Witness in Uniform: The Story of An IDF Officer in Poland

“Edim Be’Madim”, the Witnesses in Uniform program, brings IDF soldiers and officers to Poland to commemorate and learn about the Holocaust. One of those officers was  Lt. Col. Yakov Barel, a class commander in the Tactical Command College. This is what he learned from the trip.

Treading on Polish soil, you can hear, loud and clear, the things people say on their final journeys. The mixture of languages present in these murmurings is not an obstacle. You don’t need to understand Polish, Hungarian, Greek, or even Yiddish. You hear it all. And you understand it all. It’s sad to hear these things, but you hear them anyway. You can’t not hear, you can’t not be shattered. I hear a boy asking his mother: “When are they taking us?” A father tells his young son how much he loves him, a brother separated from his sister promises her everything will be alright, just so she won’t leave her mother. You hear it all.

And still, when walking through Poland I hear something else, stronger than all of those things. I hear memories. In my life, I have listened to many Holocaust survivors, both those who went through labor camps and those who survived the death camps. I have even heard testimonies from survivors who escaped from the death pits after being shot and left for dead.

The Ashes Mausoleum in Majdanek Concentration Camp

The Ashes Mausoleum in Majdanek Concentration Camp

Intently I listened to them, my heart was seared, I was mad, and on the other hand filled with awe. Wondering from where they raised this great mental strength, I ached. But between all of these feelings I noticed something unique about the way the survivors told their stories.

No one talked about the defining moments of their childhoods, about family trips to foreign countries. These were simple memories, visceral almost. A father who played with his child in the backyard; a game of catch a mother used to play with her daughter; a favorite dish she cooked for special occasions; a story dad used to tell. Little things. Enormous in their magnitude.

I learned from this that the time we spend with those who are close to us is often far more meaningful than we think. One kind word from father to son is a thousand times better than a new iPad 2. A Holocaust survivor once told me that he had never seen his father laughing. I thought to myself: a laugh, something so simple, so easy — and what burden it can place upon the shoulders of a child, a child who already has great-grandsons, a child who wants to hear that laugh just once before he dies.

No, I don’t think that something terrible is going to happen tomorrow morning, and that we should rush home to be with with our children and our partners like it’s the last chance we’ll get. But I do know that the things that seem most trivial to us are often the most meaningful to our loved ones. And that’s why we need to spend more time with them, to be more present in their lives, to be a part of what they’re going through.

Shoes Exhibition of Holocaust Victims

Shoes Exhibition of Holocaust Victims

The most important thing to learn is that this is so simple and easy to achieve. You don’t need to climb the Himalayas with your child; you don’t need to skydive with your daughter on her bat-mitzvah. A story before bedtime, playing in the park, chess in the afternoon, listening to her story with your full attention. That’s it. That is how you become a better person to the most people in your life.

That’s what I learned in Poland.

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