I have just returned from what I hope was my first and last trip to Poland. Before we left, we went to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

There we were told, that the stones that we were about to cry on were stones of healing, and of strength, and that in the next few days we would see stones of destruction and hate. We were told to take the strength of The land of Israel with us, and that with G-d’s help, we would be returning there in one week. At that time, I didn’t truly realize how much I was going to miss the land of Israel.

At the Western Wall we said our evening prayers, recited some psalms, and we were off. From the plane window all you could see was gray, black and white. It was such a change from the beautiful, colorful country we had just left.

The minute we landed, it began to snow, giving us a bit of a taste of what the rest of the trip would have in store for us. Our first stop was the Warsaw cemetery. As we stepped in, it felt like a different world. We stepped out of the “modernized” city of Warsaw into a chapter of its past, untouched and looking blissfully peaceful. The grounds of the cemetery were huge. As we walked, we passed countless graves, only having time to stop at a few. The few graves that we did stop at were so different. We stopped at the graves of actresses who had come to Poland in search of a life one stage and rabbi’s who had the privilege of having as proper burial before the war started. In addition to those, we stopped by the grave of Adam Czerniaków (head of the yudenrat (Jewish Police) in the Warsaw ghetto who committed suicide rather then having to play G-d’s role in deciding who lived and who would be murdered. It was only once we got to the end of the walk that we were told to stop in our tracks and look around. The cold had seeped through our boots, and we were jumping up and down trying to stay warm. We had barely even looked up to see that we were all standing around one big cavity in the ground covered in snow. We were all so anxious at the start of the trip that we hadn’t really remembered the information we had been given on the bus. That there were about 350,000 people buried in this cemetery, but there were only about 280,000 graves. We were then told that we were standing in front of two mass graves. It was only then that our first tears in Poland fell, warming the cold snow beneath our feet. All I could remember thinking was oh my G-d what is this place? Look at all of this death right in front of our eyes. So there we stood looking out at the resting place of seventy thousand Jews. Seventy thousand of our brothers and sisters, who would remain there until techiyat hamatim (prayer for revival of the dead). By this point, none of us really felt the cold anymore. We recited the song Acheinu (our brothers) for all of our brothers and sisters, lying there peacefully under the piles of snow.

Our next stop was the town of Jedwabne. None of us had ever heard of this place before, and the only thing we were told was that they are still very anti- Semitic, and we were asked not to march with our Israeli flags. Our tour guide Jeremy Kurnedz told us to stick together, and I kept getting really nervous every time he said that.

When we pulled up inside the city, the first thing I could see was a huge church looming over the houses. Little did I know how central this church was going to be in the story of the Jews of Jedwabne. We saw a group of polish boys looking at us, there were only about 5 or 6 of them, but my friend got very uneasy, I told her not to worry, that we were safe, and what had happened here was in the past. We started walking towards the outskirts of town, not really knowing where we were going. There was a slow Yiddish song playing, and a dog was following us and barking. We walked to the edge of the village, to an open rectangle, with a memorial in the middle.

We all immediately started taking pictures of the memorial, trying to get in a good shot before it got to crowded, having no idea what we were taking pictures of. We were asked to stand around the rectangle, and Jeremy began telling us the story of Jedwabne. Jedwabne was a town that was about seventy percent Jewish before World War Two. The Jews and the Poles lived side by side for years, but there was always a hostile tension. This particular Catholic Church didn’t encourage the Poles to treat the Jews well, and the church was the reason for the built up hatred that led to the mass pogrom. In 1941, the poles rounded up all the Jews of Jedwabne and its neighboring villages. They then began beating and torturing the Jews. I won’t write down all of the details here, but the atrocities were horrific. The Germans wanted to save some of the Jews that they thought were valuable, but the poles asked the Germans to leave the Jews to them, they wanted to kill every single one. The Jews that survived the beatings were chased into a huge barn at the edge of town. The barn was then locked, and the Jews were burned inside alive. We were then told that we were standing right where the barn stood. “Welcome to Poland” was the line that followed, the one that remained in my head, as the first real taste of what the trip was going to be like.

