Although Israel is still not taking 12th graders to Poland, the boys’ school has replaced that trip with a modest, 4-day excursion that they have called “From Holocaust to Rebirth,” taking the kids to sites like Yad VaShem, Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, Palmach Museum, and Mt. Herzl. While this cannot replace the intensity of an Eastern European experience, the school is doing what it can to replicate the messages and lessons that a trip to Poland might teach them.
The school has also asked the parents to write personal letters to say “empowering things to the boys that we might not have the opportunity to say every day.” Given that we are all currently bombarded with social media and politics filled with intolerance and hate, I took this assignment seriously, sharing the following message with the twins:
The first and only time I ever went to Poland was in 1995. I was 19 years old, just a little older than you, learning in Yeshiva in Israel, when I participated on The March of the Living. Here is a picture of me standing in front of a concentration camp:
It was awkward taking pictures in Poland. I never knew if I was allowed to smile. so I just made that serious, kind-of-condescending face. I don’t think I’ve told you much about that trip. It was really memorable, for sure. There were moments that were powerful and moments, a bit surprising to me, that I thought were boring or that didn’t resonate so much. Growing up close to my grandparents, I knew a lot about their experiences during the war. Truthfully, as a teenager, I sometimes felt like I knew more about the Holocaust than anyone else in the world. Obviously, that wasn’t true, but when you were a child in my house, hearing things like, “You don’t have a problem, Auschwitz is a problem” had a way of sticking with you. I internalized that message for many years, probably too many years.
On the one hand, it made sense. There is something logical about the wisdom that comes with having perspective. Not everything that goes wrong in our lives is a crisis. Remember, it could always be worse. Be grateful for what you have. You have nothing to complain about. There are many valuable lessons that we can learn from the Shoah and its aftermath. We must take great pride in our Judaism, appreciate the State of Israel and the fact that since 1948, we will always have a place to call home. The Holocaust has taught us to own powerful phrases like “Never Again,” and “Am Yisrael Chai.” It has inspired the generations since the war to fight, to stay alert, and to call out hatred and prejudice wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head.
At the same time, we must also pay attention to the trauma that has been passed from our grandparents to our parents, from our parents to us. We talk about the Holocaust in visceral terms even though we are just as removed from the concentration camps as you are. And sometimes, even if it’s by accident, we admonish ourselves when we fall short, feel overwhelmed, or engage in even the slightest bit of self-pity or doubt. That’s when our grandparents’ voices rage back at us and remind us: You think you’ve got it bad? Try hiding in the forest for 8 months.
As I write this letter to you, I’m disappointed that you weren’t able to go to Poland like I did. In a lot of ways, I think the experience is an important and impactful one, so I hope that one day, you’ll get the chance to go. Still, I’ve always been a little ambivalent about the trip and what we teach our children on it. It’s critical that you, your friends, and the world know about the Holocaust, learn from its lessons, create a better society as a result, and indeed, never forget. We want you to carry those lessons forward to your children and them to theirs. But be mindful not to let history’s traumas insidiously sneak into the future.
Remember that you are strong, you are kind, and you are resilient. Find reasons to be vulnerable and afraid. Know that it’s not just ok, but it’s also healthy to feel frustration, pain, loss, and grief on your own terms. Life’s important and natural curves and valleys should never be minimized, nor should they be hidden by the shadows of the past.
We hope that this trip, From Holocaust to Rebirth, is meaningful and energizing for you. We hope that you find within it yet another reason to strengthen your empathetic and critical thinking skills. We hope that you, as brothers, recognize the infinite blessings that you have in each other and that you take advantage of every possible moment to appreciate your permanent and unbreakable bond to the Jewish people. Most importantly, we hope that you know that your great-grandparents are looking down on you and are beaming with joy because it is, in fact, you for whom they survived, and because of the men that you are becoming, you continue to make them, and us, proud every day.
With all our love.