April 24, 2024 #1 Local News, Information and Event Source for the Century City/Westwood areas.

Looking Back, Moving Forward

My tears came at the Western Wall. “Where are they coming from,†I remember asking myself. “Why here? Why now?†Perhaps it was the power of so many people praying together in one place, or the pain of loss, both individual and collective. I’d expected to experience emotion on the historical American Technion Society Mission to Poland and Israel in 2008, but the flood of tears at the Western Wall was more than just emotion, and I didn’t understand it at the time.< ?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

The answer came slowly, when I was ready for it after returning home to Los Angeles, my mind drenched in my memories of memories – gut wrenching, heartbreaking, and enlightening, after weeks of reflection, reading, and discussion. The answer was in my heart, in my entire being, in my family history and the history of the Jewish people. 

            I experienced an incredible journey back to my Jewish roots, my father’s life, and the Holocaust. The Mission and all that went with it – the marvelous historian-guides, my fellow travelers, some of whom had survived the Holocaust as children, visiting places where Jewish culture existed for hundreds of years before being wiped away, the death camps, the renewed signs of Jewish life in Poland today, and Israel and the strength, brainpower and drive of her people, not only increased my passion for Israel, the Technion, and Jewish life, but also launched me into the future with a renewed vow to help ensure that Israel and her people continue to thrive and grow forever. I realized I’d discovered my place in the world, my connection to the Jewish people and that I’d also renewed my bond with my father even though he passed away fifteen years ago.

            I’d planned to take the Mission to Israel last year, and was thrilled when I found out a tour of Poland could be included.  My father, Julius Jonas, was born in < ?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Prague in 1916, but he had lived in Poland and had many family members who lived in the cities of Stanislau and Ivana Puste, now part of Ukraine.

In 1935, when he was 19, my father emigrated from Poland to Palestine, to attend the Technion where he studied aeronautical engineering. As I reflect back, I think of what a brave and adventurous man he was to have made that journey on his own, at such a young age.

My father was not unlike his peers, victims of the Nazis, who wanted to keep silent and live in the present – at least on the surface, and not burden the next generation with painful memories. How I wish he had. The not knowing is a far greater burden. Fortunately, the Mission helped to enlighten me.

            We were welcomed to Poland by our host, ATS National President Joan Seidel. The first part of the trip was a six-day, intense tour of Jewish life, past and present, in Krakow and Warsaw, with many side trips.     

We toured the Old City in Krakow, accompanied by scholar in residence Kostanty Gebert. At the Tempel Synagogue, we learned about pre- and post-war history of Polish Jewry from Gebert. His lecture came alive when we walked through the historical Kazimierz Jewish Quarter, where we visited the oldest synagogue in Poland, the Altshul, as well as the Rema Synagogue, built in 1553 beside the Rema Cemetery. It was a shock to see bullet holes in the intricately engraved headstones and to learn they were the result of target practice by the Nazis.

From the moment we arrived in Krakow we were immersed in Jewish Polish history, including the brutality and cruelty of Nazism, and in present day Jewish life which is imbued with that history.  Feelings I never knew I had were being stirred up.

In the evening we were honored with a private tour of the Galicia Jewish Museum’s exhibit of Chris Schwarz’s photography. Schwarz, a British citizen, who passed away in 2007, developed a partnership with Professor Jonathan Webber which resulted in their project, Traces of Memory.

            “In opening the Galicia Jewish Museum I first wanted people to see the exhibition showing the physical remains of Jewish civilization in the Polish landscape. I wanted people to reflect on the great Jewish culture that thrived here in Poland for 900 years before it was so brutally destroyed,†Schwarz writes in his book Photographing Traces of Memory: A Contemporary View of the Jewish Past in Polish Galicia. 

            That this museum exists at all, is an amazing tribute to Schwarz and to others who work every day to keep the memory of Jewish life alive, and to help ensure its continuation in Poland.

I was struck by Schwarz’s photographs of past Jewish culture – such as the photograph of the entrance to the synagogue in Wielkie Oczy where, before World War II, a community of 500 Jews worshipped, and the photograph of anti-Nazi graffiti on the wall of a Jewish cemetery on Miodowa Street.   Other photographs were very unsettling – the photograph of the Plaszow concentration camp  (where “Schindler’s List†was filmed), to cite a powerful example,  which was built on an old Jewish cemetery, and where one single remaining headstone is left standing like a silent sentry, reminding all who visit what was there before the concentration camp.

After we viewed the photographic exhibit, The Galicia Jewish Museum held a warm reception for our group. A panel discussion, “The Challenge of Preserving the Memory of Jews in Poland,†came next. This challenge, and the fact that Poland was once home to Europe’s largest and most vibrant Jewish population, about three million people, and that 90% of them perished there during the Holocaust, remained in my mind throughout the tour of Poland. http://www.galiciajewishmuseum.org/

            The next day, I thought I was prepared for our trip to Auschwitz. I was wrong. Nothing could have prepared me for such an emotional experience.  I knew the history of the largest Nazi concentration camp and largest Jewish cemetery in the world.  Still, the shock of standing in Auschwitz, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, pristine and cleaned up with green grass and trees all around, was beyond heartbreaking.