Standing there in the cold, as night fell upon the city, all you could picture was a fire blazing in the darkness. The only thing that stood out in the otherwise dark city that we were looking at was that same church. The lights were on, and it seemed to be the only source of light in the whole town. All I could think about was how many stories

I had read about small villages that had been gunned down, or the people being burnt alive. It took hearing the full story of just one of these villages to understand the full extent of how many hundreds of villages like this there were that all shared the same tragic fate. All I remember saying over and over again was “why are we here, this place is full of death, and they still hate us. I don’t want to be here anymore; I want to get back on a plane and go back to Israel right now and never come back.” It was from that moment on, that I didn’t feel safe in Poland. On the way out, I saw that same group of boys, but this time I was scared of them, I was afraid of their families, and I was fearful of what sort of lies their church was feeding them.

We then got on the bus and watched Fiddler on the Roof in preparation for our first stop in what was a shtetl, the legendary Jewish village setting. We pulled up to Tykocin, and we stopped at a small synagogue that had been restored. We looked around and saw all of the words that had been painted on the walls for people to pray. There were also exhibits around the synagogue which displayed artifacts that had been preserved somehow throughout the war. We sat and we listened to a recording of a famous rabbi who was a chazzan (leader of prayers) there, and you could just hear the words, the beautiful holy words, filling up the synagogue once again. We were then told that we had to switch our moods now, from the sadness we were feeling, and to try to bring some joy back to this place of worship. One of our tour guides, who was a counselor at our seminary a few years ago, had just gotten engaged. We sang and we danced in the synagogue and it was hard to try and think past the sadness at first,, but after a few moments, we got into it. It didn’t take to long to numb what we had just been feeling with our newfound happy occasion. When we finished dancing, we went to the back of the synagogue, where there were pictures of what the shtetl had looked like. We looked at a table model of the shtetl, and then we went outside. I don’t even know who I was grabbing onto, but I was just terrified to be outside. I wanted to be on the bus, or in a building, I really didn’t feel good walking the streets. I made sure I was right in the middle of the group, and we started walking. When we got to this square outside the fire station, we stopped. We were then told that the Jews were made to stand out here early in the morning and wait for instructions. We were then told that the poles blocked off the exits to the square, trapping the Jews inside. Then the Germans came and rounded up the women and children onto trucks and marched the men off on foot. The men were told to sing “Hatikva”, the song of hope which later became Israel’s national anthem. The Germans wanted to make fun of them, and by making them sing a song about hope they thought they were doing just that. Little did they know, that the men were marching proudly, singing a song that would later become the national anthem of our country. The men were marched to a school that the women and children had already been taken to, and for a few moments, everyone thought that perhaps things would turn out all right. Their hope was short-lived, and they were all taken off in the direction of the forest. We were asked to get on the bus silently, and to stay silent until we reached our destination.

The song “hatikva” was playing as we piled onto the bus and found our seats. Looking out the window, all I could see in the darkness was white snow, and patches of forest. I couldn’t help wondering how people still live here, knowing that there probably isn’t one forest in Poland where Jews weren’t taken and killed. In the darkness of the night, we pulled up a forest called the Lupochova Forest. We marched quietly, in rows of four, and after a few moments, we were given a piece of paper, and told to find a spot alone to read. It was a recount of what had happened there in Lupochova forest to the Jews of Tykocin. We continued walking, holding onto our friends until we reached a barrier. This was the mass grave, where the Jews were told to strip naked, and were shot. We stood around, and like we did at every place where there was death, we said Kaddish (prayer for the dead), and kel maleh rachamim (prayer for G-d’s mercy). We stood around, in the middle of this huge dark forest looking up at the sky, and all we could see were stars. Our Rabbi, Rabbi Milston began to speak, and he was saying, that when Avraham (Abraham) was told that the Jewish people would be like stars in the sky, it wasn’t just about the number of stars. It was that the Jewish people are the brightest thing in the sky; we are the light in the darkness. The Jewish people are the candle that can give and give without ever being extinguished. In our day and time, we know this to be true.

