Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

5 Iyar 5762 - April 17, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Poland Comes to Life

by M. Levy

The buses stopped at the entrance to the Ramo's beis knesses in Cracow. Hundreds of people streamed out and stepped inside with great awe, walking directly to the seat where the Ramo prayed 450 years ago. Above his seat is a small engraved sign, worn with age, testifying to the fact that here the Ramo poured his heart and soul out before the Borei Olom.

This scene did not take place 60 or 70 years ago when Poland was full of Jews with yiras Shomayim, Chassidim and anshei maaseh, but just two months ago in Adar, when thousands of Jews from Israel, joined by many others from the United States and Europe, came to Poland to pray at the gravesites of tzadikim, particularly in light of the grave state of affairs in which the Jewish people find themselves.

The departure date coincided with the yahrtzeit of the No'am Elimelech of Lizhansk ("Lezajsk" according to a modern atlas), but the series of flights carrying thousands of passengers began two days earlier.

Akiva Lachish Tours, a leading chareidi and religious travel company, began flying Jews to Lizhansk and other sites in Poland 19 years ago. At first only a few dozen passengers ventured, but gradually the trickle turned into a torrent and now several thousand travelers make the trip each year.

Director R' Shlomo Schlissel, who has vast experience organizing trips to kivrei tzadikim, says this year several different options were available to the public, ranging from 12-hour jaunts to 4-day excursions, which include guided tours and visits to Auschwitz and Birkenau as well as visits to gravesites in Hungary and Slovakia such as that of the Chasam Sofer in Pressburg.

The Departure

This reporter was among the thousands of travelers who returned from the trip full of memories and spiritual experiences reminiscent of life in Poland 100 years ago.

On the other hand it was hard to bear the sight of the ruins of vibrant Jewish communities that led full lives of Torah and mitzvos less than a century ago: empty botei knesses and desecrated cemeteries with no gravestones.

Even before departure we were greeted by an unconventional sights. Hundreds of chareidim filled the departure terminal, waiting for the El Al charter flight to Cracow. Among the passengers were Jews from all walks of life: young and old, Chassidim and Litvish, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and Mizrachi. Some wore beards and some were beardless. Some parents even brought their children along.

A jumbo jet carrying all chareidi passengers is an unusual event, even for El Al. Soon the plane, flying in the early morning hours, was transformed into a flying beis knesses. Various minyanim formed, each with a nusach of its own. The flight attendants were left with nothing to do but stare at a sight they had never witnessed, and would probably never see again.

Excitement mounted as we approached the country whose Jews -- simple folk as well as tzadikim and gedolei Torah -- were obliterated 55 years ago. In order to invoke images of the Poland of yesteryear among the passengers, copies of Al Hatzadikim Ve'al Hechassidim, a book specially produced by Akiva Lachish Tours, were handed out.

The Arrival

Soon Poland came into view and passengers gazed out the windows at its soil, drenched with so much Jewish blood over the ages. Upon arrival dozens of numbered buses and minibuses stood waiting outside and each traveler was directed to a different bus, depending on the length of the trip selected: one-day, two-day and three- day trips; tours of gravesites in Northern Poland and other tours to Southern Poland; trips that included visits to concentration camps and trips that omitted them.

All of the buses were scheduled to rendezvous in Lizhansk to pray at the grave of the No'am Elimelech on his yahrtzeit.


A visit to Auschwitz is almost impossible to describe in words. Dozens of books about what happened there are nothing compared to the impression made by actually seeing the site. Hearing and reading is entirely different from seeing with your own two eyes. All of the stories and the horrors laid out in plain sight, from the famous sign at the gate reading, "Arbeit macht frei" [work is liberating] to the gas chambers and the crematoria where hundreds of thousands of Jews - - men, women and children, were sent to their deaths with Shema Yisroel on their lips.

