This summer, as a way to bring the community together and encourage discussion, Temple Israel is hosting a series of guest speakers during Friday night services. The speakers come from a wide range of ages and experiences, from young women still in high school to some of the more … let’s say “mature” members of the congregation, and while these experiences differ, each speaker has at least one thing in common: Temple Israel.
As the congregation prepares to move next year to the new building at Sterling Ridge, this summer seemed like a good time to bring members together to share their memories of their lives at the Cass Street building. And while the first session of the Summer Speaker Series wasn’t about the building itself, Temple Israel played an important role nonetheless. After all, what good is a building without its people?
This past April, high school students Laura Gilinsky, Sydney Robinson, Caroline Rockman, Rachel Sullivan and Lindsey Thomas joined thousands of other teenagers from around the world as they embarked on the March of the Living, an annual pilgrimage that many young Jews make to concentration camps in Poland, where they participate in a march from Auschwitz to Birkenau in remembrance of the millions lost to the Holocaust.
Last week the girls spoke to the congregants about their experiences at the camps and shared photos of their journey.
“I feel like it’s my responsibility, and our responsibility, to encourage all high school juniors and seniors to put this on your bucket list and make sure it happens,” said Sydney Robinson, whose grandfather, Sam Fried, is a Holocaust survivor.
[A slideshow of photographs taken by Laura Gilinsky, Sydney Robinson, Caroline Rockman, Rachel Sullivan and Lindsey Thomas on their March of the Living trip in April 2012.]
I was particularly struck by the images of eyeglasses and shoes, thousands of discarded eyeglasses and shoes, piled up like so much garbage, each representing a life lost in that awful place. The sheer magnitude of death, as illustrated by such ubiquitous items that we on a daily basis take for granted, was staggering. Overwhelming, even. For photographs to be able to elicit such strong emotions, thousands of miles from where they were taken, I can only imagine how powerful of an experience it truly was for these girls, and the thousands of others who were there with them.
Laura Gilinsky seemed to choke up as she described a scene toward the end of their time in Poland, at Treblinka, in which a choir that had gone on the trip, volunteered to sing:
“They sang the song from The Prince of Egypt, ‘There Can Be Miracles,’ and at the end of them singing a butterfly flew in front of them. There were these yellow butterflies on this beautiful day in Treblinka, which you think is unfitting, but it was … everybody stopped and gasped.”
Laura then read a poem, which she said someone told them about afterward, called “The Butterfly,” which I’ve posted below. It was written by a man named Pavel Friedman, who was imprisoned at Thereisenstadt, a concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic in 1942. He was later deported to Auschwitz, where he died, and his poem was found after the camps were liberated.
“The Butterfly,” by Pavel Friedman
The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzling yellow.
Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing
against a white stone …
Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly ‘way up high.
It went away I’m sure because it wished to
kiss the world good-bye.
For seven weeks I’ve lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto.
But I have found what I love here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut branches in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.
That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don’t live in here,
in the ghetto.
[Laura Gilinsky, Sydney Robinson, Caroline Rockman, Rachel Sullivan and Lindsey Thomas discuss their experiences on the March of the Living at Temple Israel on June 1, 2012]
I joke that every Jewish holiday basically follows three main tenets: They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat. And while some may consider it flippant, I believe the same holds true for the Holocaust, and, indeed, should be the motto of the Jewish people: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.”
This sentiment seems to have been echoed by Trudy, the Survivor who accompanied this year’s group on the March. Laura Gilinsky called Trudy “the strongest, sweetest old woman you have ever met.” Laura recalled the old woman’s words to those teens who had broken down in tears while touring Auschwitz: “It’s okay. We won. They didn’t win. You don’t have to cry. We’re still here.”
And she’s right. We are still here. In the face of everything done to us over hundreds and thousands of years, we’re still here. The March of the Living, which coincides with Yom Hashoah, is about more than a remembrance of the dead. It’s a celebration of our continued existence.