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Of Stone and Ashes

Poland passed in a blur. I think a lot of the trauma of visiting Poland comes from the shock of it: The moment you realize the pile of dirt you're looking at is human ashes. When you round the corner in a woodland and find mass graves of children amongst the birdsong. When you visit fields that used to be synagogues, cheders, town squares, all razed to the ground. When you stand in the middle of Birkenau in a chilly haze and there are barbed wire fences stretching as far as the eye can see.

I remember my first visit to Poland. It was a week-long trip for converts and new olim (of which I am neither, but that's another story). We visited death camps, labour camps, synagogues and ghettos. We visited shtetls, mass graves, museums, and even took a boat ride down the Vistula river. I remember stopping at a gas station shortly after leaving the death camp Majdanek, how we walked up and down the aisles, sort of examining the crisps and sandwiches, but really just in a daze and not knowing how to comprehend what we had just experienced.

I returned to Poland the following summer, for an internship at a Jewish museum in Krakow. During the days I would guide visitors through the exhibit, which looked at modern-day remains of Jewish life and history in Poland. On the weekends I would wander through nearby villages, searching out old synagogues and crumbling gravestones.

It was more than just a visit to Poland. I had my grocery store, and my vegetable stall. In the mornings I would catch the tram into Kazimierz, the heart of the old Jewish district, and in the evenings I would walk home as the sun set over the river. I would stop in at the flea markets and see what I could find, and on Shabbat I joined the local community and visiting tourists for services in the Izaak Synagogue.

I didn't go back for a few years, and when I did, it was leading a group of Scottish Jewish teenagers on their first trip to Poland (read about it here). There I had a purpose. I was facilitating, leading, guiding other people on their first visit to Poland, their first encounters with these histories. When I went on my most recent trip, on the March of the Living in April 2022, I was a participant, one of many seeing and experiencing the places we visited.

We did a lot of meaningful things. We visited the death camp of Treblinka, where nearly 900,000 Jews were murdered in a little over a year. The camp was destroyed, and today, the place where it was is covered in a memorial of thousands of jagged stones protruding from the earth. You can walk amongst them. It's like wandering through a graveyard, getting lost amongst the remains of what used to be.

We visited the synagogue in Tykocin. The outside is painted watermelon pink and green, with big castle turrets, freshly renovated as part of an EU conservation project. The inside is decorated with richly embroidered textiles and beautifully restored inscriptions on the walls. We left the synagogue, walked down the road and climbed through a ditch and a hole in a chain-link fence, into what used to be the Jewish cemetery. It's now an empty field, with no plaque, no memorial, to what used to be there. We were the memorial, standing and remembering a place that used to exist.

In Lodz we visited the Radegast train station memorial. Built in 2005, a long concrete tunnel stretches from a memorial statue to the train station platform where the Jews of the Lodz ghetto were deported first to Chelmno, and later to Auschwitz. Lining the walls of the tunnel on both sides are deportation lists. You can see the names, some handwritten, some typed. You can see the little handwritten checkmarks, crossing off individuals who entered the trains, headed for death.

And then in the town of Piotrkow, we stood in a building courtyard with Mala Tribich, as she pointed up to the window which was her apartment in the ghetto. She took us out to the place in the forest where her mother and sister were shot. In Birkenau we sat on the ground around Arek Hersh as he recounted details of his time in Birkenau.

I don't think I really had time to think about it until I got home. The whole trip was so busy, going here, there, all sorts of different places. We sat on the bus and drove across long distances, visited sites of destruction, and then we drove away and went somewhere else.

I landed back in Glasgow on a Friday afternoon, and we immediately headed south into the Scottish Borders for a long weekend away in the town of Clovenfords. Clovenfords is a tiny village, a few streets leading off of a central traffic circle. There's one hotel, which serves food, and a tiny shop. The rest is houses, stretching off into the rolling green hills of southern Scotland.

Shabbat morning we went for a walk. It didn't take long to clear the village and get up on the hillside. For a while the path was sheltered between a woodland and a stone fence, but it soon went through a gate and out onto the open hill. The wind blew over us as we continued up, the views opening up across the valley to the hills in the distance, dotted with farm animals and yellow pops of gorse.

We stopped to catch our breath at a gate in the stone wall. Standing on the opposite side was a mother sheep with two small lambs laying in the grass. She nudged at them, but they didn't seem to move. I began to worry that they had died, as the mother sheep got more and more agitated. She walked in circles around them, trying to wake them, but they still didn't move.

That's when it hit me. All the stories we had been told in Poland - about families being torn apart when they arrived at camps; children being buried alive to hide them from the Nazis, being fed rotten potatoes through a small hole to stay alive; a young man who tried to die by sneaking into a gas chamber, only to be sent out again. It all came flooding back to me as we stood in that field, watching the mother sheep try to wake her lambs. It was as if in Poland, surrounded by all these buildings and memorials and sites of trauma, it was too much to comprehend. But up here, there was nothing for miles except grass and wind and stone and sheep, nothing to distract from the tragedy of life.

The lamb stirred an ear. Eventually it popped its head up. It was alive. We returned the next day to check on it, and the sheep had moved away to a different field. What had seemed so monumentous, such a tragedy, became nothing more than a fleeting moment.

I thought back to Treblinka, to the jagged memorial stones, and the stillness of the forest. I recalled the testimony we had read there, about the girl being torn away from her brother, how she struggled and cried, how he had found the dress she had been wearing in a warehouse days later, after she was gassed and buried in a pit. We stood in a circle on the very train platform where she had arrived in Treblinka, reading out her brother's testimony, slowly and painfully. For us, for her, for her brother, that moment was everything, yet when we look at the entirety of the destruction of the Shoah, it was a fleeting moment, the blink of an eye.

Perhaps I still haven't really processed the trip. Maybe it takes time. It's been two months that I've been back from Poland, yet it feels like ages. But I think it's back in everyday life that these trips have the most impact. In Poland, on a trip like March of the Living, you're there to learn and experience, but perhaps it's in the return to normality that you're able to really make sense of it all.

I'm not sure if you can ever really understand the Holocaust. No matter how many times one visits Auschwitz, no matter how many Polish bus tours, we learn more, but perhaps all we understand more of is our place in the world. How tiny we are, how insignificant in the larger scope of things, yet how much of a difference we can make. I think about the stone walls on the hillside and the monuments of Treblinka, about permanence and history and how the lifespan of that wall and the things that I can see are the blink of an eye. Yet it's our duty to try, to remember, to retell the stories of the places we inhabit, and the people who lived in them, and to try and make these places a little bit better.

Breishit 18:27:

וְאָנֹכִ֖י עָפָ֥ר וָאֵֽפֶר

I am but dust and ashes

Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5:

בִּשְׁבִילִי נִבְרָא הָעוֹלָם

For me the world was created.

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