Birdsong for Our People

Photo: Lev Gringauz – TC Jewfolk

This blog was written on JCRC’s Power of Place educators institute in Europe – an experiential professional development for teachers where learning unfolds as they tour historical sites across Europe in order to transform their understanding of the Holocaust, WWII, antisemitism, and Jewish life today. Power of Place is planned and co-led by Humanus Network on behalf of JCRC and generously supported by the Minnesota Vikings, the Tankenoff Families Foundation, and Allianz of America Corporation.

by Charlie Grossman of Minnesota | June 24, 2024

According to legend, the Jews moved east, looking for safety from the Crusades. While traveling through the forest, they heard the birds singing, “Polin,” which in Hebrew means “rest here.” Taking this as a sign, they settled in what would become Polin, now known as Poland.

This story is told as one enters the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, and took on significance as we visited the sacred sites of Treblinka, where the Nazis killed 900,000 Jews and Czyzew, where 5,000 Jews were killed over a two week period in August 1941.

Upon arrival at Treblinka, one follows the route of the train tracks to where the Jews disembarked. The Nazis destroyed all evidence of this killing center when they abandoned it, leaving to imagination the horror of what once was there. Today at the center of the memorial is a great stone structure; and 17,000 other large stones sprawl across the site, representing the height of killing in a single day. As I found a spot alone in the grass to sit and contemplate where I was, I couldn’t help but think how beautiful a place this was. And how is this possible at a spot with such an evil history?

It was the singing of the birds, their beautiful song creating a sense of peace. And when we arrived at the site of the murders of innocent Jews in Czyzew, in the middle of another beautiful forest, those birds were there again — their song creating a sense of peace and calm.

So what does this mean to me? How is it possible to understand such evil? As I stood in these spots, I surprisingly felt proud: proud of being a Jew and bearing witness to this, and proud that Jews are still here. For everything the Nazis attempted to do, the Jews are still here, and as the Jews in the 1940s fought, so to do we fight to continue our Jewish traditions today.

And for those martyred at Treblinka and Czyzew, I hope the birds continue to sing for them, and their souls are able to rest well.


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