Back to Hell (And Much More…)
Searle, a Wexner Heritage alumnus from Baltimore, is outgoing Chair of the Jewish Federation’s Hillel Council and a Vice Chair of JESNA. A real estate and business attorney, he is the former president of the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School and Beth Tfiloh Congregation. He can be reached at email@example.com
Three years ago, I was in Hell. I managed to escape. Why would I voluntarily return in early May, 2011?
In April, 2008, I was privileged to participate in a mifgash (encounter) to Poland and Hungary sponsored by the Wexner Foundation for alumni of its programs for lay and professional leaders in North America and for Israelis in public service. The focus of the trip was the Shoah. No matter how much I had read about and watched movies of the Shoah, no matter how many museums I had visited, no matter how many first-person accounts I had heard from survivors, the impact of seeing it for myself was riveting and enduring. I have written about this journey in the Wexner Foundation Newsletter dated May 7, 2008.
When we finished that incredible experience, one of the commitments I made to myself was that I would organize a similar trip from Beth Tfiloh, my synagogue in Baltimore. We have a strong group of committed learners, and I knew that such a trip would be very meaningful for all of us.
It never occurred to me that it would take three years to pull it together, but the wait was worth it. Our group of seventeen traveled with Zvi Gitelman, a professor at the University of Michigan. His areas of expertise include ethnicity and politics, especially in former Communist countries, Israeli politics, and Jewish political thought and behavior. In a pre-trip meeting with Professor Gitelman, he emphasized that we should not conceive of this as a holocaust trip. He was adamant that we learn as much as we could about Jewish life in Eastern Europe before 1939. The preparatory readings he gave us were focused on that history. For each country we visited, he made two presentations. One was about the general history and political conditions of that country, and the other was on the Jewish aspects of the same locale. The result was an unforgettable eleven days of constant learning with an extraordinary scholar.
This most recent trip was longer and we were able to visit more places. The Wexner mifgash took us to Warsaw, Lublin (including Majdanek aka Hell), Krakow (including Auschwitz- Bierkenau, aka Hell) and Budapest. All of those places (not coincidentally) were on our Beth Tfiloh itinerary. But we also were able to visit Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, Vienna, Mikulov in the Czech Republic and Prague (including Terezin).
I don’t think that anything for me was as powerful as my first visits to the concentration-death camps on my 2008 trip. The emotions and experiences we shared among our group, some of whom had relatives who had and had not survived these and similar places, were exceptionally moving and heart-wrenching.
On this year’s trip, we had the incredible honor and fortune of traveling with two survivors. Mr. C., who will soon be celebrating his 90th birthday, was born in Germany. He had been interned in Dachau as a teenager after Kristallnacht. He somehow managed to get out of there and onto one of the kindertransports. He spent the war years in Great Britain and eventually emigrated to the United States. His late wife was a survivor of Auschwitz. Mr. C. has traveled extensively in Europe, but he had never been to Auschwitz. He did not show his emotions as he stood on the platform on which his wife had survived the selection process so many years before. I could only imagine what he must have been thinking and feeling.
Mr. R. is approximately 85 years old. He was born in Poland and had spent time in a number of camps. In late April, 1945, just as the war in Europe was ending, he survived a horrifying nine day train trip from Buchenwald to Terezin. He told us that in early May of 1945, he jumped out of the second floor window of one of the barracks there. He was unconscious for some period of time; he has no recollection of how long. But he vividly remembers being awakened by a Russian soldier who was liberating the camp. It was incredibly moving when Mr. R. showed us the exact spot where this miracle had occurred.
Ms. P was born in Bergen-Belsen to Polish survivors. Her father was one of the few people ever to have escaped from Majdanek. This was her first visit to the area of her parents’ birth and her father’s miraculous escape. It was spellbinding to hear her tell the story as we approached Majdanek. She was able to get very close to the place where the escape had likely occurred.
