Blog: Lowest Place On Earth by Leah McNeil

by Leah McNeil, Bus 3

DSC00484As I write this from the Warsaw airport, we prepare to leave for Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, I cant help but be amazed at the journey we’ve taken in the last two days.

As many of you may know from following along with our itinerary and group blog, we spent Friday at Auschwitz II (Birkenau) and Auschwitz I before attending ruach services with the Krakow Jewish community. This experience was undoubtedly a difficult one for all of us, both physically and emotionally. Auschwitz II, also called Birkenau, is the notorious death camp with the railway entrance that we have all seen in stock photos. Auschwitz I was the “work camp” nearby that was for political prisoners, as well as Jews, and the site of inhumane experiementation by Drs. Mengele and Eichman in the camp “hospital.” It is also the fictional setting of the famous novel “Boy in the Striped Pajamas.”

Walking through the places where so many of our people died (1.1 million) was, to say the least, incredibly surreal. Many of us were amazed by the natural beauty and stillness that surrounded the metaphorical “lowest place on Earth.” Concentration camps are often depicted at ghastly, dark places, and while the crimes committed there most certainly were, it was made all the more disturbing by the realization that the Shoah occurred in beautiful fields, brick buildings, gas chambers surrounded by birch trees and ponds.

DSC00494I expected to feel weak and powerless while in the camps, by instead was awed by both the strength and resilience of the Jewish people and the human capacity for hatred. However, I believe that wherever there is hatred there is also love, and as our group walked hand in hand, crying and praying and supporting each other, the ahava (love) and kehilah (community) was tangible. Whatever emotional stamina we lost that day to sadness and grief, we replenished with newfound knowledge and empowerment.

We finished the day with energetic and joyous musical services with Krakow’s Reform community and woke up on Saturday morning with newly meaningful t’filah (services) and listened with incredible gratitude and appreciation to a woman honored with the title of Righteous Among the Nations, who risked her life to save a Jewish girl during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Our life-changing Shabbat experience ended with Havdalah in Warsaw, and now as we sit on the plane, laughing and talking as we make our way to Israel, I can say with certainty that depite the horrors of Auschwitz and the Shoah, am ysirael chai (The Jewish people live) and will continue to always. The future is in our hands.

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