Tracing The Steps Of My Jewish Ancestors In Uggs: A Weeklong Journey Through Poland, Day 2

Tracing The Steps Of My Jewish Ancestors In Uggs: A Weeklong Journey Through Poland, Day 2

Through the gray.

Today was an early wake-up. There is so much we must see and do and learn in Poland, and it must be all packed into a few short days.

We boarded the bus, bundled up in layers of clothing and clutching bags of bread for breakfast and lunch, and we tried to mentally prepare ourselves for the day, but it was no use. There is no preparation for seeing a death camp.

As the bus began to move, my friend looked out the window and said, "I have never seen something so gray in my life."

He was right.

The sky was painted gray and the haze clouded all of the buildings and people and land in Poland. It was as if we were still stuck in the 1940s, nearly 80 years behind the present and unable to move on from the horrors of the past.

Our first stop of the day was at a Yeshiva in Lublin.

There, Rabbi Yitzhak and Rabbi Trepp, two of the trip leaders, told us stories about Jews during the time of the Holocaust, and what really struck me was the strength of the Jewish spirit. Although the Nazis tried to kill the Jews’ bodies, they could not kill their souls. The Rabbis told us that some Jews even sang as they were going to the camps or being shot. They sang old songs from the past and came up with new songs and chants, such as one in Yiddish which translates to “We will outlive you.” This, being chanted at the Nazis, is a testament to the resilience of the Jewish culture and soul, for both will last as long as Jewish people shall live.

We next rode to Majdanek, which is a death camp in Lublin. There are three types of camps: concentration, labor, and death. Death camps are the ones with gas chambers. Majdanek initially was not a death camp and was rather a place where Jews were dumped and forced to sort out other Jews’ belongings from the other camps. Evilly strategic, the Nazis cleverly coerced the Jews into the camps by telling them that they were just being relocated. This caused the Jews to bring all of their most valuable belongings to the camps, which the Nazis then stole.

Life was hard in Majdanek. We were assured of this right when we walked into the camp. We first started down a slippery slope and then struggled up the stairs that followed until we reached a huge, jagged rock. With the rock, symbolizing the burden of the weight of the Holocaust and the struggle for a future, suspended above two cylindrical rocks, my group was able to freely walk under it. It was not so easy for Jews during the Holocaust to do the same.

After entering into Majdanek, however, things only got worse for these Jews. All of their possessions were taken from them, even their shoes. After cutting the soles out of the shoes and searching them for hidden valuables, the Germans piled the shoes into metal storage nets.

An interesting fact that Rabbi Yitzhak pointed out is that people’s feet mold the shoes they wear and leave an imprint on them. Like their shoes, each of these Jews has left an imprint on the lives, memories, and hearts of their loved ones and of the people who strive to remember them today.

They were then stripped naked, their heads were shaved by other Jews, they were washed, and then they were given light clothing, almost like pajamas, to wear in the freezing Polish weather. The ones who lived, at least. Once Majdanek became a death camp in the early 1940s, the Jews faced an even more grim fate.

20,000 Jews were gassed in Majdanek. They took a life-ending shower. And even in the bleakest situation, some Jews still managed to cling to their loved ones and to pray.

My group sang the Shema (a prayer for God to hear the Jews) in their honor, and our prayer echoed through the gas chambers. It was a cry for our history and a defiant strength to remember it forever.

After looking at several rooms filled with shoes and bunks, we went to the Russian memorial.

The dome opened to reveal a massive mound of what looked like dirt underneath. It was shocking to me that after nearly 80 years, the dirt was still there! Yet the reason for its longevity is because the pile was not of dirt. It was rather a blend of cremated human bodies and feces. The Germans combined life and waste to further degrade the Jews. In life, the Germans were upset at the Jews because they accused them of acting like they were above morality. So in the Holocaust, and especially in death, they treated the Jews like complete and total waste, putting them below morality and showing them the ultimate disrespect.

Lastly, we stopped at the crematorium. This was for the people who were not gassed, which was over 50,000 Jews, who died of various causes in the camp including cold, starvation, and being overworked. After seeing the weight of the waste in the Russian memorial, we were able to see the means for it, which shocked us into the realization of the terrors in our own history. Gathering together, we sang the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah (hope), as a prayer for the Jews who died in the Holocaust and as a desire for a better tomorrow. It dawned on me that it is our right and responsibility to carry on the stories of the past so that they will never be forgotten. We’re on this trip not just to see Holocaust sites, but to remember them and to pass on our history to our children and their descendants so that history will not repeat itself.

Our last site of the day was the coffin of Rabbi Noam Elimelech, the first Chassid. He strove to uplift people’s spirits, particularly those who were poor, and did so especially through song. This led to Lubavitch, and the rabbi’s work is still extremely present in Judaism today. At his coffin, we first prayed and then sang a tune over Vodka (I didn’t drink any; I promise, Mom!) in the hope of uplifting people’s spirits after such a heavy day.

