The Last Day- I’m Afraid it’s Time for Goodbye Again

Sunday, March 17, 2013
Our last day. I began my morning by strolling along the beach beside the Mediterranean. I knew that would be leaving soon and had to soak in as much of it as I could, to take a little bit of that old world with me to my home.

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We started out by going to the Ghetto Fighter’s Kibbutz, an archive that was established in 1949 with the establishment of the first kibbutz there.

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Most of our time was spent in the Treblinka Hall, which, as one person in our group said, was like laying out evidence against the Nazis for the crimes they committed.

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Two things really struck me about the archive. The first was how well they worked the reverse of what the Nazis had done. The Nazis were about dehumanizing the Jewish people, and the archive illustrated some of the ways that they had done that.

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Conversely, the museum has humanized the victims as well as the perpetrators. As our guide said, it’s important to remember that these were not monsters who did these horrible acts, but people.

The other things that struck me was the scale model of Treblinka that dominated the room. It was hard to look at it and reconcile that just a week ago I was standing in that spot there, where the train platform was, where the barracks were. It brought home to me why Birkenau seemed more powerful than Auschwitz to me. Somehow I feel more there.

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After that, we had a short visit with some soldiers at an IDF base. They were so young, and so responsible. In some ways it felt like a frat house, but also a unique world of security that I think we as Americans fail to fully grasp. I’m not sure that we need compulsory service, but perhaps if it were a reality more people would take interest in the country beyond just fearing what seems different.
We finished our day in Tel Aviv, discussing the history of the city, which means something like “New Old Town,” and took a walking tour of Jaffa, which once upon a time was the major port of Israel.

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According to Michael it was from there that Jonah set out for his adventure with the whale. It no longer is as vital a city, but has a vibrant art scene.

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And then it was time to bid Michael goodbye and head to the airport. It was with a heavy heart that I left, because Israel is a beautiful world, and I loved being in Poland despite the heavy nature of our tour.

Still, I am more than ready to be home.

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On the Road to Acre

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Today’s journey was about the Crusades. We went first to Caesarea, another city of Herod’s, a beautiful sight on the Mediterranean Sea, filled with ruins, and yet right outside one of the wealthier towns in Israel. image image image image image From there we headed to Haifa, where we got to view the gardens of the B’nai Brith, which was incredibly beautiful. image We then went to Akko, Acre that was, and explored the fortress, which was both beautiful and functional. Again it was just fascinating to see this place where so much history had happened, to put a face to the name, so to speak. image After our exploration of the fortress, image

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which involved a journey through some underground tunnels,

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we were lucky enough to go to the Rosh Hanikra Grottos. This involved riding another cable-car down to the sea,

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and going into some man-made caves to get a “behind the scenes” look of the waves crashing against the cliff walls.

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It was beautiful, and showed the absolute power of nature, for both destruction and creation.

The Salty Sea

Friday, March 15, 2013
Today was a relaxing day, so to speak. We journeyed to Qumran, the location where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

The cave where the first scrolls were found.

The cave where the first scrolls were found.

That was interesting enough, but then we also learned a bit about the people who had lived their lives there, and the impact they likely had on Christianity as we know it.

A bath.

A bath.

We then went to Masada and rode a cable car to Herod’s fortress on the hill-top.

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We toured it, wandering through the streets and rooms that once were, high above the surrounding area, and explored the history of it, how it came to be, and how it managed to survive (the key was an impossibly large supply of water).From there, after riding the cable-car back down, we went to the Dead Sea, to the fancy Crowne Plaza Hotel. Floating in the Dead Sea (or Salty Sea, as it is known in Hebrew), is every bit as awesome as you think it’s going to be. What’s most interesting isn’t how easy it is to float, but how difficult it is to do something as simple as standing up. The buoyancy almost feels as if it controls you, but the salt really makes your skin feel good, smooth. Except on the lips, which sting, and god help you if you get it in our eyes.

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Salt.

We finished our travels by viewing Shabbat at the Western Wall. While it was very interesting from a sociological perspective, and gave an amazing illustration of the different kinds of Judaism that in habits the city, from the ultra-orthodox to the more reform minded, I felt very uncomfortable.

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I felt as if we were intruding on a private thing, that we were turning them into a spectacle.
We finished the night by having Shabbat dinner at the hotel, which really brought us together, in the way that only a ritual can, and was incredibly illuminating.

Jerusalem- Day Two

Thursday, March 14, 2013
We began Thursday by going into the Gazelle Valley and planting trees. The planting of trees has a long and important history with Israel. All the trees and all the grass there was planted, and it is a kind of pilgrimage for people to come and plant a tree there. While I might disagree with the practice, thinking that in many ways it is a waste of resources (it is, after all, a desert), there was something zen and blissful about pointing that tree. Feeling the earth on your hands, connects you, and planting the tree gives you a hint of hope for the future.
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A scheduling conflict lost us our chance to meet with students at Hebrew University, but it gained us the opportunity to have a lesson on security with Michael. It was fascinating. He made the Arab Israeli conflict clear, in a way that the world’s politicians and media have failed at, and a way that I can’t quite explain. He also made I clear the purpose and necessity of building the security barrier, the difficulties involved in making the barrier as fair as it can be. There is a sadness in the fact that it is there, but an equal sadness in the fact that it is necessary.

Part of the security barrier.

Part of the security barrier.

In the afternoon we went to Yad Vashim, a beautiful museum designed to commemorate the Holocaust and its victims.

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This is probably the most beautiful monument that I’ve yet seen; the main museum rising like an arrow from the ground and traces out the path that led the Jews from their old lives, through the Holocaust, and the emergence of what they call the new Jew, who is best symbolized, as I was told multiple times, by a plow in one hand, and a gun in the other. This is a place that the soldiers come to learn, and it shows not just what happened, not just how Israel came to be, but why it came to be.

