Poland, Day Two: The Road to Heaven

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By Yoni Schochat

Cherry Hill, NJ

Tuesday, July 19, 2016
Today, on our second day in Poland, the adventure really began. First, we visited the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery. This cemetery was and still is  the sight of Jewish graves from all throughout Jewish history. A mere few of the graves were a result of the holocaust. Also, interestingly, the first person buried there was buried the wrong way, so as to not humiliate him, all other graves there face the same wrong way, from shopkeepers to great rabbis and wealthy men. We saw the graves of men such as Ludwig Zamenhof, whose grave is the only one that is in Esperanto rather than Polish, Russian, Hebrew or Yiddish, because he was the creator of the language. His wife, as well Adam Czerniakow, the head of the council in the Judenrat of the Warsaw Ghetto, are also buried here.  Czerniakow killed himself after being asked to sign a document that permits the deportation (and inevitable slaughter) of the children. Also, in Judaism, instead of flowers, we place stones on graves. Not only are they more permanent, but they have a meaning. אבן, or stone, is the linguistic, and metaphorical middle ground between father, אבא, and son, בן.

Next, we visited the Warsaw Ghettos Fighters Memorial. It was a small field with a tall grassy hill in the center, and on top of the hill stood a stone, the memorial, with writing on it and candles lit all around it. We heard tales about life in the ghettos, and what happened there. We learned that the the Nazis knew the Jewish calendar very well. They lined up their actions with our holidays. During Passover, in the Warsaw Ghetto, children asked their fathers, along side the ma nishtana, “Will we be here next year?”. To that the only response was “I don’t know.” Next we saw the statue that commemorates the Ghetto Fighters, portraying them as heroes. They were depicted standing over their fallen brethren with rippling muscles and eyes that could tear through the toughest soldier. What stood out for me was that the Ghetto Fighters were teenagers; they were my age! It could have been the teenagers who did this job; older men and women were committed to their families and had lives to take care of. Still, I can’t imagine having such a responsibility. Together, the Warsaw Ghetto fought off the strength of the German Army longer than the entire nations of both France and Poland. To spit even more into the wounds of the Nazis, the stone that the memorial was carved into was a stone that had been chosen by Adolf Hitler himself, to be made into his victory monument once the war was won.

Next, we visited a standing piece of the Warsaw Ghetto wall; here, food and books were smuggled in and out of the Ghetto. Surpassingly, the most common type of book to circulate was a foreign language book. This was because, the only way to survive among the Germans was to be useful, and being able to communicate with locals and translate was a very useful trade that could save lives. Right next door to that, stands the Umschlagplatz. This is the first sight of the deportation of Jews to concentration camps. It was a large market like area next to a train station. There would be a quota that the Jewish Police of the ghetto would have to meet of how many people are deported per day. The Nazi’s put the job of deportation into our hands; as if deportation itself wasn’t bad enough.

Finally, we drive for three hours to Treblinka. The camp is in the middle of nowhere. Treblinka I and II, are in the same place, only the purpose of the camp changed over time. The camp went from being a concentration camp to death camp. The tracks for the train are still found there, and leave a haunting echo of the sound of the train “tun tun, tun tun”.  While in Treblinka, we were look a forward story about a rabbi named Ezriel Fastag. He came from a very musical Chassidic group; many of the songs they composed are still sung today They were a very musical chassidic group, who wrote a lot of the songs still sung today. With the rhythm of the boxcar, while sitting in misery on his way to Treblinka, he began to sing. The song was Ani Ma’amin, the famously haunting tune which we still sing today.  After a while of listening to the song, the rest of the people in the cart started to sing, and before long the whole train was alive with song. Upon nearing the camp, they broke the bars on the window to let two small boys jump out. The boys jumped out, hoping to run away and somehow reach the leader of the Chassidic group in America, to teach him the song. Miraculously, one of the boys survived the trip and brought to the song across the shores. The song is still sung today around the world.

Something you should know about Treblinka: The Nazi’s set it up in a way that would fool people into believing it was something else…it’s all a lie. Ticket booths can be found at the front of the camp, making it look like an amusement park and not a death camp. There were time charts, and luggage collectors, and an infirmary. The infirmary was a large pit with a tent out up around it. All elderly and sick were taken there and executed. Once inside, they were lead to a small synagogue, with a Curtain concealing an “ark.” In actuality, the “ark” was the entrance to a gas chamber. There is now a memorial for the victims of the gas chamber right above were it used to reside. Around the field, right outside of the camp, was a tower of tall stones. Each tower had the name of a town or city or village whose Jews were killed in Treblinka. There were thousands of stones. There was also a large stone with the words “Never Again” etched in numerous languages. Behind that stood and enormous monument memorialize the victims of the camp. It stood at the end of a road called the Himmelstrauss, the road to heaven. We can only begin to imagine what our Jewish brothers and sisters felt in those days, looking out to Himmelstrauss as their lives came to an end.