Between January 14-20, 2019, Rabbi Blumofe accompanied 35 UT college students on a Jewish Heritage trip to Poland. During this venture, Rabbi Blumofe chronicled his journey via Facebook. His entries can be read in their entirety below.
POLAND – EN ROUTE – JANUARY 14
I was a student in Poland long ago (right after Fukuyama wrote his essay that history was ending), when I was in university. Now, I am returning, to encounter so many ghosts, whispers, and echoes that have never left, engaging together with 35 UT college students.
Back then, more was in flux. It was in that time, because of that trip, that I chose to dedicate my life to Jewish tradition and to the Jewish people. Now, traveling in a specific role, this reunion too, is surprisingly, intensely personal.
I am reading Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Byczacz by Omer Bartov as we walk on the muddy paths. A biography of the hometown of S.Y. Agnon, and as it represents, of so many of us, as well.
Grateful to Rabbi Moshe Trepp, JLF, and Texas Hillel for this opportunity.
May we live as we witness. Am Yisrael Chai.
My heart stopped, my breast frozen, my lips and eyes barred. Still in the world, but not of the world. Here, yet already departed.
POLAND 2019 – DAY 1 – WARSAW – JANUARY 15
My returning to Poland now after 28 years, has been with some discomfiture. All of us gathering at Warsaw Chopin Airport, (35 university students and a small group of leaders), we went first to the Jewish cemetery, where it started to snow. So many creative and raucous generations now beneath the crisp snow, including a mass grave for those who died from starvation and the terrible conditions during the forced confinement during the Shoah. This is the open space in the crowd of monuments.
Polin (the Yiddish word for Poland) can be interpreted as “here we rest for the night.” And the ghosts from a thousand years of settlement have been summoned and I think we have been given permission to walk with them, and to witness and become their stories, along the way.
After a kosher dinner together, we went to a small remaining section of the ghetto wall (which, when built by forced Jewish labor, was over 11 miles square). In this corner, remembering the blue and white armbands, we were on the inside, looking out, and then we assembled around the corner, to the Umschlagplatz, where the Jews were collected and sent to by rail to the East, to be liquidated.
Tonight, there was pristine snow in one of the corners of the monument, which like the space in the broken headstone, could represent an undying resilience.
I seem to have retained a smattering of the conversational Polish I once knew. And we are listening hard to all of the sounds and echoes in the cold, as the snow thuds and blankets everything.
POLAND 2019 – DAY 2 – LUBLIN, MAIDANEK, LEZAJSK – JANUARY 16
On the road from Warsaw to Lublin, names of the towns and the villages flicker by like names flashing on an old fashioned arrival board at a railway station – Bialystok, Chelm, Zamosc, Radom, Brest, and Lviv.
What power do they represent as places of family origin? What power do they have to neutralize the names of the death camps that conjure a chilling void – Treblinka, Chelmno, Sobibor, Birkeneau, Maidanek, and Belzec?
Here resided the Committee of Four Lands, which attempted to navigate the narrow bridge above the turbulent waters – contingent protection by nobles and the constant wrath of the peasants. The ancient synagogue abutted the castle, as if it was holding on for dear life – hitching its wagon to the proximity to power – the harrowing exigencies of the unpredictable prevailing, political winds in it’s age.
in Lublin, the innovative one stop shop yeshiva, envisioned and built by Rav Meyer Shapiro, opened in 1930. It housed students and provided lodging, community, and security. It is now a Four Star Hotel Ilan.
Rav Shapiro gifted the world with Daf Yomi – a study project intended to unite the Jewish people in about a 7.5 year cycle. His last words, before he died at age 46, were: nor mit simcha – only with joy.
What has been lost out in the world? What has dried up within us?
Three kilometers from town, we turned off the main road between Lublin and Lviv, and entered into Maidanek, and I saw the crow perched weirdly on the barbed wire fence, once electrified. Hearing the rush of cars from the road, and the occasional siren, there was the cawing too that echoed through the barracks in Field 3, in the spaces where the buildings once were in the other Fields, and in the small rooms with the walls made blue from Zyklon B, where so many Jews were gassed to death, so close to town. It was as the birds themselves were still chanting the final Shema Yisrael learned from the victims, 75 years ago.
And we ended our afternoon there at the intersection where death converges – (i) the original ovens; (ii) the ditches dug by the 18000 prisoners before they were shot into them in a matter of three days while the orchestra played (euphemistically called Erntedankfest – The Harvest Festival); (iii) and the Soviet memorial that is built around 7.5 tons of human ash, open to view. We had soil from Israel that we offered onto this pile as we sang Hatikvah together, in an attempt to provide a small light to counter this impenetrable darkness – so dark that you can touch it – like the 9th plague in ancient Egypt.
