By Rachel Shnay, WIZO NY Board Member and Organizer of the Poland mission
WIZO NY was honored and privileged to attend the Commemoration of 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz on January 27th, 2015. Our group of 70, the largest delegation that the World Jewish Congress and The Shoah Foundation allowed, spent four awe-inspiring days touring Krakow, Auschwitz and spending priceless moments with survivors. Our group was comprised of men, women and teenagers from diverse backgrounds including Morocco, Syria, Iran, Turkey, Brazil, Eastern Europe and South America but sharing a common bond, being both proud Jews and Zionists. We memorialized our six million brothers and sisters who were stripped of their humanity and their freedom. We also honored the 102 survivors that came from 23 different countries including my grandfather, Symcha Horowitz, who came as part of our WIZO group. We took every opportunity to sit and speak with the survivors, listen to their stories of survival and relish in their wisdom and life lessons.
In the grounds of Auschwitz–Birkenau our group experienced a profound moment. As we walked in silence down the same tracks in Auschwitz Birkenau that led over a million Jews to their deaths, a group of Israeli Air Force soldiers passed us by. We took advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity to stop and sing Hatikva together. The words "to be a free nation in our home" pierced through our very core. Many of those murdered sang these same words as they were forced into the gas chambers never imagining that their dream of Zion would ever come true. Just 70 years later, Baruch HaShem, we can sing loud and proud. The Jewish people need to feel, now more than ever, how blessed we are to have the most incredible army in the world to protect our people and our homeland. WIZO NY will forever be changed by this incredible experience that no only solidifies our love and dedication to bettering the lives of our brothers and sisters in Israel but also enforces our mission to embrace our Jewish identities and maintain strong continuity.
עם יִשְׂרָאֵל חַי עוֹד אָבִינוּ חַי
Rachel's letter to the WIZO delegates upon her return home is an outpouring of emotion but also a call to action. She emphasizes the need to raise awareness and promote education about the Holocaust.
I can finally sit down and attempt to process what just happened. I'm sure you are all experiencing the same craziness, confusion, sort of like a Poland paradigm that is swimming and invading my mind. Just staring out the window watching NYC go by seems surreal. How lucky are we to wake up in the morning and choose what our next step will be, that we can kiss our family, eat full meals, hang out with our friends, go to school or work, just take a walk…to be free. The Nazi's main goal above all was to dehumanize the Jews, strip them of their human relations, their homes and businesses, their physical appearances, their basic needs even their names. They were no longer humans but animals branded with numbers, marching to their deaths like cattle to the slaughter. That was their dream, their wish for every Jew. Did they succeed?
After those four awe-inspiring days I think we can all agree that as much as the Nazi's tried, they certainly failed. What our delegation of 70 did was reverse the dehumanization of every single six million plus souls that are now soaring high in the heavens. Seventy years later we defied and we resisted, we paused our busy lives to honor, to memorialize and to simply acknowledge, we acknowledged their existence. Something so simple yet so profound. According to Jewish law, when a person dies we have a huge responsibility and follow strict rules to make sure that their lives are properly memorialized. From the minute one dies, a Jew must be watching over their body at all times, the Chevra Kadisha (holy group) cleans and dresses the body with utmost respect, we hold a funeral where we eulogize, we have a burial, a shiva, a shloshim 30 days later to eulogize and honor some more, we say kaddish 3 times a day for a year, we refrain from certain joyous activities, we say yizkor on high holidays and we have a yearly yarhtziet reminder to top it off. All of that for one life, one Jew. Performing all of these acts are the highest form of any mitzvah in the Torah because we cannot receive anything in return, it is the most selfless act possible. And yet, six million of our brothers and sisters did not have the same treatment that we give today and that we hope to receive.
What we all did was attempt to diminish the pain, the suffering, the dehumanization of not only their lives but of their deaths. Each and every one of us are witnesses to their murders. I always tell my students to look past the number because it is completely intangible, rather think of every single life as an individual like you and I. I show them a family tree and what two people can create in just a few generations, hundreds of branches from one small stump. The Talmud states, "saving a single life is like saving an entire world," but I cannot help but wonder just how many worlds one can destroy? We must always remember that the Nazi's did not only murder six million but they murdered every single possible generation that could have, should have come out of those beautiful souls…millions upon millions.
You may not understand the power that you have to push each soul higher and higher into the heavens, but the power is real and it's strong. We lit the flame but now we have to spread the fire. I cannot urge enough how important education and tolerance are. It is up to us to show films, read books, speak to survivors-anything we can do to spread awareness and to continue to memorialize and honor. You may think that your children's schools teach proper Holocaust education, it is SO important that you check with the curriculum and even take it up with the principal to ensure sufficient education. Private schools especially beat to their own drums and need the extra push from the parent body, so please I urge you to send an email, arrange a meeting, make a difference. As survivor Roman Kent said so beautifully in his speech at the commemoration, "we survivors do not want our past to be our children's future." We prevent this by showing our family and friends videos and photos, visiting Holocaust museums, watching Eva's incredible story of survival in Forgiving Dr. Mengele (Netflix) and hearing her mind blowing life lessons, Hitchcock's truly unbelievable "Night Will Fall" that premiered tonight and is available on HBO on demand, Oscar winner, Lady in Number 6 on Netflix, Oscar winner, One Survivor Remembers and Anita B which WIZO will be hosting a special screening on Feb 23.
As Mr. Kent continued in what I think was the most bone chilling statement of the trip, "A minute in Auschwitz was like an entire day, a day was like a year and a month an eternity. How many eternities can one person have in a single lifetime?" How is it that those 102 survivors, pure angels, sitting a few feet ahead of us endured so many eternities? That question will forever be lingering in my mind. My brain tackles the mystery while my heart beats painful throbs as I watch my grandfather eat his favorite meal of herring and toast, as he snores on the couch beside me, as he finds joy in the most random of things and as he holds my hand. Those hands. Those hands are so strong, so powerful yet so gentle and vulnerable. And what will we do with our hands? Our hands of privilege, of freedom, of life. As survivor Gerda Klein expressed so beautifully as she accepted the Oscar for One Survivor Remembers, "...Why am I here? I am no better. In my mind's eye I see those years and faces of those who never lived to see the magic of a boring evening at home. On their behalf, I wish to thank you for honoring their memory and you cannot do it any better way than when you return to your homes tonight to realize that each of you who know the joy of freedom are winners." If there is anything I feel after this trip it is that my hands will forever be willing and grateful, my eyes will forever acknowledge beauty even in the most mundane, my ears will forever sing to the sound of freedom, my mouth will forever speak words of gratitude and I will always revel in a boring night at home.
I am in complete awe as to how this trip evolved from a simple idea to a life altering milestone in each of our journeys. I did nothing but pursued my passion and helped orchestrate with Carla while you were all key pieces to the symphony so please, stop thanking me. Having had the opportunity to assist with something so special and so important was the biggest gift of all so I must thank all of you.
All my love and admiration,