Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Ashes of a People


Davidi arrived safely in Poland. Today, he will visit the yeshiva in Lublin...and then on to Maidanek. I wrote this next part shortly after visiting there in 2003. It fills my mind today as I think of Davidi walking there, seeing the things I saw. Maidanek...it haunts me still.

Maidanek 

(taken from http://www.paulasays.com/2014/02/18/maidanek/)

Maidanek is one of the easiest death camps to understand because there is little need to imagine. When the Russian troops swept into Maidanek in July, 1944, the Germans didn’t have time to destroy the evidence, as they did in Auschwitz, Treblinka, and elsewhere. Here the gas chambers remain, with the stained residue of Zyklon-B gas on the ceiling and walls. Here the crematoria remain, still filled with the ashes of the last victims. Here the ashes remain.

Because it is so intact, Maidanek is also possibly one of the hardest camps to visit. It is a place of death, and death lingers in the air, in the ashes, and on the ground on which you walk. You stare at the houses that are but a few hundred meters from the camp perimeter and you wonder what kind of person can make a life so close to such death. Homes and gardens surround the camp. They open their windows in the morning, and see the crematoria. They entertain friends and play music, in the shadow of the mountain of ashes.

Once, they could have smelled the stench of burning bodies. The smell may be gone, but the air remains poisoned by the hatred. "What kind of person lives here?" I asked myself again and again.

Our guide took us to the door of the gas chamber...the first of several we would enter. "I'm going to take you in there," he said, and through my tears and the pounding in my ears, I heard him add, "and I'm going to take you out of there." Somehow he knew that we needed that encouragement, that promise.

As you walk into the crematoria, you see the table on which the Germans searched the corpses for hidden gold. Even in death, there was no dignity, no respect. You walk into the room with the ovens and through the tears, the horror becomes more real because you understand that it isn’t dust piling inside the ovens, but ashes that remain, even 60 years later, to hint of their anguish.

Worse, there is a mountain of ashes...yes, that's what they call it in Hebrew. A mountain...God alone knows how many bodies need to be burned to create such a huge amount of ashes. I stared at those ashes and finally understood that if Israel were to take all the remains - the ashes, the remains of those who lie in desecrated cemeteries as I so desperately wanted us to do in those first few days in Poland...there wouldn't be enough room in all of Israel to bury them. Poland is filled with the bones and ashes of 3 million Jews murdered by the Nazis.

Just as we entered the crematoria building, the skies opened. Thunder and lightening raged across the land that had been sunny just moments before. It was not difficult to imagine that this was the anger and the tears of a God who still cries for His children, and I wonder if some of those tears aren’t for those who still, even today, are murdered simply because they are Jews.

Our guide showed us a room filled with shoes. He told us there were 800,000 shoes there. A small portion of shoes, perhaps a few hundred, are displayed in Yad Vashem. A few hundred or a few hundred thousand - the numbers are incomprehensible and so our guide once again helped us. He urged us to find a shoe, a single shoe, and let it tell us its story. Imagine who wore it, what dreams they had before the Nazis came and stole it from them.

I found one and took a picture. I thought of that shoe again and again while I was in Poland. Each shell of a synagogue we visited, each desecrated, over-grown cemetery, each building that to this day bears the trace of a mezuzah, the Hebrew lettering, the symbols of a religion and people hunted to the edge of extinction.

Though the Jewish people as a whole rose up from this abyss, Polish Jewry did not survive. Of the 3,325,000 Jews in Poland before the wore, only 325,000 survived. My great grandmother, Raizel didn't survive. Her daughters, Mary and Anna (Freida and Mina) didn't survive.

In the end, the story of that one shoe is the story of Polish Jewry. Destroyed, bereft, and unable to tell its full story.

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