There is no doubt that this has been one of the most inspirational and insightful weeks of my life. I feel it can be summed up in one word – a journey.
To know what one has lost, one has to appreciate what was there before. For this reason, we began in the Jewish cemetery of Warsaw. Actors, Yiddish poets and Chassidic leaders are all buried within the same vicinity, despite their differences. This was a revelation to me; I had previously thought that all Jews were to be found in Orthodox shtetls, the type portrayed in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. It gave me a new appreciation that the Jews of the past were far more similar to present-day Jews with its multitude of opinions, vocations and religious outlooks. Similarity breeds connection and I feel that this recognition has allowed me to relate on a deeper level to the plight of these people and their suffering.
The Yeshiva house of Lublin knocked home another chilling realisation. The completion of this magnificent building in all its grandeur was in 1930. It was designed to be a powerhouse for Jewish learning for many centuries to come. Polish Jews were investing in their long-term future, blissfully unaware of the horrors awaiting them. This taught me that one must take the warnings when they see the writing on the wall; gradual increases in antisemitism cannot be permitted. Fighting even minor antisemitism is a necessary evil to stem the growing tide.
In preparation for this trip, I decided to read Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”, I was intrigued to see where one can garner enough hate to order the extermination of an entire people. Hitler’s entire theory about the Jews can be related to the “Elders of the Protocols of Zion” hoax, that somehow Jews run the world. In Majdanek, it really hit home how false assumptions and stereotypes can disseminate into unquestionable evil. Seeing the gas chambers, crematoria and the mountain of ash was a truly shocking experience. It shocked me to see how close the camp was to residential areas and I committed from then on never to be a bystander, to challenge where we see societal wrongs and to help those in need.
Standing at the crumbled and destroyed gas chambers of Auschwitz, an eerie thought crossed my mind. Just as the Germans destroyed the memory of the gas chambers, so too they destroyed the memory of those murdered by the gas chambers. At that moment I felt an overcoming sense of responsibility to make active efforts to remember those who were led like lambs to the slaughter. To stand up in the face of those who deny the Holocaust or make unfathomable comparisons between the state of Israel and the Nazis.
Growing up in a Jewish educational system I thought I knew about the Holocaust. However, there is something about the incomprehensible number of fellow humans that were murdered at the hands of the Nazis that the brain struggles to comprehend. However, following this trip, I now feel that comprehension has increased exponentially. It has inspired and moved me to become better, stronger and more actively involved and for that, I am genuinely thankful.
I feel incredibly grateful to UJS for helping me to have this opportunity and to have been able to experience this journey with Holocaust survivors themselves.
Natan Djanogly, UCL