Hitler, May his name be wiped out, wanted to destroy the Jewish people, because for the Germans to rule, the Jewish people wouldn’t be able to exist. We represent everything that the Germans wanted to wipe out. We represent morality, equality, and peace. It is so true now, in the month of Adar, that in every generation, there is someone who wants to get up and destroy us. But the Jewish people can never be extinguished. We are here for eternity because we are God’s chosen people. As we stood there, looking out at the grave, we were reminded, how special every single one of these people are, and how their souls are in the highest places in heaven; they died while sanctifying G-d’s name.

As we stood there, in that dark cold forest, we sang the song Nekadesh (made holy), for all of the holy souls who are resting there. We then turned and walked out of the forest, leaving our brothers and sisters who remained. As we left, some girls were crying, some were scared, and some were simply stunned. Jeremy began singing Am Yisrael Chai (The nation of Israel lives), and this was the first time on the trip that we got to wave our flags high. As we sang all that was going through my mind, was “yes we are still here, and they couldn’t destroy us, but they did destroy those people back there in the forest, and six million other people like them.” So I know at least for me, this first attempt at Am Yisrael Chai was definitely heartfelt and meaningful, but it was just hard to truly feel good about still being there, knowing how many people didn’t make it out of that forest alive. This marked the end of our first day, and after not having slept the night before, we were exhausted.

Day Two started out at Treblinka, our first stop at a death camp. On the bus on the way there, we watched the movie, “Escape from Sobibor”. It gave us a picture of how far the Germans were willing to go to deceit the people. They gave them tags for their clothes, told them that they were just going to the showers to disinfect. They told such lies, and the people had no idea. Pulling up to Treblinka, we were told that the people who walked this path didn’t come out alive. NO ONE SURVIVED A DEATH CAMP.

We walked looking down at our feet, and looking up at the trees, trying to understand what to feel, trying to take in what was around us, and trying not to cry to loudly all at once. We walked up to what was the train track, and we were told the story of a train of Moshitz Chassidim (branch of chassidut- A Jewish mystic movement founded in the 18th century in eastern Europe by Baal Shem Tov ), who were on their way to Treblinka. There was a famous chazzan on the train, who was asked to create a tune to the Jewish Hymn Ani Maamin (I believe…). In the cattle car, he told his talmidim(pupils), that if anyone jumped the train and got the tune to the Head Rabbi of Moshitz, who was in America at the time, he would give him half of his portion in the world to come.

Two of his pupils jumped from the train, one was killed immediately, but the other was somehow, with G-d’s help, able to survive. He went to the Rabbi in America, and told him the story.

The Rabbi was so touched and moved by the story that he promised the pupil that he would make the tune famous. It is the tune of Ani Maamin that today we all know, and associated with the murder of the six million Jews. We played this song as we walked what would have been the tracks to the platform. We were then shown where the people were stripped and separated. The same thing kept being repeated to us over and over -that we were cold standing here bundled up in everything warm that we own, while people had to stand here naked and freezing in the snow for hours on end. Parents were usually ordered to undress their children in below freezing weather, just to prolong their pain and suffering. The path that we walked on was surrounded by hundreds of stones. If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought that perhaps they were for families, or even extended families. Little did I know that every one of these stones each represented a whole community of Jews.