And before driving towards Krakow late at night, we stopped in Lezajsk, at the holy portal of The Hasidic Master Rebbe Elimelech, where by his merit, we lit our lights, endeavored to learn how to pray, and feel, and say in our brief cycle of life: nor mit simcha – again and again, and again.
POLAND 2019 – DAY 3 – AUSCHWITZ – JANUARY 17
I awoke In the town of Tarnow to the steady tolling of the church bells offering a questionable invitation to greet the day, as the sky gradually lightened into a wintry brown and gray.
We rode towards the west – the bare trees standing like sentries on either side of the main narrow roadway in solemn assembly, facing us to offer knowing condolences as we dolefully passed beneath their piteous gaze. Hamakom Yinachem. May You be Comforted. The last to greet us, on opposite corners, were the McDonald’s and the KFC.
I am returning now to this place after 28 years, both of us changed, adapted to the world-weary ways, as our bus parked in the tourist lot before the Visitor’s Center. This place needing to hold history and the attention of the preoccupied and distracted, a bit more urgently – and I, learning anew, walking with a new generation of savvy and sophisticated students where the stories told bring depravity alive in the latrines and everywhere, as they buckle a bit at the knees.
From across Europe, the tracks still converge in this primal, howling spot – this still flowing wound – where possessions took precedence over bodies in selection, and shaved hair from silent generations still fills a vast room.
Survivor. Bystander. Perpetrator. Witness. Sonderkommando. Trauma. Words fail, and the Prayer for the Dead too as I chanted it, seemed to thinly ascend in a wisp of smoke, muted in this vast space as we realized that like preparing matza for Passover, it took 18 minutes to burn a body after it had been shot or gassed to death.
The four crematorium were in regular operation, with the thick, acrid black smoke from the burning bodies chugging upward from this meticulously planned place, to spread into the world – to get in our clothes, our beliefs, and our souls, as the allied planes on other bombing missions flew past, without disruption. And trains kept coming.
We looked into the distance and saw Canada – a loose thread in this terrible, tightly-wound place where stolen property was divvied up, smuggled, and used for gain; and Mexico – an unfinished renovation for the death camp to hold even more bodies – that used to be identities: thoughts, feelings, desires, and dreams.
We walked out of the gates with the flag of the Jewish people, somewhat self-consciously singing Am Yisrael Chai, as the others entering looked on with bemusement, curiosity, sympathy, and bewilderment, as one or two joined our song as we passed by.
The story continues with a start as I saw a page of people sharing my surname with slight variation, whom I previously never knew existed, take form, black and white, in the Book of Victims. And we, as survivors, get back on the bus, hustle back through the split grove of trees, like the split sea, now ushering us towards our own redemption to live in the wilderness with knowledge, brokenness, and intention – each of us a daily miracle as we strive to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly in search of God.
POLAND 2019 – DAY 4 – TARNOW, ZBYLITOWSKA GORA, KRAKOW – JANUARY 18
It will soon be Shabbat in Krakow, and as it snows outside, depositing large flakes in a blanket of white, we are warm in the Kazimierz – the Old Jewish Quarter.
Shabbat is an affirmation of life – and it is heartening to see a thriving, even trendy place, that was rubble the last time I was here (1991). Our hotel is housed in a building from the 15th century, built by Jews to honor Jewish accomplishment in the city.
In our learning together and feeling the pits of our stomachs churn, we witness where atrocities have occurred and how much has been lost. Today, we stand, honoring the memories of the children forcibly separated from their parents – many toddlers wailing, dumped out of trucks, directly into open graves to suffocate or to be shot in their innocence. Parents having to make grim choices that were not really choices. Town squares emptied; forests made profane.
On Shabbat we offer blessings that we and our children will thrive.
What are we? What would we do? What can we do?
As we stood amid mass graves of children, the dogs were barking, and the wind picked up, swaying the trees, as if the wind was keening along with us – sharing our misery.
We left a piece of candy on the cold earth, noticing the mittens made heavy with stones, a gesture offering both compassion and memory.
And we have passed through this shadowed valley, and we enter into the majesty of Shabbat. We began to sing and dance on the bimah of the destroyed Tarnov synagogue – we are (still) here – and soon we will each empty out of our narrow places to raise our voices in song for the gratitude of celebrating these precious moments together.