The on-site tour made a powerful impression on the entire group, as chills of horror gripped them and tears flowed down their cheeks. Here we were walking amidst the deathbeds of hundreds of thousands of holy Jews. We walked single-file into one structure after another. Everything had been preserved just as it was on the day the Germans left the camp. Hundreds of displays are visible, horrifying spectacles in a place that has become a museum, testimony for generations to come of the tragedy and suffering the Jewish people underwent at the hands of the Nazi beast.

One large room houses thousands of pairs of shoes confiscated by the Germans. The next one, eyeglasses, followed by bags and suitcases, pots and pans and personal items and then a room filled with hair shorn from Jewish prisoners. Off to the side, near the display window, lies a braid from the head of a young girl. Then on to tallisos and tefillin, where almost every visitor is brought to tears. The next structure contains beds and wooden sofas. The remains of life but almost devoid of humanity. Everything lies silent and perfectly ordered. Only the tour guide's voice can be heard in the background.

The very name "Auschwitz" sends a chill down the spine of every Jew. As we walk along, each of us is absorbed in his or her own thoughts. Nearly every one of us had grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins who perished. Here is where hundreds of thousands of Jews were worked to the bone, abused, humiliated and debased to the point where little remained of their humanity.

A few steps later we arrive at the wall of death, the wall along which innumerable Jews were lined up and shot. Moments later we come to the most horrendous place of all: the gas chambers and the crematoria. Everyone steps in with the utmost solemnity. Total silence fills the air. Some say Tehillim breathlessly in memory of the victims who perished here. A large sign, translated into several languages including Hebrew, bears a request that visitors respect the memory of those who perished.

All along the route the remains of the walls, guard towers and concertina-wire fences loom horribly.

One member of the group is an elderly man who was held in Auschwitz during the War. For him this completes a circle. For years he had dreamed of his return to Auschwitz, but was also wary of it. He was afraid he lacked the strength to bear the terrible memories. "This was a death factory," he says in a whisper to those gathered round. "Anyone who wasn't there can never understand. Here's the building where Mengele performed his experiments," he says, "and here is the dungeon where there wasn't even room to sit down. People stood up for three days until their souls departed."

At the conclusion of the visit to Auschwitz we continued on to a visit at Auschwitz 2, also known as Birkenau which, unlike Auschwitz 1, was originally set up as an extermination camp rather than a work camp. Little remains at Birkenau, for the Germans destroyed most of the camp before they left. But the train tracks are still there. On these tracks the transports arrived, delivering hundreds of thousands of Jews to the furnaces and today the sight of the tracks tells all.


Traveling around Poland takes many long hours. Although the buses are plush and comfortable, the drive is quite tedious. Small towns and forests filled with bare trees appear out the window. The weather is dismal and except for the trees, there is nothing to see. We arrived in Cracow on time for Mincha and went to the beis knesses where the Ramo once prayed.

Everyone was visibly excited. The beis knesses where in former times the sound of kol Torah could be heard day and night now stood empty all year long. One week ago it enjoyed a brief return to its former glory, packing in one minyan after another. According to the original beis knesses regulations, the shaliach tzibbur may only use nusach Ashkenaz, and this regulation was honored faithfully.

Local Poles gathered beside the entrance to gaze at the sight. To them the Jews are the nation of black suits and hats that was annihilated decades ago, but now they were suddenly reappearing in full force as if the clocks had been set back.

The sounds of tefilloh and Tehillim rose up, extending over the course of an hour. The tefillos for the salvation of Am Yisroel reached a crescendo with the recital of Acheinu kol Beis Yisroel in earnest cries that spilled into the square outside.

When Mincha ended the large crowd walked to the cemetery located next to the beis knesses where many great Acharonim -- the Ramo, Bach, Tosafos Yom Tov, Megaleh Amukos, Pnei Yehoshua and others -- lie buried. Beside their graves the entreaties for both the klal and the prat resumed.

On the way to Rzeszow, the neighboring town to the south where we lodged in a local hotel, we made a detour to the town of Tzanz to visit the Jewish cemetery where the Tzanzer rebbes are buried, notably the first of the dynasty, the Divrei Chaim.


