For Jews, Poland was as close to Gan Eden in exile as one could get. It was referred to by Jews as Po lin, "here we rest" in tranquility waiting for the arrival of Mashiach. It was also known as Po lan yah, "here G-d rests", as He accompanied His people to this wonderful galut. Tragically, all this changed overnight. While we associate Poland with the death camps and view the Polish people as collaborators, as they often were, the Polish people see themselves as victims of the war, as they often were, taken advantage of by the Nazis who did not want to pollute their own land and therefore set up their killing machine in occupied Poland, where so many Jews lived.
A short five-minute drive from the yeshiva of Chachmei Lublin, we arrive at Majdanek, a concentration camp where approximately 60,000 Jews were killed along with thousands of Poles. It remains almost exactly as it was when the Russians liberated the camp in 1944. There is little to say, and words are not adequate to describe what lay before our eyes. One stands in silence looking at the huge fields and the barracks, barbed wire fences, and gas chambers. One enters the museum and listens the words of the survivors as they speak of the brutal conditions, the lack of food, the beatings, the standing for hours in the freezing cold--or boiling sun--not that the barracks offered any escape from nature. As inadequate as listening is to enable us to imagine the hell they went through, me putting it into words is even more inadequate.
If words are inadequate to describe Majdanek, silence is too much to describe Belzec, which along with Sobibor and Treblinka were the three death camps used to carry out "Operation Reihardt", the deadliest of the phases in the Holocaust, where the Nazis set up these camps for the sole purpose of killing Jews. During the 11 months Belzec operated, an estimated 500,000 Jews were murdered within minutes of being thrown out of the cattle cars arriving in Belzec. A few Jews were temporarily kept alive so they could carry out the necessary labour such as digging mass graves and the like. Belzec is much less famous than Auschwitz, likely because of the 500,000 Jews killed there, only one survivor, Rudolf Reder who lived to tell his story. After almost ridding Poland of Jews, the death camps were destroyed by the Nazis as they tried to cover up their genocide. All that is left is mounds of dirt--and a museum to memorialize the victims.
But we shall not dwell only on the destruction of Polish Jewry. Travelling to Ishbitz, a small town of some 4,000 Jews before the war, we visited the kever of the Ishbitzer, Rav Mordechai Leiner, the author of the Mei Shiloach. This work has seen a revival in the last 10-15 years as his somewhat radical view of Jewish theology finds fertile ground for application in modern society. He is not the only Leiner whose work has become popular today. His grandson, the Radziner Rebbe, Gershon Henich Leiner, was the first to "re-discover" techelet and his chassidim continue to wear this techelet, which comes from a fish-based dye. It was Rav Isaac Halevi Herzog, the first chief rabbi of the modern state of Israel, who conclusively proved the Radziner techelet is not identical with the ancient techelet. While the many today who do wear techelet, do so to a large extent is based on the research of Rav Herzog it was the Radziner’s initiative was critical to spurring on the desire to reclaim techelet.
Situated a short distance away from the Ishbitzer has got to be one of most remarkable "graves" one could ever see. For starters, the person "buried" there has not yet died, and is alive and well in Israel. He has, however, prepared his burial place complete with the matzevah. Reading the matzevah, we see that Zvi Hersch Griner was born in Ishbitz in 1931. When the Russians arrived in Ishbitz offering the opportunity to Jews to flee to Russia, his brother did exactly that, saving his life. Zvi Hersch remained, and when the Nazis arrived in Ishbitz and killed his parents, young Zvi Hersch escaped and stayed with a local family. His deep interest in religion nurtured in his parents' home led his adopted family to send him to study for the priesthood, and he became Father Gregor Pawlowski. As a Jew, he felt his home was in Israel and moved there, becoming parish priest in Yaffo. It was in Israel that he was reunited with his observant Jewish brother, who had read about a young boy from Ishbitz who became a Catholic priest and immigrated to Israel to work in the Promised Land. Most proud of his Jewish heritage, and to honour his murdered parents, Zvi Hersch has chosen to be buried in the cemetery of his childhood next to his parents. Life truly is complicated.
There is no mistaking the identity of the next person we went to visit, Rav Elimelech of Lizhensk. Across the street from his ohel is a beit midrash complete with sefarim, kosher food and even places to sleep. The thousands of kvitlach that surrounded his mazevah are ample testimony to his ongoing influence 228 years after his death in the year 5547. Yet instead of the year תקמז his matzevah tells us he died in the year תנצבה (the same year, just spelled unconventionally). Immediately below we have, as in almost every Jewish kever in the world, those same letters תנצבה, this time standing for tehey nishmato tzruryah btzror hachayim. Amen.