Indeed, the task is great – and all of this is so vast, and complex – yet we do what we can as the snow has stopped, and this wet layer suddenly disappears for the time being, and with our feet on the cobblestone where so many have walked before, we welcome the holy Presence of Shabbat.
POLAND 2019 – DAY 5 – KRAKOW
I celebrated Shabbat and had an Aliyah to the Torah on this Shabbat Shirah, in the Izaak Synagogue, built in 1644. When I was previously in Krakow, it was one of the few buildings standing that was not surrounded by rubble. Back then, Kazimierz (The Jewish Quarter), was neglected – now it is rebuilt, as a trendy place of nostalgia for Poles and tourists – a suggestive sheen of Jewish life, with only a skeleton crew of Jews.
In the afternoon, we toured the few synagogues – now museum pieces that, if you listen hard enough, you are transported to a time of textured Jewish life characterized by the Remah Synagogue – a place of humble learning and scholarship of Rav Moshe Isserles, (Remah), producing the Ashkenazi accompaniment to the Shulchan Aruch in the 16th century, which helped to knit together the Jewish people; and in the Tempel Synagogue, the apocalyptic words of Rabbi Dr. Ozjasz Thon, who predicted the evils of the Holocaust, in a sermon back in 1919.
We heard a harrowing story from Mrs. Miraslava, who is about to turn 90. She is a Righteous Gentile, honored by Yad Vashem: World Holocaust Center, Jerusalem. She and her mother and sister, hid a Jewish girl in their apartment for three years.
We ended Shabbat, walking the path of the dispossessed Jews, who crossed the Vistula River moving from the Jewish Quarter into the ghetto formed on the other side. In the square outside of the former ghetto where brutal Aktions occurred, we resolutely and loudly made Havdallah, to end Shabbat. The square, now called Ghetto Heroes Square, is filled with empty chairs as an art exhibit. And my memories of Poland came flooding back here.
The clang of the city trolley, the revving of the regional train, followed by the haunting whistle – the train tracks, just down the street. The smell of the particularly foul cigarettes in the public space – and from the square, we all climbed underground to cross the street – which tonight brought a feeling of torment – for the gas chambers in the Birkenau death camp were located underground – and so many from this place walked to their deaths descended, and I hesitated, walking with a heavy step until we emerged, near the Contemporary Art Museum, and Schindler’s Factory.
I used to walk a similar path to school (down and up, beneath city streets) in a different town (Poznan), and these memories and recent witnessing pooling together, and there we stood outside of a factory of a complicated man, who did decide to save lives.
And afterward, we retraced our steps, as if trying to unspool the grim history, back to Kazimierz, where we drank kawa po Izraelsku (Israeli style coffee) out of a finjan coffee pot, trying to rewarm our spirits, realizing at closing time, paying the bill, that the space in which we were sitting was a former school for children (cheder), which left me somehow, even more downhearted. This wasn’t kitsch, it wasn’t ironic – we were all along, drinking from a melancholic cup.
It is all a tangle of ghosts, which like a macabre cobweb, insnares the living. It is a heroic act indeed, to steady one’s identity, steep it in tradition, and still be generous to the concealed gifts that the world might have to offer.
POLAND 2019 – DAY 6 – ŁÓDŹ, CHELMNO, WARSAW
Waking up early this morning, I heard a man singing a Polish song through my open window, his voice resounding as he walked through the narrow street, perhaps returning from a night away from home.
As it became light, the clouds were low, blanketed just above our heads. The temperature had dipped below freezing, and the day seems to envelope all of our immediacy in a crisp gloom.
We returned to the bus with our legally mandated two bus drivers, pilot (troubleshooter), and security guard, and as we encounter the stops in our journey, I realize that the remains of snow and ice complement the concrete roadways as they ribbon ever outward, becoming highways, and then constricting back again, eventually spilling into the squares of every town and then into the forests, collecting people in their undertow, and then again receding ever outward, where the same process of “resettlement to the east” is repeated, over and over until only thin remnants are left, washed haphazardly across Poland.
We arrive in Łódź at the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe, where there are thickets of grave monuments so dense that they threaten to swallow you up – estimated over 200,000 souls buried there, that we know of.
And one from our group patiently searched until she found her great-grandfather, a casualty in the Łódź ghetto – and she delivered a powerful story about his love for life and the resilience that he instilled in his children into her generation. While she was talking, the sun appeared, and the church bells sounded persistently, seeming to mark our own time.
