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I’ve recently returned from a trip to Poland that taught me more about life than I thought possible. Especially considering the main topic of this trip was death. I travelled with 130 Jews ranging in age from 19 to 65. Three Holocaust survivors in their 80s joined us as well.
When signing up for this trip, I knew we would be hearing live testimonies from this dark period in Jewish history. I knew this might be the last time I’d have the opportunity to hear these stories firsthand. And that was pretty much all I knew.
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As a Jew, I felt a certain sense of responsibility to bear witness. I wanted to bear witness to the destruction that hatred can cause. I wanted to feel connected to our collective past. If I’m being honest, I was interested in getting some writing material (maybe for a fantasy young adult novel?). And if I’m being really honest, I hoped that going on this trip would give me a sense of purpose during a time when I needed it most. Yes – my Holocaust education trip might have been all about me.
When we arrived in Warsaw, we set out to bear witness without delay. I was jet lagged and outside of my comfort zone, and the intense heat certainly wasn’t helping things. For the first day, I had no idea where we were, where we were going, or why. Our incredibly knowledgeable guide presented us with a narrative of Jewish life in Poland before the Second World War. I willed myself to put on my best “listening face,” but I was really just wondering when we’d get our next bathroom break. I don’t think I fooled anyone.
We continued on, driving from cemetery to monument to memorial site to burial ground, speaking of numbers and death. I willed myself to try and understand what it means to have lost 11-million lives in a needless and brutal massacre. Our guide suggested we think about every loved one, acquaintance and person we’ve merely crossed paths with over the course of our lives. He asked us to imagine that every single one of those faces disappeared. That might make a small dent in the 11 million, he mused.
I thought about all of my friends and family members. Every barista who has ever taken my order. Everyone I’ve ever asked for directions. I felt even more perplexed, and profoundly sad.
I started needing more bathroom breaks. I got so sick that I had to break away from the group a few times. I had to sit at the front of the bus. In a weird way, I was proud of my intense physical reaction. What a visceral experience I was having!
Then I got to know Faigie better – the Holocaust survivor travelling on my bus. She had been taken to a concentration camp as a 10-year-old, forced out of her home in Lithuania and sent to Poland. Faigie accompanied us everywhere, from town to town, to Treblinka to Majdanek to Auschwitz, sharing bits of her family history and her personal story. And telling us of the righteous people she met, without whom she would not be standing there today (with four children, 11 grandchildren, and 10 great grandchildren).
In the intense heat, Faigie – who is older than all of us – walked faster than we did, thanked us constantly for being there and for listening and never once complained about anything. With a group of 130 Jews, the complaints from the rest of us were plentiful.
I found myself in complete awe of this woman. She connected with every single person on the trip. She showed us pictures of her late husband and her great grandchildren. She told the funniest jokes. She never saw the bad in anyone, even after being intimately acquainted with the worst of humanity. She was constantly telling us how nice people have been to her and how lucky she has been. She made sure our guide from the Auschwitz museum, who led us silently through the site for he did not speak a word of English, knew he had a “kind face” before we left. Even the “nice lady” who made us pay for the bathroom at a rest stop (which was neither clean nor particularly functional) got her share of compliments in equal measure.
Faigie simply had her eyes open for the good always. She chose to be grateful. And I can see now that that choice has kept her so truly and completely alive.
She gets emotional when talking about the loss of her father, who was separated from her and her mother, and perished at Dachau maddeningly close to liberation. She gets emotional when relaying the mass destruction of the Jewish people, the youth and innocence that was taken away from her. But she gets the most emotional, tears spilling over her smiling mouth, when she talks about hope; the hope she gets from seeing a group of Jewish people from Canada choosing to travel overseas, learn, listen and engage with the past. Her tears of joy always overpower her tears of grief. Her tears and her smile gave me more strength and understanding than any book, movie or image about the Holocaust could.
When we got to Chelmno, “the forgotten camp,” our guide drew our attention to the bone fragments that were scattered beneath our feet. The thousands of bodies exterminated there had not been completely exterminated after all. Together, we searched the site for these fragments, and buried the bits of bones we could find.
There was something about honouring these faceless, nameless bones in a small-yet-physical way that made me weak in the knees. It went past my brain and hit me straight in the gut. I was so overwhelmed with emotion I could barely stand.
This time, instead of running away in search of a bathroom (there wasn’t one anyway), I looked for Faigie. I couldn’t even imagine the depths of emotion she must be feeling. She, who lost so much. She, who never had the chance to say goodbye to her father.
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To my surprise, Faigie smiled at me without any tears. She touched my arm, and offered the bit of wisdom I’d grown to expect from her.
“It’s good to cry,” she’d say. “And it’s good to smile. If we can do both those things, then we are alive.”
Rebecca Ostroff lives in Toronto.