Veni, Vidi, Vici – a soft landing in Warsaw

From the Field: Guest Blogger Maj. Peter Lerner

Major Peter Lerner is the spokesman for the Central Command. During this week  (April 2-9, 2011), Maj. Lerner will be blogging his experiences from the “Witnesses in Uniform” program, a special program run by the IDF as a way to contribute to commemorating the Holocaust and heroism in the army.

Sunday continued from Saturday, no sleep and diving right in to the heart of the Jewish community in Warsaw, Poland.

The appropriate place to start such a visit was obviously…the Jewish Cemetery.  The cemetery is huge, with approximately 300,000 graves; the vast majority of those from well before World War two and the Holocaust. Rich people in fancy family plots, respectable rabbis that led the spiritual community, cultural leaders, writers and composers. Also graves after graves of loved ones laid to rest with kind words and admiration.

All the time we were roaming the cemetery thought came to mind of my mother’s extended family that are supposed to be buried here. I learned of this just a few days ago when preparing myself for this trip. Ultimately the family that did not leave Poland is uncharted and unknown, this feeling has been itching me like an open cut.

On a more solemn note after looking at some of the regular graves we fell upon the mass burial site. No markings, just a barren patch in the middle of the graveyard. That was the first chill of today, the thought that some 100,000 people died in the Warsaw Ghetto from disease, hunger and generally hard life can be barely comprehended.

From there the mission moved on to tour the Ghetto itself. I found it extremely hard to imagine the Ghetto way of life as described to us in the preparatory meetings mainly due to the fact that hardly any of it remains.  There are some walls still standing that we visited but honestly they don’t amount to much to illustrate the Ghetto way of life.

We moved around and reached the old orthodox synagogue called “Nozyk” Synagogue. This is the only synagogue that was not ruined in the war. We were told that the Nazis used it a stable for horses and that minor alterations were made to the exterior in order to enable the horses to enter the “stables” with the carriage still harness to them. Today this is the largest Jewish site in all of Poland, and it was very impressive. So impressive first of all the guide got us all to sing “Jerusalem of Gold”, and then the mission rabbi got us up dancing. Despite the fact that I am a non observant Jew it was a very emotional experience. We the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces were sitting in a place of worship in our uniforms in spite of those stables. It gave me a strong sense of victory, even if only a small one.

From there we continued to the Monument of the Umschlagplatz, the place where some 300,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto were rounded and literally shipped off to the gas chambers. The efficiency of the Nazi war machine shipped about 6000-7000 people per day. As I stood there looking at my fellow officers I couldn’t help thinking of what happened here in 1942.  It seemed so serene, peaceful the way we were all looking around, listening to what the guide had to say.

From there we began our final journey for the information packed day, and headed to the The Route Recalling the Martyrdom and the Struggle of the Jews 1940-1943. The route symbolizes the trying routes of suffering those 300,000 Jews did from the Umschlagplatz to the Death Camps. This is marked with the sixteen granite stones that have names of the leaders of the Ghetto uprising. Amongst the leaders we heard about was Janusz Korczak a teacher and scholar that was murdered in Treblinka death camp.

We read out loud something he wrote (translated from Hebrew by me):

Time for Ten Issues/ Korczak

  1. Take time to work – it’s the price of your success.
  2. Take time to think – it’s the price of your power.
  3. Take time to play – it’s the secret of your youth.
  4. Take time to read – it’s the basis of your knowledge.
  5. Take time for serenity – it helps to wash the dust from your eyes.
  6. Take time for friends and friendship – it’s the spring of your happiness.
  7. Take time for brotherhood of man – close friendship ensures your contribution beyond yourself.
  8. Take time to dream – it will draw your soul closer to the stars.
  9. Take time to laugh and jest – it will ease the burden of life.
  10. Take time to plan – then you can fulfill all the others.

Although today was long and full of information, the highlight most definitely was the ceremony we held at the Ghetto Heroes Monument. The ceremony was joined by some French Jewish school children that stood in line with us and stood to attention when required. At the end we sang the Israeli national anthem, “Hatiqva” that translates to “The Hope”. All the time I was thinking about my ancestors that did not leave Warsaw, and where the State of Israel is today.  I am proud to be part of this delegation. I expect tomorrow will be longer and tougher on the heart and soul.

After the ceremony we all lit candles in memory of those that were slaughtered, murdered and tormented in Warsaw. For the 100,000 that died and for the 300,000 that were shipped off to be exterminated.

God rest their souls.

Peter, 3 April 2011

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