Jerusalem-Day One

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013
If I believed Warsaw was old, the facts correct that perception in my mind. 1) Warsaw was leveled at the end of World War II, so t is not that old having been rebuilt by the Soviets. 2) Jerusalem is really old; its age and history is measured in the thousands of years, and its fractured and interesting history offers many lessons to all of us.

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While the sections of the city outside of the walls are jus as new, if not newer, than Warsaw, entering the Crusader made walls of the old town is exactly like traveling back in time. The press of people, the yelling of vendors, the smells, and the sights.

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Plus the fact that the buildings have stood for well over a thousand years.

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While I feel no specific spiritual connection to Jerusalem, it’s easy to see why it is so important to the various religions. We paused for a time at the Western wall. we journeyed deep into the various quarters of the old town; Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian. We followed the Via Dolorosa from the western edge to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Place where, in the Christian mythology, Jesus' hand laid against the wall.

Place where, in the Christian mythology, Jesus’ hand laid against the wall.

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What struck me the most was how Jerusalem is a combination of all things. Here we have the Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Armenians all coming together, living together, and proving that our ideas of how separate the groups of people are is not as correct as we thought it was.

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To see al these paths of history flowing together, and knowing that this city was the playground of all of them. Academically, you know that so much of history flowed from there, but standing in the courtyard of the Sepulcher, for example, and envisioning the battle that took place there, during the First Crusade, is a very intense feeling.

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And it is one that I think will last with me for a while.

Birkenau

Michael led the way to the death camp. We approached via the rail road tracks that had brought so many victims when the camp was in operation. We walked in silence past houses that had stood there at the time.

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Approaching the well-photographed front gates was striking.

You see the photos, but walking up to them is soul-shaking. Upon entering, we immediately climbed to the top of the guard tower. From there you could see the entirety of the camp.

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And then there is the camp. Unlike Auschwitz, Birkenau is mostly ruins. There are some sections that have been rebuilt,but others are just the foundations of the original buildings.

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Why this should make it more real to me I don’t know, but it does. Perhaps because part of me does not feel the locations should be perfectly maintained. Memorialize, yes, but let life return. Maybe my way of thinking is coming to agree with how the Polish think of Plaszow. I doubt it, because I don’t think it should become a park, but perhaps it shouldn’t just be a frozen monument either.

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Remains of crematorium.

One of the takeaway lessons that I had was about the problem of teaching the Holocaust. There is no sense of justice or closure to it. Auschwitz-Birkenau is about death and ending. You can’t talk of justice and aftermath; so few people were punished for their actions; and so they fall back on numbers and Anne Frank who ends with that momentary burst of hope:

“I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.”

Michael ended our Birkenau experience by playing an Israelie song, and translating the words into English:

Everyone has a name given to him by God
and given to him by his parents.
Everyone has a name given to him by his stature
and the way he smiles.
and given to him by his clothing
Everyone has a name given to him by the mountains
and given to him by the walls.
Everyone has a name given to him by the stars
and given to him by his neighbors.
Everyone has a name given to him by his sins
and given to him by his longing.
Everyone has a name given to him by his enemies
and given to him by his love.
Everyone has a name given to him by his holidays
and given to him by his work.
Everyone has a name given to him by the seasons
and given to him by his blindness.
Everyone has a name given to him by the sea and
given to him by his death.
Poem by Zelda
[translated from Hebrew]
We stood in the snow listening to this and it was so moving; it plays on the idea of naming all the victims. I felt sorrow deep, deep in my bones.

And then Michael looked up, and a smile broke his face, and he said the words that probably every victim of the camp would have loved to hear:

“Let’s go to Israel.”

Auschwitz Today

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

First a small note on Schindler. On our way out of Krakow we drove by Schindler’s factory. We didn’t have time to stop, and it wouldn’t have done any good anyway, because it is again striking how much of the past has been left behind. Schindler’s factory is a museum now, and not one that’s devoted to Oskar Schindler, but to the war in general.
Schnindler's Factory
Holocaust landscape,indeed.
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Auschwitz today.

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Which looking back on in from two days later, was strangely disappointing. We explored both Auschwitz and Birkenau, and I don’t mean to say that they aren’t powerful monuments, but Auschwitz lacks something because it is too, too preserved, if that makes any sense at all.

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But the song remains the same, so to speak. It’s not as if we were learning new things, but there is power in walking in the place. Putting your imagination back to that time fills the place up. You think back over all you’ve learned and place it in context with its actual world. There is an extreme difference in reading words about a place, even seeing pictures or films, and instead standing in the place where Höss was executed, or where the bodies were cremated.

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There are moments of shock, and most of the came in the display of items taken from people as they were bearded into the camp. The different typology o f things is staggering, from prosthetic limbs to shoe polish. But it is the quantity that is truly mind boggling.

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The pile of hair, two tons worth, and shoes, stretching two lengths of a room, is somehow deafening; it is both numbing and emotionally overwhelming at the same time to see strong people with their hands over their mouths, eyes wide n shock. It is an emotional sucker punch.

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Yet there is a generalized museum atmosphere to Auschwitz that can detract from its power. There is a powerful sense of remembrance there, a reminder of what happened. Yet at the same, there are groups moving around with tour guides speaking various languages. In a way it has a feel of Colonial Williamsburg; not fully historical, not unhistorical, but a feeling of a replica of the way life was. What remains striking about it, despite that, is the power if walking where they walked, and seeing the world as they saw it.

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And then there is Birkenau, and oh, my god . . .