Jewish Roots and Teachings
Journey into Eastern Europe Jewry
By Mara Frisch - YMJA Ministries Director
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your G-d... Isaiah 40:1
Armed with this directive from G-d, nine young adults chose to spend their summer comforting Holocaust survivors and listening to their stories. This past July, the YMJA (Young Messianic Jewish Alliance) took a two-week ministry trip to Eastern Europe, where we partnered with Stewart and Chantal Winograd of Reach Initiative International (RII), who hosted and led our group. What transpired during this trip was something that can only be described as life-changing for our participants, who now all have the phrase,“Never Forget,” cemented in their minds and hearts.
Preparing Our Hearts
First, we gathered in Atlanta, GA for three days of intense training and preparation. The young adults came from Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Florida, Ohio, and Illinois to participate. During the training, participants attended classes including “Jewish European History,” “A Servant’s Heart,” “Where is G-d in Pain & Suffering,” and more. Speakers included Rabbi David Schneier, who has been intimately involved with Eastern European Jewish life, and Dr. Ben Voth of Southern Methodist University, who spent two summers working with survivors at the United States Holocaust Museum. The goal of the training was to provide a foundation for our young adults and to prepare them emotionally, academically, and spiritually for the trip ahead.
It was impossible not to be saddened by the reminder of “what once was.”
We first arrived in Krakow, Poland, where we stayed in Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter. It was impossible not to be saddened by the reminder of “what once was.” There were remnants of two synagogues that had only been spared because Nazis used them to house their uniforms and horses. There was a Jewish cemetery, where the graves had been demolished by the Nazis. After the war, the headstones had been pieced back together but had been placed above grave sites that may or may not have corresponded to the headstones.
It was difficult to walk along cobblestone streets that carried so much history. However, on that first day, we saw a beautiful reminder that G-d keeps His promises, even in the midst of tragedy: a rainbow (see photo).
Not far from our hotel was the site of the former Krakow Ghetto. Very few reminders of the Ghetto life remained including several sculptures on the square, an area where Jewish people were forced to stand for roll call and where many died on “liquidation day.”
A pharmacy building still stood that carried historical significance. During the war, the owners helped Jewish people acquire food, medicine, and false documents. It was difficult to imagine how much pain and injustice people had endured in that space while seeing the present-day apartment buildings and businesses inhabited with life.
Though I saw it with my own eyes, my mind could not comprehend how human beings could do this to other human beings.
On Saturday, July 26, we woke up very early to drive to Auschwitz, which was about an hour outside of Krakow. Auschwitz is actually separated into two camps, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau II. It was surreal walking through the gates with the infamous saying, “Arbeit Macht Frei.” And yet, there was an unmistakable beauty within that awful place: enormous willow trees, a pleasant cool breeze, sunshine. I wanted to hate it—all of it-- but I couldn’t ignore the eerie beauty I saw around me.
Our tour guide calmly guided us through horrific sites including an area where thousands and thousands of personal items (hairbrushes, eye glasses, suitcases) lay to waste. At one point, we were led silently through a gas chamber and crematorium. Though I saw it with my own eyes, my mind could not comprehend how human beings could do this to other human beings.
The second camp in Auschwitz looked more like I expected a camp to look—barren and bleak. There were railroad tracks running through the center of the camp and a platform parallel to the tracks. I could almost see the Nazi soldiers standing on the platform, dictating people’s fate with the turn of a thumb. Not far from the end of the platform were remnants of the crematoriums and gas chambers, which the Nazis bombed just before liberation, attempting to destroy the evidence. Many people were gathered around that area, apparently finding solace in the destruction. I didn’t feel comforted; the only peace I could find anywhere in that place was to look to G-d.
Our group took a few minutes to say the Mourners’ Kaddish and to pray in Auschwitz. We prayed for Israel, who is in the midst of a devastating conflict with Hamas. We prayed for Jewish people in Europe, who have recently been targeted by blatant acts of anti-Semitism. It’s horrific to think that there are still signs of anti-Semitism in the world today.
During our last day in Krakow, we visited Schindler’s Factory, which has been turned into a fascinating museum. It was nice to end our time in Poland in a place where a righteous Gentile took a stand against Nazism and saved 1,200 Jewish people during the Holocaust.
During the second portion of our trip, we traveled to Belarus, which is part of the former Soviet Union. I think I can genuinely speak for each member of our group in that we anticipated going to Belarus to serve, but were overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and hospitality that the wonderful people of Belarus showed to us. Immediately upon arriving, we met a group of congregants from Brit Chadasha, one of four Messianic synagogues planted in Belarus by Stewart and Chantal Winograd.
These people took care of us throughout our stay in Belarus by driving, cooking, interpreting, and helping us with many other practical needs. It was hard to understand, at first, why the Belarusians were showing so much love to us, but we realized that the joy and love that poured out from these people was fueled by their love for Yeshua, who had transformed their lives.