I am going to bed feeling hope and sickness and strength churning in my heart and stomach and mind. I should have expected not to see clarity through the gray in Poland, but I don’t think that I anticipated having such conflicting feelings about the sites I’m seeing. I think this is a good thing though. History isn’t meant to be black-and-white, and my swirling thoughts give me a lot to process about the Holocaust.

Tomorrow, we are seeing Auschwitz. I’m predicting gray.
Cover Image Credit: Personal

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I'm The Girl Without A 'Friend Group'

And here's why I'm OK with it


Little things remind me all the time.

For example, I'll be sitting in the lounge with the people on my floor, just talking about how everyone's days went. Someone will turn to someone else and ask something along the lines of, "When are we going to so-and-so's place tonight?" Sometimes it'll even be, "Are you ready to go to so-and-so's place now? Okay, we'll see you later, Taylor!"

It's little things like that, little things that remind me I don't have a "friend group." And it's been like that forever. I don't have the same people to keep me company 24 hours of the day, the same people to do absolutely everything with, and the same people to cling to like glue. I don't have a whole cast of characters to entertain me and care for me and support me. Sometimes, especially when it feels obvious to me, not having a "friend group" makes me feel like a waste of space. If I don't have more friends than I can count, what's the point in trying to make friends at all?

I can tell you that there is a point. As a matter of fact, just because I don't have a close-knit clique doesn't mean I don't have any friends. The friends I have come from all different walks of life, some are from my town back home and some are from across the country. I've known some of my friends for years, and others I've only known for a few months. It doesn't really matter where they come from, though. What matters is that the friends I have all entertain me, care for me, and support me. Just because I'm not in that "friend group" with all of them together doesn't mean that we can't be friends to each other.

Still, I hate avoiding sticking myself in a box, and I'm not afraid to seek out friendships. I've noticed that a lot of the people I see who consider themselves to be in a "friend group" don't really venture outside the pack very often. I've never had a pack to venture outside of, so I don't mind reaching out to new people whenever.

I'm not going to lie, when I hear people talking about all the fun they're going to have with their "friend group" over the weekend, part of me wishes I could be included in something like that. I do sometimes want to have the personality type that allows me to mesh perfectly into a clique. I couldn't tell you what it is about me, but there is some part of me that just happens to function better one-on-one with people.

I hated it all my life up until very recently, and that's because I've finally learned that not having a "friend group" is never going to be the same as not having friends.

SEE ALSO: To The Girls Who Float Between Friend Groups

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You Ain’t Waiting For God To Bring You Your Dinner, You Get Up And Go Cook It

My words often get jumbled and don't make sense, so I figured writing it would help me come across clearly.


Dear guy friends of mine,

I want you to know how grateful I am for your friendship. Having close guy friends has helped me better understand men and learn how the male species operates. I've been able to ask you so many questions and you've responded with thoughtfulness, kindness, grace, and honesty. I appreciate your willingness to talk to me.

I want to encourage you in something, and with some of you I have tried, but I think I came across as a little crazy. From what I've been told by married women, guys are very afraid of actual crazy. You want your girl to have some crazy (because all women have at least a little bit of crazy), but you don't want her to be, like, crazy. I get that and respect that.

I want to encourage you to ask girls out. It's scary. You're afraid of rejection. I know this because several of you have told me so. I recently spoke with a guy who's been married for a few years and has a baby daughter. He told me that you guys are scared, you don't want to put your heart on the line and have it crushed. That's a good reason not to pursue girls: you'll remain safe and free from hurt if you don't put your feelings out there.

But here's the other side of it: You'll never find that girl if you never search for her. Now, I know that all things happen in God's timing and as imperfect humans, we can't force things to happen outside of God's timeline. However, Pastor Matt Chandler of The Village Church in Dallas, Texas said this in a sermon several years ago:

"But something's happened in evangelical circles where if you're single you're supposed to not want to be married, but be content in a spot and that's somehow more glorifying than following God's wiring of you to want a mate. And so in the end what happens is that you walk around like a liar. I mean, poor young ladies! Almost all of them have been told, "As soon as you're content, God will send you a man." So you've got hundreds of thousands of women running around acting content! "I'm content, where is he?" You've got other guys going, "You know, I'm just gonna wait for God to bring me the right one." Well, you ain't waiting for God to bring you your dinner, alright? You get up and go cook it."

Pastor Chandler goes on to say that he's not telling the guys to go on the hunt and prowl. No! He's telling guys that they have a role to play in pursuing a woman to marry. Girls have a role to play, too. Girls can't just hang out with their girlfriends in hopes that they'll lock eyes with Prince Charming while in the grocery store or walking their dog in the park. No, girls need to build up the guys in their lives and respect them by letting the guys be guys and giving them opportunities to be gentlemen. That's what I appreciate about you guys, my guy friends. You are such gentlemen and I love that. Don't be afraid to ask out the girl that you think is sweet, cute, pretty, funny, kind, silly, honest, loyal, and the right amount of crazy. You've got this!

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