At the crack of dawn the buses set out for Lizhansk for the yahrtzeit of the No'am Elimelech. Thousands had already arrived during the night and our group was among the last to squeeze into the ohel. Thousands of other people soon filled the large square outside the ohel, standing for hours saying Tehillim.

For a day, the town of Lizhansk could have been mistaken for Bnei Brak, Jerusalem or Meron -- or perhaps the Lizhansk of 70 years ago. On the way to the gravesite, loudspeakers and people manning tables called for contributions to tzedokoh for widows and orphans, kallos and chassanim and hachnosas orchim for Lizhansk.

Behind the call for hachnosas orchim for Lizhansk lies a fabulous story of chesed led by volunteers from the ranks of Chassidei Lelov. They loaded food for thousands of people onto the charter planes whose cargo space Akiva Lachish Tours graciously made available to them. Kugel, salads, rolls, cakes, soup, cholent and more. A giant dining room was set up with separate areas for men and women. Kol dichfin yeisei veyeichol--hot nourishing food for all and plenty to drink. Musicians were even brought in to make the meal more enjoyable. On several occasions the diners burst out in song that even led to joyous dancing to the tune of Tehei hasho'o hazos, she'as rachamim. . .

The logistics and infrastructure for receiving visitors in Lizhansk have expanded considerably in recent years. A large beis medrash and shteiblach were built at the site in addition to a mikveh (maybe now the only kosher mikveh in Poland?), sleeping quarters, public telephones and rest-rooms. A medical team staffed by doctors and medics was also flown to Poland at R' Shlomo Schlissel's initiative. (These doctors and medics also accompanied the tour groups on the respective trips around the country.)

Lizhansk was imbued with an elevated, sublime atmosphere, a sense of spiritual uplifting that is difficult to put into words. A refinement of the heart and soul.

According to various seforim, Rav Elimelech promised that anyone who visits his grave will not die without doing tshuva. Before the decree against European Jewry was carried out, tens of thousands came to the gravesite year round, particularly on the yahrtzeit, with faith that tefillos here were imbued with a special seguloh.

During these calamitous days for Am Yisroel the need for yeshu'oh and rachamei Shomayim has grown far more palpable. The hilltop was filled with pleas and weeping, both silent and vocal. Many completed all of sefer Tehillim, some even twice. People stood and prayed for several long hours showing no sign of physical strain. Inside the ohel the grave was crammed with thousands of notes containing personal prayers.

Then suddenly a hush fell on the large gathering. "Let's accept ol malchus Shomayim," someone cried out and everyone recited the Sholosh Esrei Midos, Shema Yisroel, Hashem Hu Ho'Elokim and Hashem Melech together in unison. A sea of tears flowed during these moments of heartfelt his'orerus.

After spending five hours in Lizhansk it was difficult to part from the place, but the calls of the tour guides and organizers overcame our impulses. According to the itinerary, we were scheduled to visit several other towns and to pray at the graves of other tzadikim before a night flight back to Israel.

Our group went to the gravesite of Rav Naftoli of Ropshitz and Baal Ha'ariyeh Devei Ilo'i, while other groups went to the graves of Rav Mendele of Rimenov, various Gerrer rebbes, Bnei Yissochor, and more.

One of the more intriguing sites was in the town of Lantzut, home of the beis knesses of the Chozeh of Lublin. The walls of this unique, splendid beis knesses are covered with fabulous, well-preserved pictures. Today there is an admission charge, for the Polish government has turned it into a museum. At the entrance are dozens of broken and shattered gravestones brought from the Jewish cemetery of the totally decimated town.

At the Cracow Airport we were greeted by R' Shlomo Schlissel, who was already there making all of the necessary arrangements and verifying that everything was in order for the return flight. The thanks, warm handshakes and compliments he cut short were ample evidence of the travelers' satisfaction with the trip.


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