On our one evening in Vienna, arrangements had been made for us to have dinner with survivors. Two couples from our group were seated with Mr. and Mrs. Fisher. They were Hungarians who fled to Austria at the time of the abortive Hungarian Revolution in 1956. The Fishers spoke almost no English, only Hungarian and German. Eve Steinberg (WH Baltimore Alum) was our translator, relying most effectively on what she remembered of her college German. Although Hungary had joined the Axis in World War II, for much of the time, its leaders were able to resist German pressure to deport the Jews for extermination. (Tragically, just before the end of the war, Eichmann managed to arrange for the murder of 500,000 Hungarian Jews.) This does not mean that the Jews of Hungary were well treated. Jewish males were typically drafted into army construction battalions. They were soldiers, but they had no weapons. These men dug ditches and built other facilities needed by the troops. Mr. Fisher’s group consisted of 400 men. As his eyes communicated a deep sadness, he told us that he was one of only eight who survived.
Our Wexner group met with Jews who were attempting to build Jewish lives in Poland. We had a similar opportunity on this trip; and we learned from our scholar and guides that there are very small numbers of Jews in Poland, Austria and the Czech Republic. Ironically, in all three countries, one finds numerous examples of old synagogues, Jewish museums and cemeteries that are being restored, often funded by the government. But these institutions are largely unpopulated by contemporary Jews. They draw tourists, but it is difficult to envision that they will have a long-term positive effect on attempts to rejuvenate Jewish life in places where the Nazis had destroyed it.
Jewish life in contemporary Hungary is totally different. Despite the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews, the Nazis did not get them all. In fact, the Budapest ghetto was liberated, not liquidated, the only ghetto so fortunate. As a result, there is a large Jewish community in Hungary, commonly estimated at about 100,000. Our Wexner group saw a thriving Jewish day school (now not doing as well) and learned that many other Jewish institutions were flourishing. While we were there, however, we learned that there had recently been some property crimes against Jews, and on the day we arrived, a large counter anti-Semitism rally was held in Budapest. However, our wonderful guide, a Jewish woman, and the others with whom we spoke, played down the recent problems and said they felt very comfortable and safe.
At my suggestion, we had the same Hungarian guide on the recent trip. She was decidedly more measured in her evaluation of the current situation. She confirmed what we had already heard from Professor Gitelman—that there is a growing fascist party which is overtly anti-Semitic. Perhaps of more concern is the fact that in the most recent election, a right wing, nationalistic government was elected to a majority in the parliament. This government has largely seized control of the press. Our guide told us of a Jewish journalist who had recently been dismissed from his job for failing to toe the party line. I did not feel comfortable wearing my kippa on the street on Shabbat. There are ominous signs that bear close watching.
On a personal level, there was another aspect of this trip that held great meaning for Deborah and me. My father’s eleventh Yahrzeit took place while we were in Prague. I had been concerned about whether I would be able to find a minyan there. As it turned out, we had exactly ten Jewish men with us, and they were incredibly cooperative in making sure I would be able to say kaddish. On Tuesday, we had visited the Altneuschul during our tour. This is the oldest synagogue in Europe, dating to the 13th century. The posted schedule said that Mincha/Ma’ariv would take place that evening at 7:30 p.m. Not being confident that they would have a minyan, my fellow travelers came with me. There was, indeed, a healthy minyan. The opportunity to observe my father’s Yahrzeit in such an auspicious place was extraordinarily moving.
I observed his Yahrzeit the next morning on the bus on our way to Terezin. The mere fact that Jews are able to pray and remember on their way to a concentration/extermination camp is witness to the Nazis’ failure to destroy us. Deborah and I had taken a Yahrzeit candle from home. Instead of lighting it in the evening in our hotel room, we took it with us to Terezin. We lit it in the crematorium in memory of my father and of all those who died there.
So both of my trips to Eastern Europe were tremendously impactful for me. If it had not been for the inspiration of the first trip and my fellow participants, I likely never would have thought to encourage others to go, nor would I have had the benefit of a tremendously meaningful return.
For those of you who have never been to Eastern Europe, an important part of your personal Jewish education and experience is missing. It is emotionally draining but extremely worthwhile. If you have visited Eastern Europe before, a second trip, under the right circumstances could be incredibly valuable. I am deeply indebted to The Wexner Foundation and my colleagues on that trip and to Beth Tfiloh and this year’s group for sharing these experiences with me.