Whole communities were completely wiped out, some even in one day. At this point in the trip, I was taking it in, but it was just too hard to even fathom the devastation. Before we even got up to where the gas chambers once stood, we were discussing how you can even imagine six million. Some people said you think of one person, and how important they are to you, multiplied by six million. Some people said that they look at things such as the paperclip project, where thousands and thousands of items are used to try and represent the number. It was only the next day when we were standing in Majdanek, that someone suggested using the snow, and the amount of flakes that were falling to try and imagine the number.

We were then given about ten minutes to walk around the stones by ourselves. All I remember doing was just running off, trying to get lost in this sea of stones, trying to make some sense of it all. I felt myself drawn towards the forest where the stones finished. I just needed to know that it ended somewhere, that the stones didn’t go on forever- that the killing stopped at some point. I made my way to the end of the stones, looking out at the forest in front of me, realizing that I hadn’t yet taken a deep breath. As I took one, I realized, (not for the first or last time this trip) that everything in Poland just smelled dark and heavy, like the air was being blocked by something.

Every time I passed a stone covered in snow, I wiped it off with my glove, desperately trying to uncover the name of the town that was destroyed, desperately trying to carve in every name so that it wouldn’t be forgotten. To my dismay, so many of the stones didn’t even have names, the cities were so small, or the names were just never given, and now no one knows how many people lived there, or who they were. All these people have left is a single stone that they have to share with their entire community. When we finished walking around we were called back to the middle of the memorial. We found ourselves surrounding this huge pit covered in snow. We were told that this was where the Germans had burned all the remains of the bodies they had dug up before the camp closed.

Our rabbi, spoke, and he was talking about how a stone doesn’t move, and how it is there for eternity. He was saying how the Jewish people have the life of a tree, you can try and cut it down, but it will always grow back, and how the Jews have the eternity of a stone.

We stopped at a stone for the town of Petrikov where Jeremy’s family was from. We said kaddish and Kel maleh Rachamim by that stone, and we stood there quietly surrounded by trees. Then we stood by the memorial of the renowned teacher, Janus Korczak. His is the only stone in Treblinka that represents a single person instead of a whole village. Janus Korczak would have had a very good chance of surviving the war. He was murdered, because he refused to leave the orphaned children that he cared for so dearly. He made sure that they were dressed properly and he kept them calm by leading them to believe that they were just going on a short hike. Around his memorial, we stopped and we sang the song Hamalch Hagoel Oti…. Yevarech et Haniarim,( May the angel who has delivered me from all harm bless these young boys) and with that, we walked out of Treblinka.

After Treblinka, we drove to Kotsk, and we went to the grave of their Rabbi. The Rebbe Mi’Kotsk (Rabbi from Kotsk), was known to challenge people, and he demanded the truth. The Rabbi’s who managed to thrive in Kotsk were always working on themselves and challenging themselves to be who they were without any outward masks. They strived to be the truest they could, meaning every word they said, and serving Hashem in the most emet(truth) way possible. Here we were challenged to look at exactly who we are. And if we don’t know, then what are we doing to find out and if we don’t care, then what are we doing here at all. What kind of life is it to live, when you don’t even know who you are or what you are doing in this world? We had a deep discussion here along these lines, and we all really took time to self reflect, and look at ourselves and who we are as people.

Then we drove to Lublin, and went to the Yeshivat Chochmei Lublin (Learning Centre for the brightest in Lublin). The building was huge, but because no-one ever goes into the building, we had to get someone to unlock the door for us. We walked around, the newly restored building, and sat down in a room that had information about the Yeshiva.

We learned how hard Rabbi Shapira had worked to get the yeshiva started, and how different the yeshiva was then any other one at the time. After all his hard work, the Yeshiva was open for less then a decade. During the Nazi reign, most of the holy books in the yeshiva were burned and most of the pupils were murdered. At this point in the trip, it was still so hard to piece together just how great these students were, and how much torah was lost in the war.

After this, we went downstairs to the newly renovated synagogue and had a lecture before we started singing and dancing. I just tried to throw myself into the joy that was around me, trying to ignore the fact that we were the only ones in the building, and that after we left, there wasn’t going to be anyone in it for a long time.

