2017 Poland Blog Day 7 – Jon Katzman

Monday March 20, Blog #7

Written by: Jon Katzman

Today was the final day of the trip. Everyone was winding down.  We got an unusually late wake up at 7:45. After davening and eating breakfast at the Warsaw Chabad, we headed out to the Warsaw Zoo. We were able to walk through the Zookeeper’s house where 300 Jews were hidden during the holocaust.  Antonina Zabinska, the zookeeper’s wife, played a special song on the piano to warn the Jews in the basement that the Nazis were around. We were able to go into the basement and saw the trap door that Jews used to escape to the animal enclosures when necessary. This was the last holocaust related stop that we made. It was fitting that we visited a place of hope and survival as our last stop. Rabbi Olshin challenged us with a question: would we put our lives and our families at risk in order to protect a stranger?  It was a very difficult question. Most people hold their own safety and their family’s safety as paramount to everything else. The righteous gentiles were so phenomenal because they realized that they had a moral and global responsibility to save the lives of others even if that meant endangering their own. Many courageous righteous gentile families were murdered due to their great acts of kindness and empathy. Yet, thousands of people did help Jews survive and their great deeds will never be forgotten.

After visiting the zookeepers house, we were given time to hang out in the zoo. I personally enjoyed the chimpanzees the most. They remind me of people only smaller and hairier. I’m sorry. That was a little weird. We also got to check out elephants, kangaroos, giraffes… and a ton of other cool animals.   Then we were privileged to hear from David Lifschitz who gave a great speech.

We returned to the Chabad for lunch where I spoke about my grandfather. It was especially meaningful to speak about him today exactly one year after he passed away. I told the story of his survival. He adapted to his circumstances which allowed him to survive and thrive despite the toughest challenges. Last Thursday, I visited my Grandfather’s house from before the war in Gorlice, Poland.  It was a surreal moment. Against all odds, my grandfather survived and I was able to return to the house of his birth as a continuation of him. It was a moment that will stay with me forever.

Well, finally it was time to go. One thing that was so amazing about the trip was that everything went so smoothly. Well until the bus ride to the airport when we got into a small accident. Rabbi Berlin was in the middle of thanking our wonderful bus driver Yanush when we ironically got into an accident.  It wasn’t Yanush’s fault.  This woman went right into the side of the bus. Everything seemed on the verge of breaking down as the time of the flight neared and we were still waiting for taxis to come.  Voitek our wonderful security guard and savior came to the rescue calling more taxis and negotiating with drivers. Not all heros where capes.

I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank everyone who made this trip so special. Thanks you Rabbi Olshin for being the such a great, charismatic guide. You inspired all of us with emotion and leadership that you portrayed. Thank you Mr. Buchman for embarking on this journey with us and sharing your story with us. Thank you Rabbi Reichman for adding so much to the trip. Thank you Benny and Sarah for organizing everything. Thank you Ron. You contributed so much to the trip and we really valued your incites.  Thank you Yanush, Voitek, and Yanush #2.  You guys always went out of the way for us and made us feel so secure.  Thank you to the random blonde polish woman who always just popped up and made us the best pancakes and scrambled eggs for breakfast every day. Most importantly, thank you to all my fellow participants. Each person contributed in their own way to this incredible experience.


2017 Poland Blog Day 6 – Stephanie Stifelman

Today was defined by extremes. We started the day off in Lodz (after a sleepy four hour bus ride filled with the movie “The Woman in Gold” ) and visited the train station “Radagast” in Lodz — a site where thousands of Jews were forced onto cattle cars during the Holocaust. While on one of those cattle cars, Harry Kramer set the mood with a speech about the perseverance of the Jewish people. He fittingly ended the speech with the words that had become our motto— עםישראל חי ”. These words were embodied by Mr. Buchmann and the story that he shared with us following the speech. We learned how Mr. Buchmann and his brother, along with one other boy, had jumped out of one of those same cattle cars that we had been standing on, and had narrowly escaped from the camp that the train was heading to. After their escape, were able to make it back to Western Hungary through working at different farms, before being re-captured by the Nazis and deported to Mauthausen . As we sang עם ישראל חי in the same place that our ancestors had cried out 70 years ago, a sense of strength and unity permeated throughout the room.

