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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.