Past the open pits dug the day before the Russians came, thus saving the hapless prisoners of that particular moment, we entered into the building used for the Hevre Kaddisha of the Łódź cemetery, a place where others deliberately honor each individual body and life as it passes from this world. And what words have been shared in this room – an ocean of endless eulogies that still seems incomplete.
And from here we entered the streets of the Łódź (Litzmannstadt) ghetto, the first organized ghetto of the Holocaust, the tracks for the neighborhood tram circling throughout the shabby, almost menacing streets.
The primary weapon against the people forced into this ghetto was starvation, and we gathered across the street from the Kripo Station of Chaim Rumkowski – the Rotes Haus (Red House) – where Jews would torture and dishonor other Jews in obedience to cynical self Interest and inflated self importance, in a darkening, constricting, equivocal world.
Rumkowski, the head of the Judenrat, marked his territory with Stars of David, and today, the graffiti on these very buildings includes Stars of David tags, in service to a particular contemporary code that remains unrevealed to me. But it does not bode well. Through everything, and the crush of history – of the continuous memorials, of seeing this land as a perpetual graveyard – what do we think that we can outrun?
It was here that the students reached a saturation point. The grief didn’t necessarily land with a thud anymore – it became a challenge to keep in order the overwhelming jumble of facts, locations, and accessories of slaughter, and the distracted conversations, communal songs, and need for release resurfaced more quickly. Emotions strained towards breaking. All of this is a lot to hold. The unspoken question became: we are full. Where do we go from here?
For the current residents of Łódź too – where can they go? As they struggle to live day to day, they must contend with the bike and jogging path as it is adjacent to the boxcar memorial at Radegast, as it follows the railroad tracks north. How does that effect their recreation, and their mindset? How much do we or can we notice and see, everyday? What also exists below the surface, and what has completely disappeared without a trace?
How do we repair this brokenness, each of us shattered into small pieces, beyond making these accountings into permanent shadowy fixtures in the attics of our minds?
And as the sun began to set, we improbably moved a bit further into this void. Our bus continued, hurtling towards the elusive horizon, and meanwhile, we, along with the earth and the heavens, are all submerged together into a vast gray pit, rimmed with trees, as we arrive in Chelmno.
In the cold, we crossed the road to the place where the vans ran. No tracks here. Only mobile slaughter where the civilians would die, asphyxiated, in vehicles rigged to poured the exhaust of the very vile journey they were taking, into where they were densely packed in the back of these vehicles, as they drove up the road.
And in our bus, we arrived into the forest – where the dead bodies of these men, women, and children were unloaded and piled together to be burnt in the wide clearing. And now, 76 years later, we moved beyond our trauma fatigue and dug into the frosted grass to retrieve tiny fragments of human bone by the flashlights of our phones. We were kneeling in a giant field, where the remains of thousands upon thousands are picked out of the earth. There is no shortage.
Our group, passing through, had become the Hevre Kaddisha in Chelmno, and we took these fragments of human bone that we found and buried them, covering them with soil brought from Jerusalem. And all of us were present in the darkness, again.
The prayer for the dead chillingly echoed in the forest – as if it were summoning something greater in that merciless clearing, and this time, as our prayer ascended, a still small airplane flew overhead, as if taking our offering of burying scattered bone with our bare hands, and our witness of navigating the living graveyards of Europe and delivering them to a less vicious world beyond our own.
And the rumble of the bus engine began in the again silent place – exhaust streaming out into the cold night air.
And as we emerge from the forest, we return to the world of the living, back to Warsaw, through the pitch darkness, save for our lights and those passing the other way.
In Warsaw, we ate together, affirming life, as Tu BeShevat begins – expressing our need to begin again somewhere, we start tonight by moving out of the clearing, blessing a new year of the trees – for the witness of the deepest roots and the highest branches of these unfortunate forests.
As we prepare to return to our homes, some of us will go immediately to weddings, celebrating life’s joys, and others from our group will continue to ask unanswerable questions and assess the purpose of our days. This is the child on the face of the memorial looking straight at us, asking us, nu?
We painfully absorb this witnessed moral injury, and in the light of Adorno’s challenge – that poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric – we strive to create meaning in the choices we make, in the way that we respond to the current challenges of our world, and how we treat each other in our pursuits.
We must be thirsty for a love of the Jewish people, especially as we don’t always agree, as we shoulder the additional burdens and challenges of the world that lie before us. Any other choice brings a swifter lesson of destruction – a choiceless choice. We are here now – as mourners, as survivors – and we have little alternative.