On Sept. 1, I had the privilege with 17 other travelers of what turned out to be the trip of a lifetime. Each of us embarked with certain expectations, but none of us could have anticipated either the emotional impact of our pilgrimage – of joy and optimism far more than that of loss and sorrow, or the powerful bonding as a community – as a family, really – where we all felt as if we traveled enthusiastically, happily and seamlessly together.
We embarked on our itinerary of Warsaw, Krakow, Prague, Dresden and Berlin; almost to a person, every member of our group acknowledged that they had not been eager to go on a trip that seemed so serious and, by definition, sad. To a person, every traveler was surprised at how uplifting, joyous, and hopeful the trip turned out to be. It was not in any way a trip about death – it was very much a trip about life. One person said they always pictured Poland as a dark place where the sun never shone, and how delightful it was to find a country where Jewish life is taking root once again and where Krakow, in particular, is a charming, magical city.
On our very first day in Warsaw (straight from the plane), we visited the extraordinary POLIN Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, a place unlike any other museum in the world. It is an experience that shares one thousand years of Jewish life in Poland. Did you know that there was a Golden Age of Polish Jewry? We proudly learned about those years and enjoyed dinner that first night at the Warsaw JCC with its charismatic director and several members.
We did visit Auschwitz and joined together in a memorial service for the murdered victims of that heinous place, but we concluded that day with dinner at the Krakow JCC which filled us with hope and with awe for all that is being accomplished by that nascent Jewish community.
We enjoyed the beauty and magic of Prague. We were moved by Prague’s fascinating Jewish sites, including the Jewish cemetery with the grave of Rabbi Judah Loew, the legendary creator of the Golem.
We were all surprised by Germany, a country in which most of us had never expected to set foot. It is the only country accept-ing responsibility for what happened in the Holocaust and is ad-dressing it honestly, openly, and in an ongoing way. Even though it is a free country, with legally insured personal free-doms, it is illegal in Germany to display or express any kind of Nazi material or to engage in any kind of anti-Semitic behavior. Does that mean there are no anti-Semites in Germany? Of course not. But it is not openly tolerated in Germany.
For me, the ultimate symbol of Germany’s commitment to a different kind of future is in the entrance to the Reichstag, their parliament. As one enters the large, high-ceilinged foyer, up on the right are four panels of abstract art representing Auschwitz, and on the left are three deconstructed panels representing the German flag. There, in the entrance to their highest legislative body is their acknowledgement of their past with the warning that as each legislator enters the chamber of government, they are responsible for ensuring such a horrific crime never occurs again.
Our travelers were quite articulate about what this trip meant to them:
• “It was a trip of a lifetime – moving, memorable and inspiring. The best part of the trip was the bonding of the 18 travelers and this is attributable to the commitment to Jewish learning and sense of spirituality we felt in all of the experiences we shared.”
• “The trip was inspiring, educational, moving and joyful. Our guide and his planning allowed us to understand the history of the Jewish people in Eastern Europe and to understand the rebirth of Judaism in those countries. We were lucky to be able to participate in this adventure.”
• “This trip has made me a better person and a better Jew.”
On the very last night of our trip, we sang our own, “Ode to Joy,” the final stanza of which follows (with apologies to Ludwig Van Bee-thoven):
“We are happy, weary travelers –
An heroic group we’ve been;
Going home with pride and gladness
We’ll say, “Ich war in Berlin.”
Sarah Sager is cantor of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood.