I never thought one week could change the course of how I view myself and our world. I spent four months at 16 years old living in Israel, learning and understanding the complexity of the history of the Jewish people. In more modern times, a crucial part of that education is studying the Holocaust, and why learn about it in the classroom, when you can learn about it in the very place it happened? My pilgrimage to Poland took a piece of my soul and left a permanent imprint on my heart.

This trip to Poland opened my eyes and my heart to experience my Judaism as more of a spiritual practice through ritual, rather than just a religious practice. While attending religious school, I would dread attending tefillah as I found no meaning to it: if I don’t believe in God, then what’s the point? What is my purpose for prayer? Little did I know that I would discover that meaning I’ve been searching for while in Poland.

Awe fell over my body as I gazed in all directions while stepping into the synagogue at Tykocin, a town that used to be a Jewish village. The prayers written on the walls provided a visual glimpse into Jewish life hundreds of years ago. As I walked around, I could identify the prayers that I recite to this day, such as the Mourner’s Kaddish and V’ahavta, and I related to them in a way I never experienced before. Why is it that even during my semester that I lived in Israel, when I often visited ancient sites that depict Jewish life thousands of years ago, I felt a greater impact in this particular synagogue than anywhere else?

Perhaps recognizing the prayers in another country, rather than being in America or Israel, allowed me to understand that Judaism is historical and universal. In addition, 300 years is an easier time period to grasp than 2,500 years, so I could more easily imagine the Jews who lived in this shtetl who chanted, sang, and prayed there. It’s tradition. I found my significance for prayer in this very word. Tradition represents what it means to be a Jew at its root. I don’t pray to speak with God, I pray to continue this practice of Jews repeating these exact words for thousands of years; the walls of that synagogue were simply a symbol of that.

Just as I had never connected to tefillah, I never connected with specific prayers or songs… until now. I felt power and spirit ignite within me while chanting the Mourner’s Kaddish with my eyes glued to a place of death: the mass pits in the Lopuchowo Forest, the crematorium at Majdanek and standing in front of the pile of ashes, and the remains of gas chamber and crematorium #4 at Auschwitz Birkenau. As I write down these words, I relive the experience and emotion fills my heart.

No amount of imagination will ever bring the reality of the Holocaust justice. As I said Kaddish for people who perished 80 years ago in the location that my gaze was focused upon, it’s impossible to fathom what had actually happened there. In each instance, my heart collapsed, while my voice cracked, chanting the words of that prayer. When I ponder about what part particularly made me emotional, I don’t have an answer. But what I do know, is that I will never repeat the words of this prayer again and not have these sites come to mind or a striking pain in my heart. The connection I created to this land and to these words will remain glued to me forever.

In Poland, I discovered the importance of carrying on Jewish traditions for those who no longer can. Not only in terms of praying and tefillah, but also with my experience of wrapping tefillin. I grew up learning about tefillin at my synagogue, yet it was never a Jewish practice I found interest in. When my teacher Evan shared that whenever in Poland he loves to wrap tefillin in order to bring Jewish life back into this land, he offered if any of us would wish to try it; all of a sudden I developed a desire. We decided upon the last morning of the trip in the hotel lobby, and part of me was disappointed that out of any place in Poland, I was simply doing it in the lobby. However, I soon realized how special this setting is: the hotel is located in what used to be the Krakow Ghetto, a place where Jews lost freedom and couldn’t easily maintain their traditional practices. I wrapped tefillin for the Jews who were trapped and isolated in this very place where I stood, and who at some point during the six years of the Holocaust were forced to stop these traditions.

I had never looked more physically Jewish than when wearing kippah, tallit, and tefillin. I could feel the warmth of the shawl, the tightness of the leather, and most of all, the connection to myself, to lost souls, and to Judaism. While reciting the prayers, my mind remained focused on one thought: if someone looked like I do now but 80 years prior, they are dead, but I’m alive. To some extent, guilt flooded me. What gives my life any more value than those who stood before me? There is no answer. I can only choose to focus on gratitude and acceptance for being here now and not then.

Jews not only survived the Shoah but demonstrated their strength as they continued to evolve in Jewish communities around the world. Throughout the Middle Ages and even in more recent centuries, I wouldn’t have had the same rights that I have today; it would be unheard of for a girl like me to wear a tallit and wrap tefillin. And here I am today, returning to this land of such evil but with more power than before.

In the not so distant past, there was the goal to wipe out the entire Jewish population, but that didn’t happen. Jews have continued to persevere and flourish. Strength runs through my veins as I recite prayers Jews before me only would have wished to continue. I sing Hatikvah with the same vigor and passion, while remembering the dreams it came with. That is the meaning I’ve been longing for – praying for those that could not do it for themselves.

