In March 2019 I had the opportunity of a lifetime to travel to Israel with Birthright Israel and visit Yad VaShem. After experiencing Israel firsthand through this trip, I know how rare opportunities like this must be. However, I’m writing now not to focus so much on my Birthright Israel trip but about what I learned during our visit to Yad VaShem.
My entire Birthright Israel trip was emotional from day one until the last when we visited Yad VaShem and then the Wailing Wall (The Kotel/Western Wall). This day brought out strong emotions of mine but to explain them I’ll need to begin with my family’s story.
My father’s family is Ashkenazi and immigrated to the United States from Poland, Romania and Russia decades ago. My great-grandfather Louis, who was the first to immigrate was a young married man in Poland with a daughter, my great Aunt Rose. He decided before World War 1 to move to the US to avoid being drafted into the Polish army. During this time, Jews in Eastern Europe lived in shtetl’s and often times were victims of pogroms and violence. My great-grandfather Louis wanted one thing, for his family to be safe and to have a better life here. Right before the rest of his family arrived, he received a tragic letter from my great-grandmother in which she explained to him that she had been raped by a soldier during the war. In shock and beside himself, he gathered what little money he had and sent for his wife, daughter, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law. It took my grandfather five years to save up enough money to bring his family over. Being fortunate enough to escape Europe at this time saved their lives and continued the Klareich family line in America.
As many of us are all too familiar with, shortly after my family arrived in the United States, World War 2 broke out and an attempt to eliminate all Jewish people began. To this day, all my family knows is that besides those who made it here, a distant cousin may have made Aliyah, but for the rest, they were murdered in Auschwitz.
The same can be said for my grandmother’s side…
And this is what brings me to present day and why a visit to Yad VaShem with Birthright Israel was so important and of course emotional. Upon entering Yad VaShem, we were greeted by Alice, our tour guide and a descendant of a Holocaust survivor. Alice gave us all headsets so we could be sure to hear all her commentary throughout the tour. The videos, images, and readings were immensely difficult to listen to and see, but what really got me were the anecdotes and history Alice conveyed as we walked about.
I knew a lot about the Holocaust from public high school, Hebrew school, and my own personal research, but even with this knowledge, Yad VaShem’s archives surpassed anything I had known before. Watching videos, the Nazi’s took of our people being tricked into digging their own graves over and over again or images of Jews being turned away from most countries post-Holocaust, including America, was harder to swallow. As my Birthright Israel group got halfway through, Alice explained that the Nazis used the hair from murdered Jews for their pillows and their teeth as dentures.
At this point, my tears began as I thought to myself about how my family was not only unjustly murdered with no funeral or grave, but their hair and teeth were used as mundane parts of a Nazi’s life.
On a more personal note, Alice then began to share her grandmother’s story. She explained that she felt her whole ancestry and history were erased, that the Nazi’s had completely wiped out everything; not only her family but her sense of genealogy and legacy was lost. After Alice said those words, I broke down; I couldn’t hold anything back. I sat there as the group started to move to another part of the museum with Alice and the Israeli security guard comforted me.
Unfortunately, my family’s story of tragedy and survival is all too common in the Jewish community. Most young Jews in America can retell something very similar. The light at the end of the tunnel for me was the final part of the museum. I felt like yes, we did go through one of the darkest moments in history, but the Nazi’s did not win, I am proof of that, we are all proof of that. Being on Birthright Israel is proof of our community’s strength! No matter what happens to the Jewish people, we always remain strong.
As our visit to Yad VaShem was concluding, our tour educator, Chaim, said that he was going to Poland and visiting Auschwitz the following week. He suggested that I write a letter to my family that died there, and he would bury the letter at Auschwitz so that I could have some closure. I really could not have asked for a more generous and empathetic tour educator while on Birthright Israel.
The time my group spent at Yad Vashem was cleansing and healing for me. I was able to purge a lot of sadness, fear, resentment, and hate towards the loss of my family. I came out a different person, now able to move on, and I will ensure that future generations of my family will Never Forget.