Real talk: when my alarm rang at 6:45 AM this morning, I was in no way prepared to wake up after the weight of the previous 3 days. Yet I was even more unprepared for what I would see today.
Our first stop was a Catholic memorial for a family who hid and saved Jews. They lived near Krakow and had been hiding and bringing food to over a dozen Jews whom they stored nearby.
One day, it was the 4 year old son’s turn to bring the Jews their provisions. He carried the basket over to them in the morning and returned to find a sheer horror: his whole family had been mercilessly slaughtered and their bodies were lying near their burning house.
One of the family’s neighbors had turned them in for hiding Jews and the Nazis had come to kill them. They had possessed tremendous strength and courage to hide Jews, and they suffered for it. They suffered for being genuinely good people, righteous among the nations.
So often, I think of the Jews as the victims of the Holocaust. Yet I forget how vital the Poles were to the survival of so many Jews and how they risked everything for the Jews. I do not know if I would have had the courage to do the same had I been in the Poles’ shoes and I am so utterly grateful. I do not know how we can ever repay these good people.
Before leaving the memorial, I unearthed and placed a stone onto the memorial. My mind whispered thank you, but I knew it wasn’t enough.
After going to the memorial, my group was bussed to the main square in Tarnow. There, we walked to the remnants of a once giant and beautiful synagogue, for it was destroyed brutally by the Nazis.
Though devastated by the destruction, my group was determined to return joy and freedom and happiness to the square. We joined our voices and hands with another group, singing and dancing in the square to “Am Yisrael Chai” (a Jewish song meaning “the nation of Israel lives”). It gave me hope and strength that Israel and the Jewish people will continue to live regardless of the tragedies that may befall us in the future.
Our final stop of the day (it was a short day because of Shabbos!—the Sabbath—) was in a forest. My group snaked down a rocky path to come across 2 large rectangles marked in blue, the first adorned with butterflies and candles and both with Jewish stars. These rectangles were mass graves.
Inside the blue, you could see some lumps in the earth. I couldn’t help but think that they were caused by the people who were unevenly dumped into the ground.
Our tour guide Rabbi Yitzhak told us two stories. One was a personal story - many of his own family members were killed in the Holocaust: stripped naked, put to death, and mercilessly tossed into mass graves. I can't imagine not knowing my grandparents because they were killed in the Holocaust or having a job that caused me to relive the pain every time I came to Poland. Yet this is our reality.
The other was a story of the children.
Usually, when people die, it’s the children who bury their parents. Not the other way around. In the Holocaust, parents often had to give up their children to prevent their children from having early deaths. One mother wrote an incredibly emotional letter to the daughter she was sending away and sewed it into the child’s clothing so that she could keep it and read it when she got older. She expressed her eternal love for her daughter and her hope that her daughter would be able to live and to experience joy even though she would likely not be able to be physically there with her. This mother sacrificed time with her daughter to selflessly save her life. And this story is just one of millions of painful stories.
There's another reason why we save the children: they are the hope for our future and they carry on our traditions. The Nazis were so determined to kill children because it sent a powerful message to the Jews: don't reproduce and don't try to save yourselves or your children; there is no future for your people.
But they were wrong.
Decorating one of the mass graves were colored butterflies. The butterflies, affixed to the blue, wore an assortment of colors, the scribbled designs they bore perfectly simple and beautiful.
Wing in wing, these clusters of butterflies signified beauty and freedom, happiness and joy, and hope for the future.
Hand in hand, children give this same hope and light to the future. They continue the legacy of the Jewish people and add color and brightness to the darkness of the Holocaust.I put a rock next to one butterfly. I didn’t want to leave the pain of the past without recognizing the beauty of the future.