though these killing fields never even existed. Empty and desolate in the middle of the forest. Did I imagine those silent screams I heard? Were those arms reaching up out of the soil a mirage? And yet.
And then we visit Madjanek. Bone fragments still visible in the ash heap. A chilling tangible reminder of the death machine that once operated here. And yet.
And then another day, another rainstorm, another mass grave. This pit contains the bodies of 800 innocent Jewish children who were dumped into the ground like garbage is dumped into a trash pit. That’s what these kids were to the Nazis – trash. And yet.
All this rain at all these places. It seems fitting that it should rain at these places. Places that cry out from despair; places where all hope seems lost. Mud replaces the lifeblood that once coursed through the countryside. Damp ground absorbs the anguished screams. And yet.
In contrast, the day we visit Birkenau is sunny and warm as we follow the train tracks to the notorious selection ramp. The sun beats down on us as we walk through this unimaginable hell hole where the flames from the crematoria rise up to meet the heat and we are all burning up. And yet, here we are, the lucky ones, for we can walk out of this smoldering ash heap to greet the Shabbat queen, to celebrate life’s happy moments, to continue on. Am Yisrael Chai.
Lorynne Schreiber lives in Toronto with her husband and two 20-something year old sons. She grew up in Pittsburgh and has lived in Toronto for more than 30 years. She is a U.S. corporate tax advisor. Lorynne has visited 47 American states and eight Canadian provinces and a smattering of foreign countries – so far.
Please contact Liz @ firstname.lastname@example.org if you are looking for support in writing your personal narrative or developing your legacy writing project.
Everyone has a Story. What’s Yours? Share your Story; Leave a Legacy. —PK Press