On our first day in Belarus, our team split up into groups of two to three and went to visit individual survivors in their homes. Stewart and Chantal, along with members of their congregation, have been serving the survivors for years, which is what made it possible for us to go into their homes and meet with them.
We thought that we were going to comfort these survivors by bringing them food and gifts and listening to their stories. However, almost all of the survivors that our group visited, most of whom were in their 80’s and 90’s, welcomed us into their modest apartments with home-cooked food and tea. They were so excited to meet young Americans and were eager to tell us their stories.
The dog would let out this low whimper, alerting Ludmilla and her family to hide.
Through these visits, we learned of the brutality of life in the Minsk Ghetto, which some survivors said was even worse than what they experienced in the camps. We also heard many stories of miraculous survival. One woman, Ludmilla, told us how after she escaped from the Ghetto, she stayed with a family in hiding. The family had a dog that had an incredible ability to tell when a German solider was seven to ten kilometers away. The dog would let out this low whimper, alerting Ludmilla and her family to hide. This is just one of the many incredible stories of survival. Each of us had the opportunity to visit four to five survivors.
Leonid’s vivid stories, such as watching his own family members be murdered, allowed us to visualize some of the horror that took place there.
One day, we walked through what used to be the Minsk Ghetto, which was right in the center of downtown Minsk. The Minsk Ghetto was one of the largest in Europe, and close to 100,000 Jewish people lived there. Overall, Belarus lost 800,000 Jewish people during the Holocaust.
Leonid Rubinshtein, an 87-year-old survivor, took us on a walking tour through the ghetto. Like the Krakow Ghetto, not much remained from that period of time except for a small memorial. However, Leonid’s vivid stories, such as watching his own family members be murdered, allowed us to visualize some of the horror that took place there.
Leonid was passionate about telling us as many details of his story as time allowed, even when it caused him to tear up. He explained that for as long as he lives, he will talk about what happened to him in the hope that it will help prevent the Holocaust from ever happening again. Then, Leonid turned to us, pleading with us to tell his story, making sure people understood what happened to the Belarusian Jews. He told us that his hope is in us, carrying on these stories to future generations. I know that each of us will remember the sincerity and weight of what Leonid shared with us.
At the end of the week, we had the opportunity to attend a special banquet organized by Stewart, Chantal, and their team for about twenty-five Holocaust survivors, who were a part of the Holocaust Survivors Association of Belarus. It was incredible to be in a room with these courageous people, who chose to spend their time speaking of the trauma they endured for the simple reason of wanting it to never happen again.
In addition to meeting with Holocaust survivors, we were also able to participate in other kinds of ministry throughout our trip. One day, we visited a children’s cancer hospital, where we were able to bring gifts to about 40 children who are currently battling cancer. We were able to pray for many of these children. One boy, who was kept in isolation in preparation for a bone marrow transplant, told us that it had always been his dream to come to America and he was so happy to meet nine Americans! We also visited another children’s hospital, an infectious disease hospital for orphans, and an orphanage for children with disabilities.
A highlight of our trip was attending Shabbat services at Brit Chadashah. There was an indescribable amount of joy and love in the sanctuary that can only be understood as coming from G-d. I have never danced the way I danced in Belarus or felt such kinship with people whom I didn’t share a language.
Our team was also touched by the fact that though we came and visited Holocaust survivors, orphans and children for a week, the members of the congregation visit and take care of these precious people on a weekly basis. It was such a privilege to become a part of such a special community for the short time that we were in Belarus.
We Will Never Forget
Overall, I think I speak for our entire group in promising to do our part in order to spread Holocaust awareness and tell the stories of the survivors whom we met. I feel that each of us will continue to process and reflect upon our experiences in the coming weeks and months and, hopefully, creative avenues will come forth as a response.
Quotes from some of our young adults:
“God convicted me that I can’t be a bystander to the anti-Semitism, injustice and hate going on around me and across the world.”
“The trip made me realize that serving someone by doing things that may seem ‘small’ or insignificant is still serving. One doesn't need to have a huge plan to be a servant.”
“My life will never be the same. When I was serving with the believers in Belarus, I saw a type of love for G-d that I have never experienced before. I want this love to transform both me and the body of believers in America.”
The Young Messianic Jewish Alliance (YMJA) is a nationally recognized Messianic Jewish youth organization for young people, ages 13-30 and exists to challenge Messianic young people to passionately follow Yeshua our Messiah! As a branch of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA), the YMJA is the youth arm of the largest association of Messianic Jewish believers in the world. The YMJA was formed in 1967 when young adults came together to express their Jewish identity and faith in the Messiah. Their zeal and enthusiasm led the YMJA to play an important role in the development of today’s Messianic Jewish movement.
Today, the YMJA is a vibrant organization and has expanded its vision and ministry to serve teens, college & career-aged young adults, Messianic youth leaders & youth workers, and singles. The YMJA offers regional youth-only retreats, youth programs at MJAA regional conferences, a week-long youth conference at the MJAA national Messiah conference, international ministry trips, leadership training opportunities, and more.
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