Something happened to me yesterday that I do not understand. The best explanation is, as my friend Joyce Klein told me: “sometimes these things just happen in Jerusalem.” You must read to the end to discover the “thing” that happened.
It was my last day in Jerusalem, topping off a two-week visit. I took a walk to the Old City and as I ascended the path to Zion Gate, one of the entrances to the Old City, I remembered an article that I read in Moment Magazine several months ago. It described the oldest Holocaust Memorial, erected in 1948. It is on Mount Zion, where I was walking.
Well, I decided not to turn left into the Old City, but rather, to turn right and explore the winding stone paths of Mount Zion. I had no idea where the memorial was, but it could not hurt to explore. I descended some steps and walked through low stone arches to reach King David’s tomb. Then I walked up some stairs into a room that where Jesus’s last supper took place. Across the courtyard, I saw the entrance to the Diaspora Yeshiva, whose famous band I loved as a teenager. It was a rather eclectic tourist experience.
Then I walked through some more arched pathways, out into an open space, with sunlight shining on the Jerusalem stones. There I saw a sign (see above picture):
Chamber of the Holocaust
I had found it. I again descended some stairs, entering a low doorway. There, sat a woman with a scarf covering her hair, sitting behind a small wooden desk. I saw a sign – “Entrance fee – 10 Shekel.” I fished in my purse for a 10 Shekel coin, gave it to the woman who, without saying a word, handed me a small pamphlet in Hebrew. I thanked her and walked through a low, narrow, arched doorway into the first, cave-like room. The lighting was muted, creating a feeling of dread. I was unsure as to what I was about to experience.
In this first room, there were plaques on the wall, each with a name of a city or town whose Jews were murdered during the Shoah. There were also two display cases on the ground with glass tops. Looking in, I could see Torah scrolls that had been partially burned by the Nazis.
I walked through another narrow, arched doorway into a larger space, that was a bit lighter. This room had the same type of memorial plaques — covering almost every inch of the walls, each with the name of a different city or town. There were a few exhibits set up around the room. I approached to see what they were. One of them held lamp shades, bags and wallets made from Torah parchment. It was a jarring sight.
Another display case contained a prisoner uniform from Auschwitz.
On the opposite side of the room was another burned Torah scroll. But the coloring of the parchment was strange; it had a reddish tint. I read the description: “Remnants of a Torah Scroll saturated with the blood of Kedoshim [Holy Ones] murdered in Wagrow, Poland.” [This is Wegrow — 23 kilometers southeast of Stoczek!]. That sent shivers down my spine.
Then, I came to one of the most powerful Holocaust artifacts I have ever seen. It is a jacket made of the parchment of a Torah scroll. If you look closely, you can see that the section of the Torah that is on the front part of the jacket is from Haazinu in Deuteronomy. You can tell because of the width of the columns are thinner, leaving some white space. If you look even closer, you can see that the verses that are sewn just where the human heart would be, were the versus about vengeance. Though the Nazis forced a Jewish tailor to make this jacket, the Jewish tailor knew what he was doing. The inscription on the display case says this is a “Meil Nekama – Coat of Revenge.”
On the wall of this room, I found the memorial plaque for Slonim. This is the place that Esther’s family was murdered in the summer of 1941.
The next room I entered was very small. There were a few Yartzheit (memorial) candles burning here. The prominent feature was a stone wall with small arched openings made to resemble the shape of the ovens in the crematoria used to burn the bodies of the Jews after they were gassed. Hanging in front of the wall was a black iron basket that looks like it should hold a Ner Tamid – eternal light, but it was empty. However, the iron basket cast a menacing shadow on the crematoria shaped stones.
This room was creepy and I was happy to exit out into a courtyard where sun was shining and no ovens were awaiting me. The courtyard was filled with even more memorial plaques. In all, there are 2,000 plaques in these chambers. I looked for a plaque with Stoczek, but I could not find one. But I did find a plaque with the name Ostrow Mavitzyetka. This was the big town near both Bagatele and Stoczek. I stood in the courtyard looking at all the plaques thinking of the millions of murdered Jews that they represent.
Then, I looked at my watch and realized that I should be heading back to finish my packing. I looked out of the courtyard, through an iron gate that was locked. I saw the back of a young man who was holding a phone to his ear. I said to myself – “that looks like Akiva Greenberg.” Akiva was a classmate of my daughter, Esther. He is in Israel for a gap year, studying in a Yeshiva in Modin, about 30 minutes outside of Jerusalem. As he turned a bit and I could see his face, I realized that it was indeed Akiva. I called out his name and he turned and saw me. He looked shocked and said:
“Karen! I can’t believe it. I was just calling you.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Just wait here a minute, don’t move. I’ll be right back,” he said.
In 30 seconds he was back, standing just on the other side of the iron gate. But he had an adult with him. He said to him – “this is Karen Treiger -she is right here.”
I looked perplexed at these two excited faces, not understanding what this was all about.
The adult was Tzvi Shiloni, who is taking a group of boys to Poland at the end of March. He had brought the boys to the Chamber of the Holocaust to begin to educate and prepare them for the trip. He began to explain that he asked Akiva to contact me because he wanted to talk with me about my blog.
“Hold on,” I said, “let’s not talk through these bars, I will come out to meet you.”
So now, face to face, he told me that three days ago, on Shabbat, he was speaking to a friend who also leads tours in Poland. This friend told him that during the previous week he and a few other tour guides had met me and that I am writing a book about my in-laws’ experience in the Holocaust. I had explained to the group of tour guides why I think that Sam and Esther’s story would be a meaningful addition to a tour in the Treblinka area.
“So, after Shabbat I looked up your blog,” explained Tzvi. “I read the whole thing – start to finish. I knew after I finished that I had to find you and ask you if there is any way I can take this group of boys to see the barn and the pit where Sam and Esther hid. When Akiva told me he was from Seattle, I asked him if he knows Karen Treiger. He said, ‘of course – she is the mother of my friend Esther.’”
Akiva knew I was in Jerusalem because he and Esther had been in touch. He was trying to call me at the moment that I saw him standing by the tree. And then he heard his name being called, he turned around and there I was, behind the iron gate. Crazy!
None of us could really believe what just happened. Tzvi asked an old bearded man who was standing around, to take our picture. He used Akiva’s phone for the group picture. I hope Akiva sends it to me.
I promised to be in touch with Tzvi and to contact the Stys family about his upcoming trip. This could be the first tours that incorporate Sam and Esther’s story into their Poland visit.
“Sometimes these things just happen in Jerusalem.”