This embodiment of עם ישראל חי intensified after we left the cattle car and came face-to-face with an Israeli group. They too had a Holocaust survivor, and as he and Mr.Buchmann shook hands, relaying both of their stories to our blended groups, there was not a dry eye in sight. A spirited singing of התקּבה capped the moment, and we walked away from the Israeli group with our hearts a little lighter. We then bid a spirited goodbye to Mr. Buchmann, Dr. Strobel,  Aryeh Strobel, and Rabbi Reichmann, with another rendition of עם ישראל חי and a short round of dancing.

We then made our way to Chelmno, bracing ourselves for a more somber experience. We approached the debris of the first gas chambers warily—they had been housed in a mansion as a prototype— and discussed why gassing had been chosen as a method of murder in the first place.We also discussed how the Nazis had destroyed those primitive gas chambers— one victim in particular, a baby boy who had gotten a brit milah moments prior, was talked about extensively.We then made our way to another part of the camp— where they put the bodies. In this spot,Rabbi Olshin explained to us that many fragments of Jewish bones often resurfaced, and that we could take part in the mitzvah of burying them. The skies turned gray as we searched the ground,looking for bones and a way to pay respect to the bodies of our fellow Jews. After some time,Rabbi Olshin collected the bones that we had found, and eulogized those Jews by telling us a personal story of his friend who was murdered by a terrorist the summer before, but had managed to save his family in those last moments. He then related this to IDF soldier Emmanuel Moreno’s philosophy that the last moments of your life— the last thoughts of your life— are the ones with the most meaning. He concluded that the last moments of these people were probably concerned with their families, with Hashem, and, most importantly, held an abundance of meaning. With that, the bones were buried and Kaddish was said, and the group listened to the speeches by myself, Adriel Bolour, and RJ Fisher about Holocaust survivors that we had studied.Then mincha was said and we headed back to Warsaw.

At Warsaw, we ate dinner and said Ma’ariv at Chabad and then had a meaningful reflection session at our hotel. The elevated maturity and level of growth was exemplified during this reflection session, as people brazenly spoke of how they believed the trip had changed them and what lessons they had learned that they would implement in their lives when they came back home. With only one day left, the group headed up to their rooms to prepare for another day (and watch the Frisch hockey game).


2017 Poland Blog Day 5 – Mollie Flamholz

Shabbat March 18, 2017


Davening Shacharit on Shabbat in the Izaac shul was a very meaningful experience. People from all over the world, who spoke all different languages, came together and put aside all their differences to join together and daven as one Jewish People.

After davening, Rabbi Olshin described the backstory of how the shul was created. He explained that a man named Izaac from Krakow had a recurring dream that there was a treasure in Prague. When he finally traveled to Prague, he started to dig. A security guard saw him and thought he was crazy and asked what he was doing. He explained the dream and the security guard was shocked because he had a dream that there was a treasure hidden under the oven of a little house belonging to a man named Izaac back in Krakow. Izaak immediately stopped digging, went home, and dug under his own oven. There he found the treasure. He used this money to build the shul. From this story, we derived two opposing messages. First, that a person doesn’t have to travel far to find the treasure he has back home, inside of himself. And second, that sometimes it takes traveling far to further appreciate what you have back home – as many of us are experiencing on this trip.

At Kiddush, Rav Benny asked the question of why the Torah took four and a half Parshiyot to describe the Mishkan but the creation of the world only took one. Rabbi Reichman explained that it is easier for Hashem to build a home for us, than it is for us to build a home for Hashem.

Rav Benny concluded that “We can’t just have life happen to us but we have to have our life happen through us.”

We then went walking around the city of Krakow. We stopped at a shul called the Temple which was known as a more modern orthodox shul of the time. Rabbi Olshin read a speech delivered by the rabbi of the shul in between the two world wars, and in his speech he predicted that the Jews would soon be persecuted. His speech was delivered after the Balfour declaration and he said that the Jews now have the opportunity to move to Israel and they should all take it. Sadly, not many believed him.

