A few years ago I went on a weeklong trip to Poland with Aish Hatorah, along with over 100 Jews and three Holocaust survivors. I knew this might be my last opportunity to hear live testimony from this dark period of Jewish history. But I wasn’t sure how the stories would impact my life or perspective.
The three incredible survivors accompanied us from site-to-site, sharing bits of their family histories and their personal stories. They recounted the horrendous ordeals they endured and of the righteous people and surreal circumstances that saved them. The details they recalled were at once horrifying and inspiring. But standing at each site, willing myself to understand the full reality of their experiences on that same soil, was a painfully overwhelming experience.
Then we visited Chelmno, the “forgotten camp”, and our guide drew our attention to the bone fragments scattered beneath our feet. Thousands of bodies were exterminated there but some bones still remained—the dead were still there with us, both physically and spiritually.
In a ritual at once spiritual, symbolic, and seemingly necessary, we all searched the site for these fragments, coming together to bury the bits of bones we could find.
Honouring these faceless, nameless people in a small, physical way hit me with pure visceral emotion. I was so overwhelmed with the devastation and beauty in the ritual, I had no space to intellectualize the history where we stood. I was simply there; one with the past, present and the future.
This is part of a series called, Small Glimpses into the Past, where we see mini-reflections on impactful moments that have changed certain perspectives on life. You can send your submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Header image design by Orly Zebak.
Rebecca Ostroff is a Toronto-based playwright, actor and producer. Her personal essays and other writing have been published in a variety of publications, including the Globe And Mail. She is also very into meditation, dance, hiking and yoga. She is fascinated by Jewish spirituality and the diversity of perspectives within the Canadian Jewish community.