In May, Zach Kfare of Stamford went on a trip with his senior class from Westchester Hebrew High School that stopped in Poland where the group toured several concentration camps, and then traveled on to Israel. Zach spoke about his experience in Poland at his community’s Yom Hashoah commemoration. The following is an excerpt of that speech.
Like my sisters before me, I was given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join my senior class on our Heritage trip to Poland and Israel. I say “given the opportunity” because it was something I never thought I would be able to do. It is amazing how different people and organizations realize the importance of this type of experience, combine their resources, and make it possible for someone like me to participate. Even though I knew this would be an important trip, I didn’t realize the scope of how much it would affect me.
We visited many shuls and a mikveh that thrived before the Holocaust. One particular shul was very special. It had been the one that Jeremy, a fellow student’s grandfather had gone to. All that was left was the bima, a tall structure that looked like a chuppah with pillars. We sang and danced on the way, and when we got there we called Jeremy’s mother in what was the middle of the night singing “Am Yisrael Chai” to her while we danced under the remains of the shul in Tarnov where her father had attended.
We visited labor camps, death camps and concentration camps. In some places, we needed to be told what once existed there. For instance, at Treblinka, 300,000 Jews from Warsaw came thinking it was just a transition camp. There was not much left, except pits, where thousands of people were killed, and stones, with numerous names of towns from which those people had come.
We also visited Majdanek. The gas chambers and crematoria are still there, and you can see the ovens up close. We were able to go into some barracks and saw bunk bed after bunk bed. Some barracks housed 300-500 people, three beds high, an inch away from each other, in an area much less than half the size of this room. There was a barrack filled with thousands of shoes. I had seen something similar before — in Yad VaShem and the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. — but actually standing in the barracks where those shoes were once worn on the feet of men, women and children who were put to death soon after was agonizing. We stood in rooms where people were undressed and searched. We then walked into the gas chambers, which had a hole in the door so the guards could watch. We could see the blue stained walls that the Zyklon B gas had left.
At the end of our Majdanek visit, there was a gigantic Dome of Ashes, a huge pile of human ashes belonging to the victims of Majdanek. It was overwhelming, knowing that these were the ashes of cremated innocent bodies.
The part of the trip that had the most impact on me was Auschwitz. That is where it all hit me like a Mack truck. There is a building, which is more like a museum, that has rooms and rooms of different items owned by the Holocaust victims; things that were confiscated from them before they were killed. There were thousands of briefcases, like the kind my dad uses every day. There were cases of baby clothing and shoes, outfits like the kind my mom would buy for Miri or Keren. These victims were just like us. There were prosthetic body parts, wheelchairs, and crutches; pots and pans; hairbrushes; eyeglasses; and taleisim, which were heart-wrenching thinking of the men – fathers and grandfathers – who used to wear them.
Then we saw a case of one ton of hair. Looking through these mounds of hair, I came across one little red ribbon, a bow some adorable little girl put in her hair to look pretty, and the Nazis came along and chopped it off from her head, with the hair still attached. We sang “Ani Ma’amin” [“I Believe”] in the gas chambers, which was really powerful. It was even more powerful watching Gezelle, the Holocaust survivor who was with us on the trip, singing Ani Ma’amin in the gas chambers of the concentration camp where she was once a prisoner.
The next day we visited Birkenau. It was a major work camp, and had acres of land for Jews to work. We saw the remains of the crematoria, which a group of women prisoners had somehow managed to blow up, carrying in the bomb piece by piece. We had a silent march, walking on the train tracks into the camp, just like the prisoners. But there was one major, victorious difference. We were carrying Israeli flags. We were walking on the identical paths where victims were taken to be destroyed, but there we were, walking all over it. They tried to get rid of us but there we were. It made me feel proud of who I was. I was a Jew visiting all these miserable places, but I WAS THERE, and we are all here, alive and able to live our lives as Jews.
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