By Benjamin Zander
I have seen the past, and it is ugly. Standing at the foot of a mass grave in Glugow Forest in Poland, emotions are swirling. Below the ground we stand on lay the remains of 6,000 Jewish children. I feel invaded, angry, indignant. But when I look at the faces of those who stand with me here, I also feel a sense of strength.
The forest is all but silent except for the chirping of the birds. The sounds they make are a testament to the living, to us. Next to me stands Avner Netanyahu, the son of Israel’s Prime Minister, who is part of our Young Judaea group visiting Poland for a week-long trip to unearth our painful, collective past. Avner is a living embodiment that Jewish history has not been forgotten. The simple fact that he and I stand here today, breathing, feeling, living, fills me with hope.
Standing on the ashes and bones of my people, I arrive at the epiphany that so many others have realized before me: History sleeps unless you wake it. This is the lesson I took from my trip. It is the lesson that has burned through the Jewish people for the past seven decades. To “Never Forget.”
On that day in Poland I also aroused my own family’s history from its slumber.
I took leave of the group and took a taxi to the town of Tarnow. All I had was an address that was 70 years old: Jasna 33. No one from my family had been to Poland since the war so Grandpa Lester chose me to be his eyes and ears. His aunt, Zofia, hid from the Nazis with her husband and two children in the town of Tarnow. She wore a cross around her neck so as not be detected by the Nazis. One day she went out to buy some bread but when she came back, her husband and children were gone, taken by the Nazis.
Zofia never saw her husband or children again.
While in Auschwitz, I learned that what my family knew to be true for seven decades was wrong. Zofia’s husband and children had not died in the concentration camp, rather the Nazis had murdered them in Tarnow. I cannot answer whether this news is supposed to provide my family with solace or whether it just brings more sorrow. All I can say is at least now there is an answer. History has been awakened.
Cold anticipation and goose-bumps swept through my body as I walked the streets of Tarnow, trying to locate Jasna 33. But the address was nothing but a memory, buried deep under an empty patch of grass that now made up a nondescript town square. The voices of children who were playing in a nearby park reached my ears. I stood there in bewilderment, trying to picture the house, the place my great-great aunt had pegged as a haven from the Nazis. I did not cry. I learned that the building next to me was built on the original foundation of Jasna 47. The stones of the foundation were still visible today.
Suddenly, I smiled. I realized I was staring at something that Aunt Zofia had no doubt looked at seventy years earlier. This trifling fact filled me with exhilaration. For one fleeting moment, Jasna 33 existed once again. I was the first in my family to trespass history and it was empowering. The Zanders, Zauders, Schreiers, Tiegers, Sztuckis, and Leibels - I suddenly felt connected to all of Zofia’s family, to my family.
There were two rocks lying on the grass. I picked them up and put them in my pocket. One was for my Grandpa Lester for whom I’d become the eyes and ears of the past and the other for his sister Sylvia.
In the taxi ride back to join the rest of the group, I felt the weight of the dead rocks in my pocket. On that day in Tarnow, I never felt more alive.
The writer is currently on his gap year in Israel as part of Young Judaea’s Year Course. From March 23 – 31, Young Judaea took a group of 21 Year Course participants on a trip to Poland. Zander is from Great Neck, NY. Next year he will begin his undergraduate studies at TCMJ college in New Jersey.
Originally published by Arutz Sheva