Day Three started out with a visit to the Lublin Cemetery. Like the one in Warsaw, it was as though we were stepping out of one dimension and into another one. We visited the grave of Rabbi Shalom Shechna, and the Choze (visionary) of Lublin. We spoke about who they were, and said some psalms by their graves. We washed our hands, and got on the bus to Majdanek. When we arrived at Majdanek, it was the coldest it had been on the trip. We walked by the barbed wire fence, and came to the front of the camp. The thing that is different about Majdanek, is that it was right on the main road.

It wasn’t like Treblinka that was hidden in the forest. Everyone could see what the Nazis were doing there, and my first reaction is why didn’t anyone step up and say anything.

I was desperately trying to be fair to these people while I was thinking. If they would have stepped up to say something, what would it have done, the Nazi’s would have just blown their heads off, and murdered their families as well. After hearing some more about it, I came to the conclusion that these people could have moved further away, or at least tried to pressure foreign governments to do something. But how did I know that they hadn’t done that yet either? I put these thoughts away for the time being, and concentrated on the monument in front of me. The steps were covered in snow, and in rows of six, we tried to get down the stairs. There were jagged rocks on either side of us, representing the destruction and the pit of hell that the people who had arrived there fell into.

In front of us, there was this huge upward climb to get out, representing the steep climb out of hell, that with the help of G-d some people managed to do. As we all climbed out towards the camp we saw watchtowers and the barbed wire fence in front of us.

There were about twenty barracks put together, and we soon learned that out of the six original fields, this was the only one that remained. Looking out we were told that Majdanek was the most evil out of all the camps. Living there and surviving there was hell, and the average life span of a person was only about three weeks. Before the trip to Poland, if I were to hear about people in the holocaust dying a few months or weeks before liberation, I would always wonder why if they were so close, they couldn’t make it just a bit longer. Standing there in the cold, I realized for the first time how truly wrong I was. We had been in Poland for three days bundled up in all our clothes, and yet we were so cold and wanted to go home. I couldn’t imagine standing outside in the cold without the clothes I was wearing, and trying to survive there. I wouldn’t have been able to survive there for an hour, let alone for a day or night.

We walked through the gate, and stopped right by the entrance. We looked around, and were asked to think about what stood out the most. Some people said the watchtowers, some said our Israeli flags, and then someone said the snow. We were then asked if the snow should be there or not, how it adds or takes away from the view in front of our eyes. I remember saying, that the ground doesn’t deserve the snow. This ugly land that has soaked up so much Jewish blood doesn’t deserve to be covered and shielded under a bed of beautiful white snow. Rabbi Milston looked around, and said something very different. He said: G-d created nature and the snow is part of that nature. If not for man, this would just be a lovely field of snow. Man took G-d’s world and ruined it. Man planted the weeds that are the watchtowers, gas chambers, and crematoria. Man murdered millions of innocent people. If not for man, there wouldn’t have been anything black on that field at all.

We walked into the camp, and before we entered the gas chamber, we saw a couple with their 2 year old child sledding in the snow. Your first immediate reaction is maybe they don’t know what’s here. But at that moment, every doubt I had about whether people might have done something or not was confirmed. Of course these people know what was here, there are other parks for them to take their children sledding, but they specifically chose to come here. They chose to come here because it doesn’t matter to them. They never cared about the Jews, and they still don’t.

We as Jews are a minority scattered in other lands that are not ours, and while everything may seem to be going well at a certain time, it’s just a mask. We have no idea what’s going on under that mask, and what the other nations really think of us until it is too late. History repeats itself, and by trusting our neighbors and by marrying into their families, we keep making the same mistakes over and over again. We stand alone as God’s people and the only place for us to stand alone safely is in Israel, that’s it; there is no other answer.

