The Poland I was Reluctant to See

  • Magda Dorosz

September 15, 2017

  • ROI Community

Magda Dorosz works for Hillel International, building the organization's presence in Poland.​ She recently joined with other members of the ROI Community as they toured her native Poland. She reflects on her experience below. 

On Monday, August 21, I embarked on a journey with 25 ROIers from 9 different countries to discover the past and present of Jewish life in Poland. As I live in Poland and work for the Jewish community, I wanted to serve as the voice of today’s Jewry in Poland and share my perspective on what’s going on today.

The goal I set for myself was to explain Polish Jewish history beyond what people normally hear about 1945 and the Holocaust. In Poland, we live among the terrible history and atrocities of the WWII. My office is located in the very same space where the Great Synagogue of Warsaw used to stand until 1943. But we also live with the memory of thousands of years of Jewish existence in Poland. The culture, the literature, the music, the cinematography, the theatre, the newspapers….

Today, we are working tirelessly to rebuild what has been so tragically destroyed.

When visiting Poland, the concentration camps are the main part of most trips’ curriculum, especially for Jewish groups. Myself, I had visited the camps’ sites a few times for different commemorative events before this ROI trip.

Before now, I never had the chance to have a real tour and learn about all of the atrocities. I think I rejected the idea of people killing other people in such cruel ways. So, I have visited before, but I wasn't really there, I was disconnected from the place and its terrible past, even though, on the cognitive level, I know its history.

When the idea of the ROI trip came about, I decided it was the right time and right group of people, regardless of the fact that before the trip I knew just 3 people, to participate and learn. I knew that it would be a comfortable atmosphere to experience something so indescribably uncomfortable. 

Was I expecting what happened over the 6-day journey? Not in my wildest dreams!

A few days after the trip, I’m still not sure if I can find the right words to describe our experience.

Bringing together young adults from different walks of life, different backgrounds and most of all, different Jewish stories and creating a cohesive group in such a short time, was a challenge on its own. To top it off with presenting the difficult history of Jewish life and, ultimately, death while still giving people hope and passion for the future, seemed impossible.

Zohar Avigdori, our amazing guide and educator, achieved that goal. And much more. We came on the trip as strangers, we left as family and friends. Over the 6 days we held discussions, we argued and laughed together.

We touched on so many different topics: morality, choices, psychological ways of undermining other people, dehumanization of the world, anti-Semitism, Jewish identity, Israel and Diaspora, our engagement and dedication to places where we live, future of Jewish communities, resistance and resilience.

Every discussion, every question asked, left us pondering for hours, discussing and arguing whenever we could.

Personally, for me, the hardest part of the trip was visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. Being there before and seeing all the sites, I knew what to expect from the itinerary but I didn’t know what to expect on an emotional level. The place changes when you look at it as it was: place of mass murder, very cruel murder, of millions of people.

I walked through the gate of Birkenau being afraid that what I was about to experience would actually influence my own perception of today’s Polish Jewish life and alter the perception of my work.

How is one supposed to visit the site and leave unchanged?

I had to face questions about morality and the meaning of life, all just 10 days after my grandfather’s passing. Being right there, where countless lives, stories, communities perished, was an extremely emotional experience.

How can one become so removed from humanity that killing others becomes a daily routine? I probably will never understand the answer to that question. How can one walk away from Auschwitz-Birkenau and still have hope and believe in the good in this world? That was the biggest dilemma for me.

We left grey and gloomy Birkenau troubled and shaken by all the atrocities that we saw.

Then, we visited Auschwitz.

Sun came out. It brought the green trees and grass more vividly to our eyes.

By that time, we were all drained from the previous experience. Also, visiting Birkenau when no one was there, was a different experience. I was struck by the absence. In a literal meaning, the absence of buildings, but also the absence of people. People who perished there.

Auschwitz, on the other hand, was alive. With all the tourists, kids running around and plenty of groups it felt much more removed from its horrible past.

At the end of the day, we commemorated all those who perished, including our families and families of our friends with the words of Kaddish. We left with even more questions than we had before.

Two days later, we celebrated Shabbat together as one big family. Regardless of our nationalities and countries we live in, we all sang the same songs and we all shared a very special evening with other Jewish communities spread around the world. Being there together, celebrating Jewish life, smiling, laughing, telling stories gave me hope and a feeling of strength among us.

This trip allowed us to dwell on the biggest tragedies in the history of the Jewish people, but at the very same time, presented us with a glimpse of the rebirth and rebuilding of lost and decimated communities, as is the case for Polish Jewry.

I am very happy and proud to be part of the ongoing process of rebuilding a community.

I faced the fears I had when entering Birkenau, and today I am even more committed to continuing the work we do—bringing more and more Jewish people into the fold of Jewish tradition. It is a challenge, sometimes a struggle, but a very rewarding one.

After 6 super intensive days, the group left Warsaw and we all returned to our daily routines. At first, after such a strong and powerful experience, my reality seemed very surreal.

But now, we are all in the midst of preparing for the upcoming holidays, and again, we wil all share the same traditions regardless of where our home is. We will laugh, we will gather together with our families, we will continue to tell the stories from our history.

For me, that is the ultimate victory over the Nazis. 

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or all program participants.