This year, Yom HaShoah had a deeper meaning for my family and me.
After my twins’ b’nai mitzvah, we traveled to Eastern Europe over spring break to get in touch with our roots. We knew this would be a different kind of trip than the one we took to Israel after my older son’s bar mitzvah. Eastern Europe was the land where our families once lived, but they left for a better life and we were fortunate that most of our family left before the Holocaust.
We tried to prepare ourselves by watching “The Pianist,” “Schindler’s List” and “Defiance,” and by reading Holocaust books. We had been to Yad Vashem in Israel and the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. But this was different — being in the region where the destruction of our people took place.
Our itinerary included Prague, Krakow, Auschwitz, Warsaw and Vilnius.
In Prague, where synagogues were protected for “Hitler’s Museum of the Extinct Race,” we attended a Shabbat service at the Spanish Synagogue. We spoke to a local member and he shared with us his family’s story of survival. On our tour of the Jewish district, we found it strange to look at Jewish objects behind glass casings, as if these objects were no longer part of everyday life. At the Pinkas Synagogue, we were sobered by the longest epitaph in the world: 80,000 names of the Jews from Bohemia and Moravia who died in the Holocaust. On the walls, we located family names that are part of our extended family and wondered if they were distant relatives.
At Auschwitz we noticed the sheer size of the killing operation that the Nazis created to implement the Final Solution. We learned about conditions at the camp for those who were lucky enough to avoid the gas chambers. We found ourselves having conversations with each other about survival and how likely it would have been for each of us to survive.
My 13–year-old son said he would have been a musician. Because that skill was valued, it would have saved him from being sent to a camp, he thought. He remembered in the “The Pianist” how the German officer spared Wladyslaw Szpilman because of his music. However, most musicians were not so fortunate. My daughter, also 13, said that she would have run to the forest, because at least in the forest she could be free. My older son, 16, was worried about the cold weather and said he would take warm clothes and solid shoes to survive wherever he ended up, in a camp or the forest. I could see my children connecting with their history, seeing themselves in the situation and attempting to find a way to save themselves.
On our train ride from Krakow to Warsaw, a Polish man shared our compartment. He spoke English well and we had a lengthy conversation about healing after the war. Although not Jewish, his family experienced a different sort of hardship, and he felt an affinity with the Polish Jews and their fate. He was doing his part to mend relationships by working with an agency in Israel to host a jazz concert based on music that was written by Polish Jewish musicians at the time of the Holocaust.
In Vilnius we spent time with a Jewish guide learning about Jewish life before the war. We visited Paneriai Forest, where 70,000 Jews were killed in 1941. Jews in Lithuania had a very small chance of survival; when the Germans invaded, policies of extermination were immediately implemented. We learned that it could take up to 50 people to save one Jew, including all the steps to get a person hidden, fed and transported to a safe place.
Each European Jew who survived the Holocaust is a living miracle. Some survived by sheer luck, others were helped by their physical and mental strength and for some, their survival hinged on being helped by righteous gentiles. The remains of Eastern European Jewish life primarily consist of graves, memorials and museums —very few Jews live there now.
Before the trip, I was concerned that taking my children to see Holocaust sites would be too heavy or traumatic. But sharing this experience together deepened our understanding of our own history and our commitment to the Jewish people, Israel and living a Jewish life. We recognized that this would be our only trip of this type. It was not a trip we wanted to repeat, but it was time well spent as it made a meaningful impact on us all.
The week after our return to the Bay Area, we attended a friend’s bat mitzvah. It was reaffirming for our family to witness the Torah being passed by the grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, to her daughter and granddaughter — continuing our legacy as a people.
Andrea Bloom lives in Pleasanton with her husband and three children. She’s a member of Congregation Beth Emek and is the founder of ConnectWell, a company that delivers wellness programming at worksites.