These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

2012 Poland Trip: A Journal Entry from January 17, 2012

Posted on April 22, 2012 by Laura H.

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There is a great deal of contrast in the types of graves we are seeing in Poland. Today, we went to Belsec, where even in the mid-1990s, there were still bones visible on the earth. The memorial there is cut into the shallow hill of the camps – into the mass grave. We spoke about different ways to memorialize, if this was a desecration of the grave or an important experiential educational tool for visitors. I decided not to go into the memorial. I felt that these individuals already died in the most undignified way and that their bodies were also disposed of without any dignity. I wanted to try to provide some peace to their existence and to not enter their place of rest.

We then left and went to see the grave of Reb Elimeleck of Lezajdsk. In stark contrast to Belsec, he is buried like many other Hassidic masters in a small tomb. He is venerated by thousands of visitors from around the world, and is resting with the utmost dignity. His writings adorn the walls of the tomb and people go there to spiritually be in the presence of a Hassidic master. Although his grave is a site of great spiritual ascension, I couldn’t help but focus on the differences between being there and being in Belsec. Two worlds that may share common geography, but do not speak a common language.

After being in Lezajdsk, we traveled westward to Krakow and stopped in Zblitovska Gora, a site with mass Polish and Jewish graves in the forest. There, the Jews and Poles shared a similar fate, rounded up by the Nazis and brutally murdered with no humanity. An ethnographer decided to research what took place there and marked out two solely Polish mass graves, two Jewish and one shared. In doing his research, he did not disturb the graves at all. Looking back, his work may not have outlined the graves with 100% accuracy, but he afforded the victims, one grave of which was children, all of the dignity that he could. Perhaps, as mush respect as some of them ever had in their short lives.

It is difficult to hold all of these images at once, in one day. They represent such different ways of relating to the dead, and they all shock me differently. The sites each shape a distinct mourning experience – whether it is the horror of mass killing, or the joy of remembering a single person’s contribution. While in Poland, I have thought a lot about the tradition that by invoking someone’s name, you help their memory and existence life on. Today, I wondered how we can help people live on if we do not even know their names. And, how we can do so with the same amount of respect that we afford someone whose name and teachings come so easily off our lips.

Pardes trips to Poland are run in partnership with Heritage Seminars. The Claims Conference has provided trip scholarships for qualifying Pardes participants, as well as subsidies for program components directed at Jewish educators.