By: Jesse Hyman
After a long first night at the Warsaw cemetery, we were given 6:30 am as the wake-up time for the following morning. After some grumbling, everyone reported for davening around 7. After eating breakfast, we headed out to Treblinka. While this may seem like an extreme place to visit so early into our trip, it helped set the tone of what we are seeing throughout this Poland trip. The classic story everyone tells about Treblinka is that the Nazis destroyed the camp and now there are only stones representing decimated communities. Knowing this before I walked in, I was still stunned by 17,000 stones, stretching out in all directions, in all shapes and size. 130 of the stones have names of cities on them, but we only stopped by one – Jedwabne. Rabbi Marcus recounted the story of how the Poles of this city, not the Germans, were responsible for locking the around 1,600 Jews of Poland into a barn and burning it down! We were then given time to walk around and explore the other stones. 900,000 Jews killed in one place is a number that stuck with me the rest of the day as I tried to fathom what that number looks like – I couldn’t.
Following Treblinka, we took a two and half hour bus ride, watching Escape From Sobibor – another death camp. At the end of the ride, we descended at Majdanek concentration camp. Again, the famous part of this camp is that it is situated right next to the city of Lublin. And again, I was still amazed to see just how close it was. While Treblinka was in the middle of a forest, Majdanek was 3 kilometers from Lublin during WWII (now, it is right next to houses and buildings). In Majdanek, Rabbi Marcus told us that the reason the Nazis destroyed Treblinka as evidence and not Majdanek was because concentrations camps were “normal.” Death camps, on the other hand, crossed the line. In Majdanek, which is pretty well intact, we visited the gas chambers, a storage room with 430,000 pairs of shoes (another unfathomable number), and a barrack where men and women had stayed during the war. We learned from Rabbi Marcus that people in these camps were given 189 calories per day in food (as opposed to the 2,000-2,500 calories for a normal adult). We ended off in the crematorium at the other end of the camp, where we davened mincha, heard some words of Torah from Rabbi Sufrin, and sang a few songs. To strike the point of the crematorium home, there is a monument next to it with the human ashes of about 1,200 people. While not the halachic way to bury the people, it helped illustrate what the Nazis had done to the bodies.
We then stopped in at the cemetery in Lublin (not quite as big as in Warsaw). The graves we visited included one that Nazis used for target practice, the Maharshal, the Chozeh of Lublin, and other great tzaddikim.
After this visit, we drove over the Yeshivat Chochmei Lublin, started by Rabbi Meir Shapira. We learned about the past of the Yeshiva (now Hotel Ilan) and then davened maariv – led by Nathan Silberberg who bid 43 extra hours of learning for the right to be the shliach tzibbur. Rabbi Sufrin and Mr. Turgemon then took the Torah from the Aron and we all danced and sang with it, to show the Nazis not only are we still alive and learning, but we are also Besimcha. We ate dinner in the basement of the building and then split into groups for a debriefing session about the day. Wow, has it only been 25 hours??