Paula R. Stern – Respect and Honor and Gratitude
Over a decade ago, I went to Poland with Amira, my oldest daughter. So many years later, it still remains (and hopefully always will be), one of the most difficult things I experienced. Days were spent going from one cemetery or concentration camp to another. It was hard to see Poland and its people, for all the dead Jews I felt surrounding me.
It was day after day of tears and despair. Sights no human should ever see – ashes…human ashes, still in ovens where they were burned. You tell yourself that you cannot possibly still smell death more than 70 years later, and yet you do. You feel it to the depths of your heart and you beg God to let you leave. I wanted to go home, back to Israel and my baby daughter and my young sons. But I know that my oldest daughter needed me too (though in the end, I needed her as much, if not more, than she needed me).
Going to Poland for a Jew, for the wife of a man who lost all his grandparents in Auschwitz, for the mother of children named after those who died in that very place or nearby, was agony. First, I wanted to go home with all the ashes, all the bones, all the decimated and desecrated gravestones. At some point, I realized it wasn’t possible; that there isn’t enough place in all of Israel to honor and rebury the remains of over six million Jews (more if you count the tens of thousands of other graves dating back decades and perhaps even centuries.
We got to Warsaw as destroyed as I think human beings can be and yet still breathe. But we were given no rest. They took us to the Warsaw Jewish cemetery. I wanted to crumble; to beg them to let me stay on the bus, or better, take the bus and surrender. I would go back to Israel, gladly admitting that Poland had defeated me, if they would just let me go.
I got off the bus and walked. More graves. More dead Jews. It was never ending. And then I saw an Israeli woman, the wife of Shevach Weiss, Israel’s Ambassador to Poland. She came over to us and explained that she came regularly with a group of Polish Christians to clean the Jewish cemetery. It was so large that it was something close to an impossible task and yet they returned and removed the greenery that covered more and more of the gravestones.
We thanked them for cleaning the graves and felt a bit of sunshine, a touch of hope. In a perfect world, there would have been no Holocaust, no desecrated, abandoned, overgrown Jewish graves in Poland, but it did happen and so the best we could hope for was this small measure of human kindness to our murdered grandparents and great-grandparents. My great grandmother had no grave, nor did my great aunts, but there was comfort to be found knowing that at least these graves were being tended.
It’s been over a decade since that trip. It comes to mind, now and then. Truthfully, it is always there, just a memory that never dims. I can close my eyes and remember almost word for word, what our guide said before taking us into the gas chambers in Auschwitz, in Maidanek. I can see the mass graves at Chelmno and Tarnow.
But it was the image of those Polish Christians cleaning the graves in Warsaw that came to mind when I saw a picture of Vice President Mike Pence helping to clean a Jewish cemetery that was desecrated in the United States.
There is a special kind of decency in this act. Some will call it politics but in Judaism, there is a concept of “Chesed Emet” – true compassion.
It is said that those who show compassion for the dead are showing the purest form because they offer this compassion with no hope of it being returned.
I know that there are those who will say that this could be considered a political opportunity, but I don’t want to believe that. I want to view it as true compassion and not something done for the cameras.
The Poles did not know that we would be visiting that day in Poland so long ago. Perhaps Pence knew he would be photographed; perhaps he even organized it. But it was the honorable thing to do and I respect him for this act of kindness and compassion.
It is an answer, in and of itself. Yes, this is me, says Vice President Mike Pence. I am the Vice President of the United States and I will answer this hatred with love; I will clean and erase the hatred.
I will honor your dead and in doing so, I honor him.
And I pity those who must find the angle, the politics, in this act.
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