Once the couple and their child passed, we proceeded towards the gas chamber. The first section was dark and was where the people were shaved and stripped of their clothing. The next section had the showers, that when turned on would either be freezing cold or scalding hot. The last room was the gas chamber itself. The walls were stained green and black and were covered in scratches. When I looked up I saw the big vat that they would throw the gas into.

All I could do was hold onto my friends and cry.

Only God knows how much death went on in there. How many countless families were gassed together? Babies in their mother’s arms, friends who had lost everyone else in the world clung to each other until the end. It was all just too much. We stood and sang shema koleinu(hear our voice) and Rachem(have mercy). We said Shema Yisrael(Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One) and Kel maleh rachamim.

All of these things were probably the last words that so many Jews said before they were murdered right where we were standing. Rabbi Milston got up and spoke.

He said that if it were to come down to a decision between standing in the gas chamber, or being the one who stands on top and throws the gas in, he would always rather be the one standing where he was.

These holy Jews suffered terribly, but their souls were instantly taken up to the highest places in heaven, while these Nazis might have ‘lived’ in this world, they are burning in hell for eternity for what they did. We then did what no-one else who had been through there ever could. We walked out of there with our heads held high.

Then we walked out of the back of the camp in rows of five. When the camp was being liquidated, this was the same path that the Jews walked on. They walked in rows until they got to the end where they were all taken and shot in mass pits. So many rabbis were shot alongside their pupils while parents were shot alongside their children.

It is just so twisted, that the Naz’s didn’t even know who they were killing and they didn’t even care. All I was thinking was who gave them the right to play G-d?

Who said they could do this, how did this all happen? But questions are complicated, and most of them don’t have simple satisfying answers.

We kept walking, until we entered the crematorium. There was a table in one room, where the bodies (usually the women) were cut open, and searched for valuables. We stood there, and paid tribute to these women who were murdered by singing Eishet Chayi l(A woman of valour). We thought of all the women who stood up to the Nazi’s by a different method of resistance then we are used to. These women could have survived, but they chose to accompany their children to the gas chambers knowing where that would take them. These women who represented what a it means to be a true Eishet chayil.

Once we were far enough inside the crematorium we saw the ovens.

Looking into them, it didn’t feel real that human bodies were burned in there. I felt as though my mind was removing itself from the situation, not fully able to understand what had happened there. We walked around to the back of the ovens where we could see something black inside. It could very well be that whatever was back there was left from the time that they were still in use.

We exited the crematorium and walked to a huge dome that was right beside it. Inside this dome, there was a huge pile of ashes. Those ashes are the remains of so many of our people who were murdered. Looking at it, you just realize that coming back here and remembering is so important, but we will never be able to truly understand what happened here, because thank G-d, it isn’t happening right in front of our eyes. It took a few minutes, to actually understand that all of those ashes once made up living, breathing people.

They were people who had hopes and dreams, and families that loved them. Rabbi Milston told us to look out, to see the barracks, the gas chambers, the crematorium and the pile of ashes.

He told us to look out, and to say never again. But what he said next was just as important- he said that it is our job to make sure that no one can ever say that this never happened. With our very own eyes we were looking at the ashes of human remains and no one can ever convince any of us that it didn’t really happen.

I don’t understand how people can say that what happened didn’t. How someone could convince themselves of such lies is beyond me. The danger is that for some reason or another, unknowledgeable people are starting to believe these lies. It is a scary thing how many holocaust deniers there are out there today. Each one has their own way of rationalizing away what happened by explaining how it wasn’t such a big deal. Then you have the people who call what the Jews are doing to the Palestinians a holocaust. This is probably one of the most horrific, insulting, and ridiculous statements I have ever heard. The Jews aren’t doing anything to the Palestinians except for sharing their electricity and water with them. The Israelis protect more Palestinian civilians then the Palestinian leaders do themselves.

