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JUF leads interfaith trip to Poland.

Unfolded arms

AETravelPoland image
Torah scroll and Judaica for sale at Warsaw antique store. Photo credit: Dan Goldwin.

The Jewish community has long understood the danger of folded arms in the face of evil. One of the goals for a recent interfaith mission to Poland was to help our Christian friends and neighbors to understand it, too.    

In August, I was among 10 Jewish professionals honored to participate in a mission to Poland with 29 Christian leaders representing nearly every major Christian denomination. The trip was led by JUF's Rabbinic Scholar Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko and the Very Rev. Dominic Barrington, Dean of St. James Cathedral in Chicago.  Rabbi Poupko designed the trip to teach about the origins, evolution, and ultimate destruction of European Jewry.  

The day before the organized trip began, I had a taste of the emotions we would face as we toured a country that was home to 3 million murdered Jews.

Two colleagues and I entered an antique shop in Warsaw's Old Town, in which we found a display of antique Judaica.  As I gazed at the display, I couldn't help but wonder what had happened to the items' original owners. Then I gasped: On the top shelf stood a Torah scroll.  Where did it come from?  Where was its synagogue?  Are you kidding me?  Those were just some of the questions that tormented me, then and now.

The next day, Rabbi Poupko explained that when he finds such orphaned Torah scrolls, he buys them and either has them repaired and given to synagogues in need or disposes of them with appropriate dignity. My colleagues and I vowed to follow his example, only to find the store was closed, and wouldn't reopen until after we had left Warsaw.  

My failure to act when I first saw the Torah haunts me.

Whenever I've considered the Nazi death camps, I imagined they were loud, dirty, and dark, which is why the site of Treblinka-the only death camp solely dedicated to killing Jews and Jews alone-also continues to haunt me.

Treblinka operated for a mere 15 months in 1942-43 and was the setting for approximately 900,000 murders.  But if you go there now, there is nothing left from those hellacious months; the Nazis destroyed the camp to hide their crimes. What you see now is a pastoral setting in the woods. Visitors must imagine what it looked, sounded, and felt like for those who were killed there.

I looked up at the towering pine trees that encircled the camp, closed my eyes, and listened as the breeze whistled through their narrow branches.  Did mothers carrying their babies, or sisters leading their brothers to the gas chambers hear that same whistle? Did they look up at these same pines and question how such hate and horror could be at home in this idyllic setting?

My mind wandered to a similar place later that day when we gathered in a clearing in the middle of a forest near the town Tykocin, where 700 Jews were shot dead on August 26, 1941.  We recited the Mourner's Kaddish together with 100 Israeli teens who happened to arrive just as we did. Again, I looked up at the graceful, slender pines, listened as the wind whistled through them, and wondered what those 700 were thinking as they were marched to their deaths.

Did the Christian mission participants have the same visceral experience as they thought about the towns' silent witness of this evil? 

Rev. Dr. Myron McCoy, Senior Pastor at First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple, answers my question by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a social media post about the trip:  "He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetuate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it." 

Daniel Goldwin is the executive director of Public Affairs for the Jewish United Fund of Chicago.


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