Why We Visit Europe

As Unit Supervisor of L’dor V’dor 2, I traveled with Groups 3a, 3b and 4 throughout Prague, Krakow, Warsaw and Auschwitz for the past week. The participants learned an incredible amount of history in this short time – from a glimpse into Medieval European Jewish life and culture to the horrors of the Holocaust.

One of the reasons we go to the Josefov Quarter in Prague is because it serves as a microcosm of Jewish life in Europe. Until the Holocaust, Jews had made their home in Prague since the 9th Century. While many other Jewish communities were destroyed in WWII, Josefov remained largely undamaged as Czechoslovakia was invaded early on in the war, and the Nazis choose to leave the Jewish Quarter intact, intending it would act as a museum of gratitude to the Nazis for exterminating the Jewish people. Some 300,000 Czech Jews were sent to concentration camps, but the Jewish Quarter was never destroyed.

The Jewish Cemetery in Prague

The Jewish Cemetery in Prague

There are many Jewish sights in Josefov – a clock built in 1586 with Hebrew letters instead of numbers; the Alt-Noi Synagogue, which is the oldest synagogue in Europe; the Maisal, Pinkas and Sephardic Synagogues and the Jewish Cemetery. Josefov was also the home of Judaism’s most famous superhero – the Golem.

The next day we traveled  to Terezin. At its apex, the Terezin Ghetto held  150,000 Jews, most of whom were only there in transit to extermination camps in Poland. The ghetto was a concentration camp like any other, as Jews died or were killed in mass numbers. There were, however, a few unique characteristics of Terezin. First, that it was something of a ‘cultured’ ghetto. People were allowed to perform plays, hold lectures and concerts. There was even an amateur soccer league. It became known as the ‘Paradise Ghetto.’ The Nazis made propaganda movies of the ‘wonderful Jewish life’ in the ghetto, and in the summer of 1944, facing a visit from the Danish Red Cross, the ghetto underwent a diabolical makeover featuring new cafes and shops to cruelly misconstrue the reality of the ghetto.

In Terezin

In Terezin

In Krakow, we see a different, more terrifying version of ghetto life. As the Krakow Ghetto was liquidated in 1942, its Jewish residents were arbitrarily shot in the street, forced to kill one another, and treated in the most inhumane ways possible. Some 10,000 Jews were killed in the liquidation alone, and those who survived were sent to the Plasov labor camp. If these names sound familiar, its because the events in Krakow and Plasov were chronicled in the movie “Schindler’s List.” The 1200 Jews saved by Oskar Schindler were held in Plasov, and moved at great personal cost to Czechoslovakia to work in Schindler’s factory.

For many of the participants, visiting Warsaw brought one central message – defiance. In Warsaw, where some 500,000 Jewish residents were crowded onto only 375 acres, only 60,000 remained by Spring 1943. Nearly all the rest had been sent in transports to the Treblinka death camp. Rather than be led to their deaths, a group in the ghetto decided to mount an uprising. Against all the odds, the poorly-armed fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising held off the world’s largest army for an entire month. This courageous uprising by Jewish fighters inspired  thousands of others to revolt against the Nazi regime, showing them that resistance and revolt were possible.

To me, the reason for visiting Auschwitz needs no real explanation. Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest Nazi death camp, and is also the world’s largest graveyard. Some 1.2 million people, 1 million of them Jews, were murdered at Auschwitz, their remains spread above and below the very ground on which we walk when we visit. In no other place in Europe is the Nazi concept of a “Final Solution” so clear. And in no other place were the groups’ emotions so clear. I watched participants comfort one another as we toured the camp. The hardest part for many was the gas chambers. These were the very chambers in which so many Jews perished, including family members of participants. Even harder, perhaps, were not the actual chambers themselves, but the steps that led to them. For so many Jewish Europeans, these steps down into the chambers were the last sight of the outside world before death. Here, Jews who had not been lucky enough in the arbitrary ‘selection’ process were led to slaughter, yet told even until the very end that they were simply “being sent to the showers.”

Auschwitz

Auschwitz

At Auschwitz, we read and discussed the testimony of different survivors. There was a long discussion about one of the survivors who revealed a secret he had carried for years – he had stolen another man’s hat when he lost his own.  He had stolen the hat because in Auschwitz, not wearing your hat as a prisoner likely meant death. When he stole this man’s hat, he essentially condemned the other man to death. As a group, we talked about what it took for anyone to survive the horrors of the camp.

Our week in Europe was an emotional one. In Prague, we felt the incredible absence of a people that had been completely wiped out of the Jewish Quarter. In Krakow, we recounted the brutality of Nazi action, and in Auschwitz we bared witness to the incomprehensible destruction of human life. It is important to experience these places, but I couldn’t help but feel relief as we departed for Israel, the Jewish Homeland. Here, we will not feel the absence of life, but rather its’ flourishing. We will see prosperity, not destruction. We will hike, walk and tour in the places that Jews called home long before the tragedy of the Shoah. Here we will not witness the end of Jewish life, but the renewal of it.

By Yotam Evyatar
Unit Supervisor L’dor V’dor 2

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One Response to Why We Visit Europe

  1. avatar
    Kevin Wilk July 1, 2013 at 5:39 pm #

    Wonderful commentary. “Here we will not witness the end of Jewish life, but the renewal of it.”

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