We then went to the ‘Rama’ shul. Instead of creating his own sefer, Rama wrote an addition to Rav Yosef Karo’s Shulchan Aruch which is truly honorable. By doing this, he unified the Jewish people and now Jews all over the world learn together from this one book. The Rama is buried right outside the back of the shul in a cemetery where ‘Yussuleh the miser’ is also buried. Yussulah was a hidden Tzadik, he never let anyone know about the huge amounts of tzedaka he gave daily. He was rejected by his town because they thought he was a miser. It wasn’t until one week after his death, when there were long lines of poor people outside the rabbi’s door asking for money, that the community realized that Yussulah was supporting all of them in secret. They felt so bad for treating this holy man so badly and begged for forgiveness. Yussulah appeared to the rabbi of the shul in a dream and said don’t be sorry. He said the amount of reward he was receiving in the next world completely outweighed any of the mistreatment he received in this world. This was a story that I personally have heard many times but to be there standing right outside his grave where the story took place brought the story to life.

At lunch, David Baruch delivered a beautiful Dvar Torah. He spoke about how in every place we visit, no matter how horrific, it is crucial to take meaning from it and turn that meaning into action. He said we need to make good out of all the bad that occurred here in Poland.

After Shabbat, we all participated in a beautiful uplifting Havdalah ceremony led by Rav Benny under the train tracks where the Jews were taken from the Krakow Ghetto to the various death camps. We then went to Schindler’s factory where I spoke about Schindler’s heroism and courage. I spoke about a specific Survivor named Leon Leczon who was the youngest survivor on Schindler’s list. Because of all that Schindler did for Leczon and his family, he survived the war with both his parents, his sister, and one of his brothers. Over the course of the Holocaust, Schindler saved over 1,200 Jews using his factory as a safe-haven, and there are over 30,000 descendants of ‘Schindler’s Jews’ living today.

We then went to the Plaszow concentration camp, originally a Jewish cemetery that the Nazis leveled to create a place to end the lives of as many Jews as they could. Now that same land was turned into a park. In that park, there is a memorial for Sarah Schenirer who was buried in the cemetery before the war. Sarah was an incredible leader. She realized that it was crucial for the future of Judaism that woman become educated, so she took action, and with the help of a few others she started the first Beit Yaakov school. This school was a precedent for all future Jewish learning programs for girls and women. Although Sarah had no biological children, we are all, in essence, her children.


2017 Poland Blog Day 4 – David Lifschitz

One disclaimer before I start. Today we went to Auschwitz, and I am going to write about my experiences there and the emotions that I attached to those experiences. However, this place cannot be explained by any amount of words. In order to fully feel the power of the following blog is to see it with your own eyes. Even seeing it doesn’t paint the full picture, as when we went there was green grass growing and Israeli flags blowing and you could here quiet Jewish laughs echoing throughout the camp to ease the immensity of the place. I’m going to give some experiences I had with some commentary of my own to try and add depth to the experience.

We started off the day earlier than usual, and davening was pushed back so that we could utilize our time in Auschwitz. This bus ride took a while, so we had some time to think about where we going.

I tried to save my thoughts for when I was going to actually be there, but one thing that went through my mind was that at one point I was a little uncomfortable on the bus, and I realized the contrast.

I immediately thought of seventy five years prior when other Jews were uncomfortable on their way to Auschwitz. That gave me an interesting perspective to have when we entered. I had brought an Israeli flag to Auschwitz. I forgot to take it out for the other concentration camps, but once I had this new perspective of how we were going back to Auschwitz as free grand and great-grandchildren, who have the rare present for Jews throughout history with Eretz Yisrael, I knew that there was a reason why I’m solely wearing the flag here. This whole trip to Poland shows to us and to everyone else that the Jewish people always survive, but not only do we survive, but we also thrive in our new homes, and what better place to call home than our real home back in Israel.

