Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Jenna Plotzky on the March of the Living

I never thought I would be trapped in a gas chamber at Auschwitz. To feel so many bodies pushed in like sardines into this tiny room, and yet more still piling in, not knowing that they were pushing their way in when in fact there was nowhere else to go. And then someone started to sing Kaddish, and all together, as if the people before us that died in this very room were singing with us, we sang loud and proud to G-d. That's where the similarities stopped.

I was able to exit the room on my own free will; in fact I was able to walk out of the gas chamber, out of Auschwitz as I pleased and into the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. Yet hundreds of thousands before me could not; they died in that room. This is the reason that I went on the March of the Living. I feel obligated to my people to learn, commemorate, and remember the history of my people, then and now.

Going on the March of the Living a few months ago was not an option, it was a responsibility. I went because I had to. I had to walk into Auschwitz and feel the pain and suffering. I had to go to Poland without the comfort of my family or friends. I had to see the raw anguish without any candy-coating. There is no history book or video that can overpower you with all of your emotions at once. From anger, to sadness, to pride, it is all there.

After a week of sorrow, going to Israel was a gift. How proud I am to pass on Judaism and be welcomed into the land of the Jewish people with a simple sentence from our tour guide: Welcome Home!

The March of the Living is a life-changing trip that takes you to Poland and Israel where you stand witness to Jewish history, the struggle with Jewish identity today, and get a chance to think about the Jewish future. In Poland you see the atrocities and hear the stories of life before the Holocaust.

One of the standout gut-wrenching moments of this trip was being in Auschwitz with our survivor, Siegmund (Siggy) Listwa. Siggy proved to us and to the Nazis that the Jewish people will always prevail and so will the Jewish faith. Siggy defied the Nazis and made it through five years of labor camps, ghettos, the Yanina coal mine, Auschwitz, and Birkenau with his brother Berk. He also survived a 100 day death march and was only 18 at the time of his liberation in 1945. On top of all that is also an American hero, having fought in the Vietnam War just a few short years after his liberation and immigration to the US.

When we first arrived at Birkenau, we watched as our survivor closed up his walker and put it to the side. He did not want to come back as a broken or disabled man. Afterall, he had something to prove to the Nazis that he is still here and we have beaten them. 

Then, Siggy sat on a cattle car with his tattoo in clear view as he told his story. 

From rancid meat to whippings to piles of the dead. We heard it all. And after every story he would apologize for having to tell us about such scary things.

After this, we watched Siggy walk up the steps of his old sleeping quarters in Auschwitz. Situated in the far lefthand corner, Block 1 is only accessible after walking past rows and rows of torture.

Now the standout moment that I mentioned was something that my entire group has said is the reason we go on this trip. This moment was when Siggy was standing next to the door of Block 1, locked out I might mention, with his son and nephew. He retold the story of how the Nazis guards never let any of the prisoners sit on the stoop of the stairs. They all knew that if they had it would mean certain death. While stunned at how something so insignificant could mean life or death, Siggy promptly sat down on the stoop while saying these words: Now there is nobody to tell me I can’t sit here. What defiance! 
A poem I wrote on the matter:

A little town, a village in itself
A place of death, a village of suffering
A row of houses, lavender trees and dandelions
A row blocks, blood on their doorsteps
A man visiting an old home, reminiscing
A survivor, remembering his imprisonment
An old man sitting on a stoop telling a story
A testament of will, speaking of his private hell

Today I want to answer the top three questions that I always receive after people hear about my trip. And I always make sure to tell about Siggy on the stoop before I answer these questions.

1.      Why would you want to go? That’s where you go on vacation? Is it a vacation?

a.      It is NOT a vacation. Going to see places of death. Hours of studying!! If you have to mentally prepare in the morning for what you are going to see that day, then you can’t call it a vacation. Israel, okay maybe, but not Poland

2.      Where did you visit?

a.      Many places. Most well-known places in Poland would be: Auschwitz, Birkenau, Majdanek (a work camp), Plaszow (where Schindler got his factory workers) , Belzec and Treblinka (death camps), and Schindler’s factory

b.      In Israel: The water tunnels in the City of David where we walked in the dark while singing Hatikvah, the Kotel at 7 in the morning straight off the plane, Masada, the Dead Sea, Afula (our sister city), Ben Yehuda, and a jeep tour in the Judean desert

3.      How was it? What is one word to describe your trip?

a.      How was it implies good or a bad, enjoyment factor. Did you enjoy this trip? Did I have an amazing trip with all my new friends, yes. Did I enjoy my time, depends on what I was visiting that day. Was it worth it? Was hours of preparation, using my week off from school to do make-up work before my trip, skipping two weeks of school, having to make up an AP exam, YES. And I’m sure the other two teens from Stamford Rachel Steinmetz and Keren Rubin, and our advisor, Danielle Alexander, would say the same thing.

b.      And my one word would be a Jewish phrase that we sang all throughout Poland and Israel. Am Yisrael Chai – The people of Israel Live. The Jewish people live! The march of the LIVING!! We are ALIVE!

This is a piece I wrote during Yom Hasoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), after the March and on the way back to our hotel:

Today we did the unbelievable. We joined people from around the world and marched from Auschwitz to Birkenau in the sun, mud, and rain.  *and I will say that is polish weather for you* We walked the tracks that had brought our ancestors to their demise, and we were able to walk freely out of the camp; a privilege that they did not have. We proved that we have and will always prevail over evil when we come together. After the lighting of six torches and countless heartbreaking documentaries, we, the 11,000 marchers and survivors that had taken over Auschwitz-Birkenau, in blue jackets and Israeli flags, finished the last six letters of a Safer Torah, with the help of six survivors, that will be brought to the Israel March and all future marches. That is the power of will. This is saying we have struggled and won. Now we carry on the legacy and keep memories alive.

I will to leave you with this.

One of our last days in Poland, we visited the grave of Rabbi Eli Melech, a famous rabbi, scholar, and one of the founders of the Hassidic movement. His mausoleum is filled with books to pray from, prayers all over the walls, and little paper notes stuck in everywhere, just as the kotel has.  An adult member of our group, Shani Langenauer Winton, happens to be a direct tenth generation descendent of the famous Rabbi. She told us about his life and legacy, but more importantly she told us of his last wish. He blessed his next ten generations with a life of poverty. Now if you recall I just said that Shani was a tenth generation descendent and that she had just praised him. She explained that this blessing of poverty was so important and the highest of blessings that he could have given because Rabbi Eli Melech believed that the poor were the most righteous of people. Later I had Shani pass along this blessing to me, so that I may share it. So congregants, visitors, Tyler and her family, Cantor and his Family, and all those honored tonight, I wish you all a long life of poverty. Shabbat Shalom.

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