There we were in Israel at the beginning of April, pushing our shovels into the moist ground, casually throwing potatoes into the basin. When my Ramaz classmates and I first arrived in Israel we volunteered at a field in the city of Rehovot for the organization Leket Israel. We collected potatoes to be donated to needy families in Israel. However, our day did not start there.
That morning, our plane finally landed in Israel. We immediately drove to the Kotel to pray. Once we entered the Old City of Jerusalem we formed a circle and started dancing. We screamed at the top of our lungs, “This year in Jerusalem.” While it was early and we were tired, we could not contain our excitement at being in Israel.
What made this trip to Israel so special was the fact that we had just experienced the rollercoaster of a week in Poland. There we mourned those who were buried in the Warsaw Ghetto cemetery; we learned Torah in the famous Yeshiva of Chachemei in Lublin; we shuddered and cringed late at night around a children’s mass grave in the forest near Zbilatowska Gora; and we sobbed and were shocked by the concentration camp, Majdanek, the death camp, Belzec, and by the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau. And that is just an overview of our time in Poland.
Ruchamah Roth, the inspiring survivor who accompanied us in Poland, shared her experiences with us. For me, one story in particular stood out. She told us that at meal time in Auschwitz when everyone lined up for soup, people tried to get a spot toward the end of the line where they would get a ladle of soup containing a potato bit from the bottom of the pot. That extra piece of potato was imperative to survival.
In Israel, as I casually tossed one potato into the bin, I felt guilty for having the luxury to be around so many potatoes; during the Holocaust, finding a potato was like finding gold. At that moment, I felt the disparity between being enslaved and being free. Being enslaved is searching for people to give you potatoes; being free is being able to give potatoes.
Our Israel experience would have been completely different if we had not experienced Poland. Traveling from Poland to Israel allowed us to experience the transition from avdut l’cherut—from slavery to freedom. It made me realize: now that we are free, it is time to give back. A true sign of freedom is having the opportunity to give back and help others who are enslaved reach cherut, freedom.
I think the hardest question posed to me by friends and family has been, “How was it?” How do you do justice to a trip that was so emotional and life changing? How do you explain crematoriums to a 10-year-old sibling, and how do you tell the stories of Ruchamah without upsetting someone. This, coming from a girl who thought her major challenges after Poland were going to be falling asleep at night and walking into a dark room alone without thinking of the gas chambers?
Many weeks after the trip, what helps me deal with the disturbing images and remembrance of the past is the fact that I went to Poland for a greater purpose. The reason I went was not only for myself, not only so I would be able to learn about life in Europe. Rather, the purpose of this class trip was about relaying to my friends and family what I saw. It was our responsibility to go on behalf of the Jewish people.
After we visited the extermination camp of Belzec, we stopped off at a beautiful old synagogue in the city of Lancut. This synagogue, like most, had a plaque of the Ten Commandments above where the ark once stood. In the Torah, the fourth commandment of keeping Shabbat is presented in two ways. The first is with the Hebrew word, shamor, meaning guard the Shabbat. The second is zachor, meaning remember the Shabbat.
In most synagogues, the fourth commandant is presented as zachor, however, in the Lancut synagogue, the plaque read shamor. I found this to be no coincidence. When I was standing in the synagogue looking up at the ceiling, I realized that aside from the building’s structure, there was nothing else to remember the community by. I felt as if the Jews of Lancut were calling out to us, begging us to change that shamor to zachor, and remember to share their story. It is crucial to remember the vibrant Jewish life before the war as well as the horror and tragedies that occurred. By telling their stories, their deaths are not in vain.
There is a reason that Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, is just a week before Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day. The only way to truly appreciate the land of Israel is to first see the past; a past of horror, tragedy and enslavement. Yom Ha’Atzmaut is not only a day for us to celebrate our current homeland. I believe that it is also a day for us to think about: what would have been different if Israel existed during World War II? Would Jews have been expelled from their homes and been sent to camps?
Israel makes the phrase “Never Again” a reality. On this Yom Ha’Atzmaut, it is important to remember the Holocaust and the trials and tribulations that the Jews have faced for many generations, because it will put into perspective how lucky we are to be a thriving people celebrating Israel’s 64th birthday.
That is why, at 5 a.m., we started dancing and celebrating the fact that we had made it to Israel. Not only did we feel that we had finally reached our destination, but we had also reached the spiritual destination of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Now that we had made our personal transition from avdut l’cherut, and experienced sheer joy because we were free, we were obligated to give back and show appreciation for the liberty we have.
So we picked potatoes to feed the hungry in Israel, just as that same vegetable kept some of our ancestors alive in Poland. And to think, all it takes is picking a couple of simple spuds to realize how lucky we are.