Parashat Bamidbar: Tree of Life
Jane Scher, an alumna of the Wexner Heritage Program from San Diego, and a member of the WH Alumni Forum, participated in the recent Wexner alumni mifgash to Poland and Hungary. She shares some of her thoughts below. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
We were all fed and warmly dressed with coats and scarves and boots and gloves in Poland in spring. And we were chilled to the bone. How must it have been to be starving, without shoes or clothes, separated from loved ones, facing certain death in winter?
There was a tipping point when my mind could not handle more details about crematoria. In the depths of the death factories of Poland, I found myself struggling to breathe, searching for some sign of humanity, warmth, kindness, a touch, a smile, a hug. We were a mixed group from Israel and North America of 40 Wexner Alumni. Many of us previous strangers were now friends brought together by our history, and by this shared experience.
Making sense of the hatred, evil and inhumanity we were there to witness, was an incomprehensible task. Standing surrounded by horror, the simple beauty and strength of nature overwhelmed me as it unfurled, revealing a stark, pulsing contrast and an affirmation of life – the sky, the feel of the sun on my skin, the wind, even the cold, bits of green grass, blossoms, trees…
The trees grow tall and slim and pale, crowded together in Poland. At the beginning of April they are mostly bare branches, with tiny budding leaves, reaching towards the sky. They are everywhere – in the cemeteries, and in thick forests surrounding the camps. They grow for miles, between places.
Fighting not to descend into the spiral of darkness, and making a conscious choice to surrender to life, I started to imagine figures standing upright, hidden between the trees. As we meandered around the countryside of Poland on buses and even a train, looking out at the forests, I began to see faces amongst the trees, thousands of Jewish faces: faces of women and children, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, all watching. Watching and waiting. How much had they seen? If they could talk and we could hear them, what would they tell us?
Somehow through the warmth of new understanding and friendships, the vastness of the sky and the enduring presence of the trees emerged strong and powerful and permanent, in many ways dwarfing the bricks and mortar of the buildings of Majdanek, and Auschwitz and Birkenau. I felt a small measure of comfort knowing that the souls of those who perished in the camps will be remembered by countless generations, and that everything that happened will also be mourned by the trees and the sky, and the history recorded and absorbed timelessly in the balance of nature and the universe.
1. Reuven Avital, one of the Isrseli participants on the Wexner Alumni trip to Poland and Hungary, told me that Birkenau means place of birches.
2. On the way to Birkenau, the bus driver took the wrong on-ramp and had to back up into oncoming traffic on a freeway entrance. Who would have thought that a Pole would take a wrong turn with a busload of Jews on their way to Auschwitz?
3. Special thanks to our amazing scholars: Larry Moses, Dr. Deborah Lipstadt and Ezra Korman for the incredible depth and perspective they gave us on this journey, and to Cindy Chazan, Brigitte Dayan, Rabbi Elka Abrahamson, Deb Housen-Couriel, Kathy Eid and Nancy Neuberger for all of their support and attention to detail. The complexity and layers of information and experience left me with many more questions than answers.
4. Many amongst us were in Poland on a journey of personal family history and loss. Supporting one another, saying Kaddish together, honoring the people who perished was very important. We were all so touched by the history of the many, courageous efforts of resistance inside and outside of the camps, and the actual physical presence of hundreds of IDF soldiers and Jewish teens representing the future, holding Israeli flags, playing loud music and eating while we were in the camps.
5. I am honored to have had the opportunity to share this amazing journey with such caring, interesting, accomplished people, where every encounter was a great conversation waiting to happen. For me, there is no question that one of the most significant and meaningful parts of the trip were the people, the friendships and the energy we created together. Thank you all for the thoughtfulness and all the love and warmth.
6. I would like to express deep gratitude to Les and Abigail Wexner, and the Wexner Foundation for this remarkable opportunity.