We learned that to dull their unbearable hunger, the concentration camp prisoners stripped the land bare, devouring the grass, the leaves from the trees, and even the bark. Auschwitz looked very different from photographs and films I’d seen in the past. But a place of torture, death, and lies will always remain beneath the facade.

            The reality of what took place at Auschwitz became front and center when, the very first thing I saw at the first exhibit we were guided to, was my name, Jonas, on a testimonial document. I stared, unable to look away. Could Siegfried Jonas have been a relative? And if he wasn’t a blood relative, weren’t we still related in some way? If people spoke at all, it was in hushed tones, but inside, I was sobbing.

            I saw many horrific exhibits. Particularly disturbing was a room-size glassed-in exhibit of human hair, masses of it, shaved from Jewish heads and collected for the purpose of stuffing pillows. I remember standing there, staring, trying to comprehend what I was seeing.

When we entered Birkenau Death Camp and walked through the “Sauna,†I felt the eyes of souls watching me. I was suddenly forced to imagine the horror of parents being shot, children ripped away to be machine-gunned in a ditch, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends “deported” to killing centers.

The mood among us was somber, grim faces all around. I was grateful to walk with my fellow ATS travelers, grateful I was not alone. We’ve survived all this, and more, I thought. Jews flourish in the world today, Hitler did not win, but at what cost, such loss. Only the thought of being in Israel the following week eased my pain.

            Despite its history, Krakow is making an effort to bring back Jewish life. We toured a beautiful, new, Jewish Community Center, committed to restoring Judaism in Krakow. Although the JCC needs more Jews to participate, there are at least two hundred in the city now, a number everyone hopes will increase over time.

            From Krakow we took a train to Warsaw to visit sites dedicated to honoring and preserving the memory of Jews before the Holocaust. We attended lectures and met Jewish community leaders. We also had a private session with Victor Ashe, American ambassador to Poland, who described anti-Semitism in Poland today as “… not aggressive, but marginal.â€

The ambassador told us about Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker, who rescued 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto. “Over a half century has passed since the hell of the Holocaust, but its specter still hangs over the world and doesn’t allow us to forget,” Sendler said. In 1965 Sendler was recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations, and in 2007 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It would be wonderful if a play or film about Sendler’s life could be brought to the stage or screen.

At night, in my hotel room, sleeping was difficult. I imagined that the Gestapo would come and take me away even though logic told me otherwise. Sometimes emotions and life-long family stories trump reason, and I felt uneasy for a while before falling asleep. When I told a friend of this experience after returning to Los Angeles, she assured me I couldn’t have been the only one who had those feelings. She’s the daughter of survivors and she, too, had the same feelings while traveling through Germany years ago. This fear must be in our collective DNA. Maybe it’s what keeps us vigilant, and fuels our support for Israel and the survival of Jews around the world.

            We spent the evening, our last in Poland, on an upbeat note at the Beit Warzawa Jewish Cultural Association, Warsaw’s Progressive Jewish Community Center and Congregation. We toured the center, shared dinner, and enjoyed a lively performance by a Klezmer band.

My visit to Poland allowed me a peek into the past, a glimpse of how my father and his relatives must have lived before the war. I left Poland feeling hopeful for the country and its Jewish population. Once, nearly wiped out, it is slowly coming back.

What a warm feeling I had when our plane landed at Ben Gurion Airport and the pilot announced, “Welcome to Israel.†My heart filled up. If I felt this way today, I could only imagine how Jewish pioneers and refugees from Europe must have felt upon their arrivals in Israel over the past century. My fellow travelers on the plane were in good spirits, feeling, I assumed, the way I did – our common bond, unspoken.

            That evening we listened to our Scholar-in-Residence, Professor Paul Liptz, explain the impact of Israel at 60. There was also an interview with mission participant Uri Urmacher, who as a child was one of the emigrants on the ship Exodus 1947. Another survivor told us of his time in Auschwitz when he was a small boy hoping the guards in the tower wouldn’t shoot. He told us that they often shot Jews claiming they were trying to escape, thus entitling the guards to a reward, like a week off. He expressed how good it felt to return years later, and stand in a guard tower, triumphant.

            The following day I selected a tour that took us to Israel’s northern border in the Upper Galilee. For me, it’s not only a place, but the people, that resonates strongly, creating a lasting impression and informing my view of the world. Such a person was Rachel Rabin, Yitzak Rabin’s 83 year old sister who has lived on Kibbutz Manara on the Northern border since 1946. Rabin, a remarkable woman and wonderful storyteller, told us about her family’s life there. She described the difficult position of the Kibbutz along the Lebanese border. She also shared with us the very sad memory of losing a son in combat. She spoke with resignation – this is what we have to sacrifice. Rabin is a symbol of Israel’s strength and perseverance, an inspiration. The image of Rabin and the memory of our visit remain strong.

