Participants of Mizrachi’s 2022 Journey to Poland and Lithuania standing outside the building where Mizrachi was founded in Vilna 120 years earlier.

Time Traveling to My Roots: A Trip to Never Forget

BY ED STELZER

Have you ever wondered what life was like for your grandparents or great-grandparents? What if you could travel back in time to breathe the air they breathed, feel the glory of their triumphs and painful agonies of their losses? Would you do it? Last month, I did just that. Well, almost – I came as close as I could without a science-fiction time travel machine.

Together with Jews from around the world, I recently ventured to Lithuania and Poland, the land of my ancestors, on a life-altering journey coordinated by World Mizrachi. The trip was led by Jeremy Kurnedz, World Mizrachi senior board member and Executive Director of Midreshet HaRova, Rav David Milston, Rosh HaMidrasha at Midreshet HaRova, and Rav Doron Perez, Executive Chairman of World Mizrachi. None of them call themselves scholars of the Shoah, yet they are that in spades.

We didn’t just visit the places where millions of our ancestors resided and later perished, we lived in their stories, walked in their footsteps, and could literally smell the bitter tang of their finality even to this day. They came back to life when we sang and swayed to their songs of heartbreak, danced joyously to their vibrant niggunim, and, most poignantly, they lived on when we learned the Torah they left behind. From a place of darkness, we saw a vision of the future. 

Over eight gut-wrenching days, we visited Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Majdanek. We spent a frozen evening in the hideouts of partisan fighters. We said a collective kaddish at landmarks of utter destruction like the town of Jedwabne, where Jews were corralled by their neighbors into a locked barn and incinerated by fire. We walked in silence to the Łopuchowo Forest, where Jews were gunned down, naked, en masse, into pits of death. We honored the lives of mothers, fathers, and children of all faiths and backgrounds, and felt the pride of Jewish resistance as we concluded our trip in the shadows of the Warsaw Ghetto.

But this trip was not only about the Shoah. We were also transported back to the shtetls, yeshivot, and kevarim of the lost world of Torah and Chassidut that thrived before the Holocaust. We learned daf yomi at Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin, where the seeds of the daf were planted by Rabbi Meir Shapiro. We davened, danced, and sang at the tziyun of Rav Elimelekh of Lizensk, and were immersed in the Torah of the Vilna Gaon, the Piaseczner Rebbe, and the Rema.

Throughout the trip, we also traced the roots of the State of Israel. In an incredible moment, we stood at the exact spot in Vilnius where seventy Religious Zionist delegates gathered 120 years ago and founded the Mizrachi movement as part of the World Zionist Organization. Rav Perez led a moving tekes illustrating how far the Mizrachi movement evolved from 1902 and what it means to Israel and the world today.

The trip was also profoundly personal. When asked why I came on this journey, I reflexively responded in the Yiddish that I learned in my household growing up: “ich bin a Poylisher Yid, I am a Jew of Polish lineage.” At one point I visited the first home of my dad, who passed away when I was a boy, to try and get a glimpse of the childhood of the father I hardly knew. His house still stands, but it is no longer a home. Later in the trip, I was finally able to truly understand the story my mother used to tell me of when she was a young girl with rats biting at her neck as she lay afraid in the still night of her labor camp barracks. 

And throughout, I cried. I cried in anger, unable to comprehend how such evil could propagate for so long. I cried in disbelief, at the sacrifices and unfathomable decisions mothers and fathers had to make so their children could live. I cried out wondering what I would have been like had I been alive at that time. I cried for the childhood my parents lost. I cried for the family I never knew or who were never born. And in some small way, by standing where they lived, fought, escaped, and survived, I touched the neshamot of my family tree. And my tears stand as testimony to a love I never knew but now hold close to my heart.

Yes, I time-traveled. Viscerally living and breathing our collective past ensures that we will never forget, and relying on the bright future of Am Yisrael enables us to assert with confidence: never again.

 

Ed Stelzer builds startup businesses in regulated industries out of a NYC-based venture capital fund and advises Jewish non-profits on how to grow and scale.

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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