Sunday, April 11, 2010

March of the Living: A Visit to Hell

(click on photos to enlarge)

From March of the Living 2010

From March of the Living 2010

From March of the Living 2010

While Poland begins to absorb the shock of its terrible loss, the March of the Living takes place tomorrow. This is a national week of mourning here, as declared by the government. In a statement released not long ago, MOTL states:

We join our Polish brothers and sisters in their time of sorrow, and express our deepest sympathies for their loss. Our thoughts, hopes and prayers are with them during this difficult time. During the March of the Living, we will express our solidarity with the Polish people over their loss by observing a moment of silence in honor of those who died in this tragic accident.

Today was rainy and cold, and our group spend several hours touring Auschwitz / Birkenau. Knowing that the victims had no warm bus to return to, the teens were patient and resilient. The visit hit a deep emotional chord in all of us - for some that took the form of more outward emoting, but everyone was cared for - and this evening, the teens have had a chance to "process" this difficult day.

Earlier in the day we held morning services at the Tempel Synagogue, where we had gone on Shabbat. The synagogue occasionally opens for foreign groups like ours. This congregation was totally wiped out in the Holocaust. So when we said the mourner's kaddish this morning, each of us said it in memory of the person who used to occupy that seat. And again, as we did yesterday (but this time just our group), we danced the Krakow Niggun, created by
Shlomo Carlebach after the Holocaust.

Before the service, we had some moments outside the temple (waiting for the caretaker to show up with the key), giving our Kulanu group a chance to send this video greeting:

This evening, we ushered in Yom Hashoah with a program back at our Krakow hotel, as students read poetry and we heard from survivor Judy Altmann, who today returned for the first time to the place where she last saw her parents and where she lost 22 members of her family. Earlier. she had found the building in Birkenau where she had stayed, barrack 14, and described to the kids how she was able to scrounge for food in order to survive. This evening, she tearfully thanked the staff and teens for giving her this opportunity, and she called upon us to remember the victims not as emaciated prisoners and ashes, but as they were at home, before the Holocaust, surrounded by their loved ones. I'll be sending along her message to the community back home for the Yom Hashoah program on Monday evening.

From March of the Living 2010

The trip to Auschwitz took about an hour. As the bus we passed small rolling towns outside of Krakow, it was hard to believe that we were approaching the place we had heard about all these years. It is too soon for me to give many details, but as you look at the photos you'll see how expansive Birkenau is. That is where the bulk of the killing took place, and those barracks that remain are close to their original - inhuman - condition. Auschwitz, a mile and a half away, is more compact and dressed up. It was originally a Polish military training camp, so the facilities are more substantive, built of an orangy-brick vaguely reminiscent of some neighborhoods in Queens. But what went on inside those buildings was simply the greatest crime against humanity of all time. We went there second and spent time at the museum, seeing up close the machinery of mass murder - how efficient it was. At the tours conclusion, we walked into a gas chamber, staring up at the vents through which the Zyklon B was deposited into the room. We saw the ovens as well, as you can see in the photos.

Tomorrow: the March.

I've uploaded a number of new photos from today; those pictures will speak far louder than my words.

Click on the photo below (or here) for the complete, updated photo album with over a hundred new photos, and click on any of the photos to enlarge. Once you are on the page, scroll down for most recent photos. A slide show of these same photos can be seen below that.

To everyone back in Stamford, a meaningful and reflective Yom Hoshoah, from here in Poland.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

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