“One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic”: Joesph Stalin

6 million. It’s impossible to comprehend that number. It is said that it would take 11 years to dedicate one minute per victim, but even is a statistic. So how do we go from viewing these 6 years of terror as an event and a statistic to truly understanding and honoring the many lives that were murdered? The tragedy is too great, I don’t think I can ever get to the point of truly grasping what happened during the Shoah, despite the places I’ve been to, the ground I’ve stood on, and the memories of horror I’ve witnessed. But I learned what I needed in order to help myself fathom what I was looking at, which I’m sure almost everyone else needs, and that is a visual of numbers and to constantly remind myself that each number is a life.

Your mind simply can’t create an image of 6 million: it’s something we’ve never seen before, therefore we can’t create it. But visuals I attained throughout the trip helped me grasp it a little more every time. I first felt this at Yad Vashem walking through the children’s memorial: a pitch black room filled with mirrors where a candle reflects one and a half million times representing each child that was murdered. It’s astonishing and terrifying. Every inch that you look there’s another light shining. The shock I felt persisted while walking through the memorial’s entirety –  it was mesmerizing.

The pile of shoes is a visual that has truly scarred me. I’d seen it before at Yad Vashem but had never imagined the magnitude that I could witness as when visiting Majdanek and Auschwitz. My jaw would drop and literally not come back up, and I stopped breathing in awe and pain. At Majdanek in the barrack with giant cases filled with shoes, Yotam turned to me and solemnly said “each pair of shoes is one life.” It’s so obvious, but the way he bluntly said it was beyond powerful and frankly made me scared.

That was the visual right in front of me that shows death. And at Auschwitz, the pile just kept going and it felt like it never ended. I didn’t even want to know how many pairs were in the room. At one moment, I had looked down and saw a pair of red sandals, matching shoes that were perfectly placed next to each other, and I envisioned the woman whose shoes those were standing right before my eyes. Then multiply that by the number of shoes there were total… These are images I will never be able to unsee.

Everyone went to our counselor’s Evan’s house for our very last Havdalah in Israel, and due to the rain, he wanted us to take off our shoes upon entry and leave them at the front door. During Havdalah, I looked over to the door and my heart went numb. I saw the pile of everyone’s shoes and I couldn’t help but think about what I witnessed at the death camps. I automatically repeated Yotam’s quote in my mind, and then I looked back at everyone in the room: a community singing and praying for a new week of peace. I tried not to, but I felt forced to look back at 20 pairs of shoes, and all I envisioned was death. 80 years ago, all that would’ve been left of Jews like us is that pile of shoes. Empty shoes.

The question I must ask myself is how do I integrate back into a society of people who don’t have the same awareness of the Holocaust as I do, or even a baseline understanding of it? As I’ve witnessed over the years in school, a large majority of students don’t care about learning about the Shoah or give it the same level of value as I or other Jews do. Unfortunately, I understand where they come from – if they aren’t Jewish, why should they care? How can our world be better educated on topics that almost no one has a connection to?

I would argue that this one week in Poland was just as, if not more, life-changing and transformative than the other 17 weeks in Israel. As a guest speaker in class perfectly said: “Based on this knowledge you’ve gained, what are you going to do with it? Maybe it’ll be when you get home, not until college, or even in 10 years.” I continue to ponder that very question, and I think finishing this paper is just the very beginning of what I can do. This trip has left a permanent impact on me, and I’m hopeful that I can provide that to others.

One of the ways I hope to do so is to inspire others to make this pilgrimage to Poland, despite people’s insistence of “I could never do that, it would be too hard,” or “I’ve learned so much through books and movies I don’t feel the need to go.” I want to challenge this belief system. I believe it’s ignorant to say you don’t want to visit these sites because you’re afraid of the pain you might feel. But there’s two things to remember: this discomfort is finite and there is privilege in these comments. Those who were murdered certainly didn’t have this option. One of the best ways to remember and honor these 6 million Jews who were murdered in the Shoah, is to visit these places with power and strength – this is a reminder that Nazi Germany did not win. As a Jew, it’s not something you have the choice to do,  rather it’s an obligation.

(This is an excerpt of Kami Rosenblatt’s paper submitted following her trip to Poland in 2022)

Article by Author/s
Kami Rosenblatt
Kami Rosenblatt is a junior in high school in the San Francisco Bay Area. During the fall semester of my junior year, I participated in a high school semester abroad to Israel through the URJ Heller High. Throughout my four months, I strengthened my Jewish identity, submerged myself in Israeli culture, learned the history of the Jewish homeland, traveled to Poland for Holocaust education, and participated in over 40 hours of tzedakah, volunteering, projects, including four days at an Israeli Defense Forces military base. This was a life-changing experience, and I hope I can share the knowledge I’ve learned to inspire and impact others for their future journeys.

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