            The next day we toured the vast Technion campus. I enjoyed seeing a model of the original campus and envisioned my father as a student there. How I wish he could have made this trip with me.

We learned what a valuable asset the Technion is for Israel and why so many people, including myself, wish to nurture its growth and development. Here is the place where innovation in science, medicine and technology is in constant forward motion. The Technion is an example of Israel’s success as a democratic country, one that makes abundant contributions to improving the lives of everyone around the globe.

I enjoyed meeting with Professor Emeritus Ehud Lenz of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, who described what student life was like during my father’s time there.  Although I’d heard stories about the Technion from my father, and have learned much through my involvement with ATS, being on the campus, talking with students and professors, and visiting labs, classrooms and exhibits, made it truly personal. I cherish the memory of being there.

Our next stop held none of the emotions I felt at the Technion and for good reason. What can anyone say about walking through Yad Vashem? With a heavy heart, I toured the complex. I walked the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations with a group of fellow ATS travelers and visited the Children’s Memorial, which was haunting. I’ll never understand where such a volume of hatred came from. One and a half million children perished in the Holocaust, thrown away like yesterday’s newspaper. Memorial candles burned in the darkness of the hollowed out cavern, and in the background we heard the names of the dead children, their ages, and countries of origin being recited. Exiting from the Children’s Memorial into the bright sunlight was surreal.

That afternoon we visited the Jewish Quarter in the Old City where we were guided through a complex of four exquisite Sephardic synagogues located three meters below street level. During renovation work, a stone inscription was found revealing the structures to be 460 years old.

Older still, was the next location we visited, the Western Wall, which has remained intact since 70 C.E. and is the holiest of Jewish sites. I stood in the crowd, close to the Wall, listening to people pray, and the tears came. They are the same tears that surprise me as I write this passage – stored emotions, generations old, pouring from my heart.

On our last day in Israel we met a true inspiration, Maj. Gen. (Res.) Amos Horev, born in Jerusalem in 1924. At the Mahal – Overseas Volunteer (1948) Memorial, Horev, a past president of the Technion, told us of his days commanding units in the battles of Jerusalem and the Negev during Israel’s War of Independence. In jeeps we traveled the Burma Road, the same route Horev took during the Great Siege of 1948, when he and his men kept the road to Jerusalem open. Our time with Horev culminated at the revered Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim Cemetery, where soldiers from Israel’s War of Independence are buried. At the memorial service, we watched three Israeli soldiers solemnly perform music. One woman played the flute; the other two women sang. I was completely taken by them. I remember thinking how very young they seemed, and how their serious faces mirrored pride in Israel and honor for those being remembered.

On our last evening in Israel, at our farewell dinner, I wondered where the time went. My mind was bursting with new knowledge coupled with emotions about all I’d learned and seen. Then there were the wonderful people I’d met and traveled with, including the terrific staff. Even though I planned to return soon, part of me wanted to stay in Israel.

When I returned to Los Angeles, I pored over my father’s many papers and photographs and discovered a letter from Yad Vashem addressed to him in 1971. It acknowledged the “…receipt of four pages of testimony for family members who died in the Holocaust.â€

I emailed Yad Vashem and received an immediate reply directing me to the “Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names†on their website, where I quickly located the scanned copies of the four pages.  It was a shock to see my father’s handwriting on the pages of testimony and another shock to learn the names of his four uncles – Geniu, Ignatz, Herman and Mier Birkenfeld, all murdered between 1940 and 1942 by Polish peasants.

By submitting the testimonials, my father left a legacy to me and future generations.  I will honor that legacy by learning as much as I can about Geniu, Ignatz, Herman and Mier Birkenfeld.  

It’s a miracle that the names of the victims of the Shoah have been gathered from around the world to be remembered and memorialized forever so that everyone can access this information for generations to come, so that we never forget.*

As a result of the Mission, I’ve become more focused on what’s important in my life and the lives of the Jewish people around the world. I also have some new missions to pursue – such as helping Jewish women in Russia receive gifts of Torahs and other items stolen from them during the Soviet regime; tracing my mother’s Russian family roots; encouraging someone to bring Irena Sendler’s life to the stage or screen; doubling my effort to ensure that Israel and the Technion thrive, and, of course, encouraging everyone to travel to Israel.


*To search for Shoah victims or to provide testimony, go to: http://www1.yadvashem.org/remembrance/temp_remembrance/temp_index_remembrance_how_to_search.html)


About the writer: Judy Jonas is a retired technical writer in Los Angeles with a passion for Israel, the Technion and Jewish enrichment around the world.

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