What do they know about having people lined up and separated from their families, stripped naked, gassed to death, and having their bodies burned to ashes. Even if not to that extent, when was the last time the Israeli’s lined up innocent children, threw them naked into pits, and gunned them down. NEVER is the only answer there is and will ever be to that question. Holocaust is a word that is thrown around to freely, and no-one should ever be allowed to use that word unless they are describing the horrible massacre of European Jewry between 1939-1945. We prayed the afternoon prayer, looking out over the mass graves of Majdanek.

While I was praying, I was thinking about two things. The first was how much I wanted to go back to Israel that minute, taking all of those holy souls with me. The second thing was that I was doing was imagining what “techiyat hamatim” would be like in a place like this. So many thousands and thousands of souls just rising up together. For me, it definitely gave those words in shemona esrei (18 blessings) a whole new meaning.. We left Majdanek and headed for Belzec death camp. Belzec was tiny, and the only thing that’s left there is a memorial. We went inside the building and looked at pictures of people from towns that were destroyed there. We went outside and because of the snow we could see from one side of the clearing to the other. It is unfathomable how many people were murdered in such a small amount of space. The memorial started with twisted metal on both sides of the path, and then the walls just started getting higher and higher, until we could no longer see above them. The memorial ended in a brick wall. I know that while I was walking through, all I was thinking about was this might have been how these people felt. That perhaps you could still get out as long as you could still see over the walls, but then as they got higher and higher, you realized how far in you already were and at that point there was no longer a way out. The memorial ended with a brick wall simply because when you got to the end of this path that was your end. NO ONE SURVIVED A DEATH CAMP. In fact, most people were murdered within an hour of arriving.

After Belzec, we drove to Lyzhansk and we prayed at the grave of Rabbi Elimelech. This was definitely one of the spiritual highlights of the trip.

We sang and danced into the night, and we were all trying to channel the sadness we were feeling into something else.

We slept about 2 hours in Lyzhansk, and the next day we were up early to go to Zvilitovska Gora- the children’s forest just outside the village Tarnov. We walked into what looked like a beautiful forest, the trees were tall and the ground was covered in freshly fallen snow. As we stood around in a circle, trying to keep warm, we were told that we had to shift from the happiness that we had been feeling from the previous night back to the importance of where we were standing. We were talking about the children, the one and a half million children who were brutally murdered by the Nazi’s. Children who would never grow older and babies who were ripped screaming from their parents arms. We were then told to think about our own families and our relationships with our own parents. Right at that moment, they pulled out a stack of letters that they had told our parents to write for us. I was crying before I even opened the envelope. One of the hardest parts about being in Poland was not being able to call home. Looking back, I think that it made a lot of sense for us to be able to just feel what we were feeling, and dealing with what we had to deal with without the help of our parents. But standing there in that cold forest, reading a letter from my family, I wanted nothing more then to call them up and tell them that I loved them.

I started thinking about how ludicrous it was, that I knew that I was seeing my family in a month and yet I missed them so much. I couldn’t imagine being a child or a parent, not knowing what was going on with your loved one, and realizing that you would probably never see them again. We walked through the quiet forest, trudging through the snow until we came to a rectangular clearing with a railing around it. We were told that this was where they took the elderly and the sick, stripped them naked, threw them into the pit (that had been recently been dug by local poles) and threw grenades in after them. We then walked up a hill and came to a similar clearing with a railing, but it was decorated, and there were also all sorts of ribbons and kites hanging from the trees. It didn’t take long to realize that we were standing in front of the mass children’s grave.

We stood there, looking out at the white snow that was hiding the red blood-soaked ground underneath. The Nazis took the children and threw them into the pit. They took the tiny babies, tied them up in brown sacks, and threw them mercilessly into the pit. While the screams of the children filled the forest, the Nazi’s threw grenades into the pit to finish the job. We each got the privilege of researching a child and we went around reciting the name, birth and death years and a little bit about who our child was. We tried to bring just a bit of meaning to the number one and half million- a number that will always be too big to comprehend or understand. Murdering even one child, is one to many, so how can you ever multiply that loss by one and a half million. Children are the light in the world, they say what is on their minds, they aren’t afraid to act, they laugh and they cry. But these children never had the chance to be children, their life was cut off, and they were sent to the highest places in heaven.

