By Rabbi Marla Feldman
Rabbi Marla Feldman, Director of Development at the Union for Reform Judaism, is a chaperone in Europe with L’dor V’dor Group 10. This is the third in a series of blog posts by her about her experience with the group. Read Parts I, II, IV and V.
I originally thought I would not blog today since we are spending most of our time on an eight-hour bus ride from Prague to Krakow. The group continues to bond, playing guitar and singing on the bus or listening to their own ipods, moving up and down the aisle to begin new conversations and continue to form new friendships. Although it’s a perfect time for some well-needed chilling, there is a palpable undercurrent of anticipation. We are headed to Poland… we are heading to Auschwitz.
This same sense of gloom and dread resided just beneath the surface throughout our day in Prague. As we walked along the pathways of our history we were very aware that our past was not our present. We walked along the bridges where young Jews met and romanced 70 years ago, imagined ourselves in that magical time and charming place. But now they are filled with Jewish tourists from the U.S. and Israel who wander these streets amidst the street vendors hawking history.
At each step along the way the counselors encourage the teens to imagine themselves here, at each place and time, living their history through the stories of their ancestors.
We learned that there were over 90,000 Jews in Prague at the time of the Nazi invasion. Of those, less than 15,000 survived the war, passing through Terezin on their way to Auschwitz. Their stories became very personal for us when one of the counselors shared her family story – a grandfather who was an Olympic soccer star on the Czech team; he lived in the apartment just across the street. Somehow he survived the war in Terezin and was never sent to his death. Remember the synagogue we just visited? Her grandmother lived right near there. She was the only survivor of all her family members who were sent to Auschwitz. We could only imagine what it took for these two young lovers to survive the war and make their way to the U.S. where miraculously they were reunited. Could that have been one of us?
The most powerful part of the day yesterday was our visit to the Pinkas Synagogue – a synagogue-turned memorial. With few survivors left to fill the pews after the war, the surviving remnant converted it into a memorial, painting on the walls the names of every member of the community murdered by the Nazi killing machine. Room upon room, tens of thousands of names. We searched for familiar family names, sometimes found our own name, noted the date of birth, the date of their death. Rachels and Anyas, Davids and Noahs. Were they just like us? Would our names have been on that wall? Emerging from the rooms with names we found ourselves in a gallery of pictures made by the children of Terezin. Of the 15,000 Jewish children in Czechoslovakia, only 132 survived. We saw photos of the children – were any of these among the few survivors?
We each chose a name and wrote it on a piece of paper, which we will bring with us to Israel. They will survive through us.
So now our journey continues in Krakow. We will watch Schindler’s List on the bus so we will understand the story of the Jews who lived there. We will see his factory; we will walk as they did to the ghetto each day. We will wonder – could that have been us?