These and Those

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

No time to Think, Poland 2020

Posted on January 20, 2020 by Lara Rodin

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This blog post, written by Lara Rodin, a second year PEP student, was originally posted on January 19, 2020 on her personal blog. It has been reposted here with her permission.

“They didn’t have time to think,” Dean Bernstein told us about the victims of Treblinka, Majdanek, Auschwitz, and the other death camps and memorial sites we visited over the course of our week in Poland. Among the dehumanizing acts done by the Nazis toward the Jewish people during the Shoah were the tactics used to disorient, confuse, and rush people to their deaths in order that they should not have a chance to think with clarity.

Each day during the Amidah prayer, I acknowledge my gratitude for the ability to discern, to think, and to understand. I cannot imagine what the lack of clarity in thought meant for the dignity and sanity of the Jewish people in their final hours, as they were sent to their deaths by gas chambers, starvation, disease, and labour.

Dean Bernstein told us that the same was true for the Righteous Among the Nations, those who saved the lives of Jewish people during the Shoah. They didn’t have time to think, either. They did not have the opportunity, nor the luxury, to hesitate. If a Jewish person came knocking on their door to seek refuge or food, their instinct would determine whether that person would be saved for one more day, not their logic. If given the opportunity to pause and think about whether or not to risk their own lives to save someone else, most people would come to the reasonable conclusion that the cost of risking their lives and the lives of their families outweigh the benefits of saving someone that they may not even know.

Wednesday morning in Markowa, we learned about the story of Józef and Wiktoria Ulma, who were murdered in their attempt to shelter and save the lives of the Szall and Goldman families who tried to escape their fate as Jews in Nazi occupied Poland. The Ulma family and other Chasidai Umot L’Olam (Righteous Among the Nations) saw the value of each human life. The Talmud teaches us that “He who saves the life of one person saves the entire world”. This penultimate day of our trip was centered around what it meant not to think, but to instinctively act on a desire to do what is right and good.

As we watched Schindler’s List on bus rides between our stops and heard other stories of Chasidai Umot L’Olam our group wondered whether we, too, would have acted with such selflessness and lovingkindness to our own neighbours, let alone strangers, if the roles had been reversed.

It also may be true that these righteous people saw what even I had not seen before this second trip to Poland: that there is a deep and rich history of the Polish Jewish diaspora, and that so much of Judaism as we know it was created in the batei midrash (houses of study) and batei Knesset (houses of prayer) of pre-Holocaust Poland.

The sites we visited each day of our trip provided the context to learn about and understand the impact of the Shoah on Judaism, peoplehood, and the world. From our visit to Yeshivat Chochmai Lublin, where we studied Daf Yomi in the place it all begin, I saw a peek into the kind of Torah learning that my great-great grandfather once took part in. From our cheerful Yiddish songs during our tisch at the kever (grave) of Rav Elimelech of Lizhensk, I embodied the joy and yiddishkeit of my ancestors. From every beautiful and ancient synagogue that we brought life back into by praying Mincha and Maariv as we travelled across Poland, I saw myself as part of the history of the Jewish Polish diaspora.

Not only was I struck with the righteous and kind acts of those willing to risk their lives to preserve Jewish people and peoplehood at the threat of total annihilation during the Shoah, but this trip also showed me the impressive communities of young people, both Jewish and not Jewish, who are working to revive Jewish life in Poland today.

I saw this in Montrealer Jerry’s kosher restaurant in Tarnow, a formerly 50% Jewish town with now only a few Jews living there. I saw this from the rate at which young Jewish adults are discovering their previously hidden identities and seeking to recover traditions lost to them through Shabbat programming at Krakow JCC’s and young professional events at Hillel in Warsaw. I saw this in the interest that non-Jewish young adults have shown in preserving and reviving Jewish life in Poland, which they recognize as critical to their national and cultural heritage and essentially meaningful to our world.

The learning that I did with Pardes about the inspiring and critical history and future of Polish Jewry created a context for learning about the Shoah that was more deep and nuanced than I have ever understood it to be. I am left wondering: what if I didn’t have the time to think, to ponder, to pause? To worry about only myself and my context? Knowing what I know and seeing what I’ve now seen, how will I help shape my people’s future?