September 2013/Tishrei 5774
I spent a lot of time thinking about what to write to you in this letter which you will open on Shabbat while you are on your high school masa (journey) to Poland. For the past weeks, you have been getting ready to go on this optional trip that has become a sort of rite of passage for many Israeli youth on the cusp of young adulthood, prior to compulsory service in the Israeli Army. In many ways you have been preparing for this journey since preschool, when you first learned to stand silently and at attention while the siren sounded throughout Israel on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Day). Later that day you repeated what your teacher said and told me that Yom HaShoah was a sad day and that we must remember. It was only some years later, when you were in elementary school, that you began to understand what it was you were supposed to remember. As you progressed through school, you gradually learned more and more about the painful history of the Jewish people during the Holocaust.
Now, as you travel through Poland and visit the concentration camps and areas where a rich Jewish life once existed, you will be learning about the past in a personal way as well. I know that you will try to understand what you see and that in the future, you will draw on your experiences from this trip. You, and your classmates, prepared for your trip over this past year by participating in a course in which you learned more intensely about the death camps and the horrors committed in Poland. You also learned about the long Jewish history there – rich and vibrant – but always in the shadow of Polish anti-Semitism. As you travel through Poland, you will have to imagine the Jewish life that once existed and flourished as you will see very little of that past since Jewish life was wiped out in the Shoah in a most terrible and inhumane manner.
Before you left, I reminded you that you will be wandering in the land where your late great-grandparents, on my mother’s side, were born and where many in their extended family perished. I explained that your great-grandmother had the foresight to persuade her new husband to leave everything they owned when the German army invaded Poland; together they fled east toward Russia. Overcoming difficulties along the way, your great-grandparents reached Siberia, where they survived the war doing difficult physical labor. I was moved when you asked to take pictures of your great-grandparents – taken in Poland before World War II and in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany after the war – with you on your trip to Poland.
I know that you and your classmates will honor the victims and preserve their memory by lighting memorial candles at some of the sites of terrible death and destruction. As I write to you, I wonder how you will feel when you are in Poland and stand in the places where the Shoah actually happened. How will you digest the experience? I believe that your journey will teach you lessons that will resonate with you for the rest of your life. I hope that you will become stronger as a human being and as a Jew.
You are a senior in high school and are in the midst of your enlistment process in the Israeli Army. You will serve in Tzahal (Israeli Defense Forces) and contribute a minimum of two years to help keep Israel free and safe for all its citizens and for Jews worldwide. Always remember to feel thankful that you live in a time when you can walk freely and proudly as a Jew in your own land. This is something that generations of past Jews could not do and could not even imagine doing. You and your classmates entered Poland with Israeli passports accompanied by Israeli security and proudly wave Israeli flags as you walk in sites of Jewish extermination. These are signs of our victory over what happened in Poland and of the strength of our people.
I know that you realize that all is not perfect in Israel. Still, always keep in mind that whatever difficulties we may face, we live freely in our own country – in the land that God promised to our forefathers and in which we are privileged to live today.
Have a peaceful and good Shabbat.
L’hitraot (See you soon) and much love,