After the children’s forest, we drove to Krakow. When we got off the bus we found ourselves standing in front of a big field with trees. This big empty field is all that’s left of the concentration camp Plashov. The camp was originally built on a Jewish cemetery, and was intended to be used as a work camp, but because of bad conditions and lack of supplies, most of the prisoners either starved to death or were shot by the guards. Nothing from the camp remains, but local poles still use the area around the monument for recreational activities- such as sledding or biking

After walking around part of Plashov, we got onto the busses and drove to the synagogue of a Rabbi known as the Rama.It was amazing to be able to sit in his synagogue, and to see where he sat to pray. As we sat, we reviewed the incredible things that he did in his life, including his commentary in the Code of Jewish law which is still used by Ashkenazic Jews all over the world today. We then went around to the back of the synagogue and entered the cemetery where he is buried. We paid our respects to the graves of a few more Rabbis and left the cemetery. The next morning, we left really early and headed for Auschwitz- Birkenau. The train tracks that went through the front gate were partially covered in snow, but it wasn’t too hard to imagine the train rolling right through leading millions of Jews to their deaths. As we stood by the gate, there was a picture of hundreds and hundreds of people standing right where we were standing, waiting for the infamous “selection.”

Families were torn apart and the young and the elderly were sent strait to their deaths. It was only once we started walking could we really get an understanding of just how big the camp was. There wasn’t so much left standing, but it took us about twenty-five minutes of walking quickly just to get to the other side of the camp. We saw what was left of one of the gas chambers, and we stood and remembered all of the people who were thrown in there and murdered. We then walked to the area where they took all of the people’s belongings before shaving and showering them. Once they finished this, they handed them a thin piece of clothing to wear and tattooed a number on their forearms.

We walked around the camp a little more, and as we were walking out, we sang “am yisrael chai” {The Nation of Israel Lives) with a feeling of such pride; one that I don’t think I’ve ever felt before. It meant so much to be saying those very words on land where Jews stood and never thought that they would be able to feel proud again. They thought that this was the end, and for so many millions of people, it was. But we stood there and shouted and cheered for all the people that no longer could.

The Nazis are long gone, but the Jewish people will always be here. The prisoners of the holocaust, both those who survived, and those who didn’t, are a symbol of strength and courage for the Jewish people for eternity. Let this paper be a reminder that although we are still here, there are millions of people who want us dead. We are a minority because of what we stand for, and there will always be people who won’t accept it. Right now things are pretty comfortable, but we can’t be fooled by our surroundings.

Germany was the most cultured nation in Europe, and men were still able to sink to levels lower then those of animals. Thousands of people in Europe knew what was going on in their own backyards and did nothing. So many poles today know what the monuments the commemorate Jews stand for, and yet, they treat them like they aren’t even there.

They bring their children to death camps to go sledding, and they go for leisurely strolls in forests meters from mass graves. It is only a matter of time before the outside world doesn’t want us anymore. It is only in the land of Israel that the Jewish people can be safe. It might be difficult here, and at times, it may even seem dangerous. At least here we have an army that with the help of God will protect us. At least here, we are fighting for what we believe in. Living in the land of Israel is the greatest form of revenge that we could have ever hoped for. Every Jewish baby that is born, and every new Beit midrash (house of torah study) that is opened for torah study is yet another example that no one can ever wipe out the Jewish people.

Ashley Ansel, 18, is spending the year as a student in Israel, and works as an intern with the Philadelphia Bulletin and Israel Resource News Agency in Jerusalem. ashleyansel@hotmail.com