A very interesting thought was given by Zak Comet about our entrance into Auschwitz II. Right as we got in, everyone headed to the bathroom, as it was a long bus ride. Only realizing this later while we were there, Zak said that he realized how much we took for granted that luxury of simply going to the bathroom on our own terms that was taken away from those who were there in Auschwitz. When we were walking through the camp we went into a bunker that was used as the lavatory for the Jews. Rabbi Olshin told us that the Nazis didn’t want to go in because they were disgusted, and of course the Jews realized and took advantage of this, leading to a lot of smuggling going on in the bathrooms. An example of this that the Rabbi gave was that there was someone who worked as the cleaner for the bathrooms, and had access to the area where are the “spoils of war” were taken. One of the small girls came up to him very timidly and asked for a sweater. It takes him a few weeks but he finally gets to come back to that lavatory while she’s there, and gives her the sweater.

The girl starts crying. She tells the Jewish man,

“Siddur, not sweater.” We see here that even in the depths of hell on Earth, Jews still kept their faith, and through that faith, especially of the children, the Nazi goal of destroying us would never succeed.

Recently there was a cattle car that was brought to be put on the rail tracks going into Auschwitz. The story behind that is incredible, however, what we did there brought me to tears. Coming along on our trip was Manny Bachman, a survivor from Budapest. He lost family members during the Holocaust in Auschwitz, and on the step off of the car, he sat Shiva for his family members. He gave his story, about his childhood and how he luckily escaped, and how his family was brought to this place. Then, one by one, each member of our program walked up to him and comforted the mourner. The last one was Aryeh Strobel, Manny’s grandson. To paraphrase, he said that Manny has all of his family and now all of us on this program to pass on his story and that Manny is a true hero for overcoming such tragedy and became what he is today.

The last place we went to in Auschwitz II was the broken crematorium and the end of the train tracks.

Rabbi Olshin spoke to us about all the lost souls at this one place, and connected it to Asher Strobel. I thought about how in life we sometimes lose those close to us too early, and I thought about my grandmother. She too was taken from my family too early. The trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau concluded with a suggestion. To take one of the small stones under the train tracks by the crematoriums, and in times of pain you can look at this stone and realize how much the Jewish people has improved since the Holocaust and I am just one pebble in the river of stones that is the Jewish people. I first scanned through a bunch of rocks, and one stood out to me. I picked it up, and unfortunately someone had spit out their gum, so I got to have the honor of helping maintain and preserve the graves of my people. I then found a rock, that on one side was completely flat, but on the other side it was bumpy. I chose it because to me it symbolized how the Nazis tried to flatten Jewry, but our faith runs deep, and for us it was never what was on top, and as long as we had our faith no level of flattening out with fully rid the world of the Jews and our ideals.

After this we went to Auschwitz I. It was a much different experience. It almost seemed stale at first, with the large crowds and as Rabbi Olshin put it, the “Disneyland” vibe. However, once we actually passed through those forboding gates, the lying gates of “arbeit macht frei” that work sets you free, the right atmosphere returned. The most emotional thing I experienced was when I entered a room and the only thing in the room was a book. To explain, this book was standing at 3 and a half feet tall and spanned from side to side of the room. This was a record book. Every recorded name of a neshama who left this world during the Shoah. We found Jon Katzmans family who we spoke about at Belzec. After that we all looked for our own family names, and I went through L’s until I reached a page. At the bottom, I found 29 different David Lifshitzs who had perished. I have to make up for 29 people, and my name is quite popular. That means that there are some names that will never be passed on. I will speak about this mysterious number of six million and how we can fathom about it on Monday, but what I took from this one moment is that although you can have that personal connection with those who had the same name as you, it is just as important to remember the everyman.

In conclusion, this journey through Auschwitz has drastically changed my perspective of my role in the Jewish people on multiple fronts. Another interesting thought I had on the way in to Auschwitz for the first time, that I will conclude this blog with,  was the weather. When we were in Majdanek and Belzec, we were freezing, and that really helped the group get into the mindset of where we were and what we were dealing with.

However, Friday was a balmy sixty degrees, most kids didn’t wear heavy coats, and I ended up tying my coat because I thought it was too warm.

Then I entered Auschwitz. And I realized that we didn’t need the temperature to be cold.

Every step I took there gave me chills.

Instinctively my first reaction was to put on something to keep me warm. I just didn’t put on something for physical warmth.

I put on my Israeli flag.

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