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 fourth in a series of blog posts by her about her experience with the group. Read Parts I, II, III, and V.
As expected, today was a challenging one. It seemed inevitable that clouds and rain dampened our journey throughout the day.
We began the morning with an upbeat visit to the old Jewish Quarter of Krakow. For centuries this was a thriving Jewish community and cultural center. The group leaders conveyed the depth of Jewish history and tradition through an entertaining ‘mock’ wedding, discussions of Jewish customs and rituals and a joyful dance and song session at one of the synagogues.
Nonetheless, the foreboding of the prior day was ever present. Visiting one of the ancient cemeteries we glanced up at the surrounding wall only to find that it was made from headstones. So began the difficult journey.
Being in Krakow, we could not help but focus on the scenes and stories from Schindler’s List, which covered so much of this city’s tragic recent history. We followed the journey of that Jewish community, walking in silence along the bridge into the ghetto and gathering on the Umschlagplatz where the Jews were herded onto trains. Here we held the first of several deep conversations, sharing impressions, asking questions, seeking insights.
Next, we visited Schindler’s factory, where we discussed the challenging questions raised by the man and the myth – was he a Nazi who profited from Jewish slave labor or a hero who risked his life to save Jews, or both? And what are we to take away from that story?
Eventually we made our way to Plaszow – the labor camp made famous in the movie and site of so much unspeakable cruelty. It is now a city park – passers-by walk their dogs and stroll with their children as they pass a simple stone monument memorializing the victims of torture, brutality and murder. There is no other visible sign that the green lawns, flowers and trees of the park have replaced what was once a muddy quarry, paved with headstones, stained by blood — though we were told that ashes and bones can still be found just below the surface.
We paused at the memorial to give the group time for processing. Making a circle, each person shared their feelings and impressions, spoke about what moved them most and what they will take away from the day. Their comments were sad and wise, thoughtful and challenging. It was a remarkable moment that made us (the adults) so proud of them and impressed by their maturity and sincerity. I commented that they will be the first generation to have to interpret what the Holocaust means for the Jewish community in the absence of survivors and eye-witnesses. As survivors did for our generation, these young adults will have the burden and the obligation of determining what the message of the Holocaust will be for future generations. I came away from that conversation confident that our future is in good hands.
Auschwitz tomorrow. There is a chill in the air that matches the chill in our bones. In preparation, the counselors held one final discussion to allow the group to share their anxieties, fears and expectations. The sensitivity and wisdom of the group leaders has made this difficult day manageable. Our teen participants, too, are in good hands.