From Dust to Life: My Summer on USY’s Israel Pilgrimage/Poland Seminar

By Bennett Decker

My name is Bennett Decker. I am a participant on USY’s Israel Pilgrimage/Poland Seminar this summer. Just a few short weeks ago my group was in Poland visiting sites from the Golden Age of European Jewry and the Holocaust, one of the darkest times in our people’s history.

At every concentration camp we visited a different group of us led a ceremony of remembrance. At Majdanek, the group decided to sing a song particularly special to many USYers, אחינו, Acheinu, meaning “Our brothers.”  For me, this song is particularly special because it was the subject of the first USY program I ever ran in response to the events that took place in Israel last summer.  The song has always resonated with me as a connecting force between myself and Jews everywhere.

We held the ceremony at a monument at the back of the camp, right near the gas chambers. As I walked up the steps to the monument, I saw it had two parts, a dome and a basin. On the dome, the words, “Let our fate be a warning to you” were written in Polish, and in the basin were the ashes found in the crematorium of the gas chamber when the camp was liberated.

So here I am, two days into our trip, arms around people I have only just met, all of us singing our hearts out, praying that Jews everywhere will be lifted from darkness to light, from subjugation to redemption, in front of the ashes of thousands of human beings; all that remains of the people they once were. It was our first time at a concentration camp.

As we were singing I noticed the wind was blowing. In that moment, it occurred to me that, with every breath I took, I was breathing in the ashes of hundreds, maybe thousands, of human beings whose last remains were now blowing around and out of the pit.

In every high school health class, your teacher will teach you that smoke from cigarettes never leaves your lungs; it stays there forever.  In the same way, the ash that I breathed into my lungs that day will never leave; those people’s remains will stay with me forever.

Now as I write this, I am in Jerusalem.  Our bus has arrived back in our people’s holiest city for the second time this summer. The ash of those people, people who never received the chance to breathe in the air that I am now breathing, mixes with the holy air.  I have become of vessel of life for those who are no more.

“נשמת כל-חי תברך את-שמך ה׳ אלקינו” “The breath of all life praises you, Lord our God.” We say this verse during Shabbat morning services every week, but only now do I really understand it.

This is the power of USY. Through one teen’s breath, all that is and was living has the capacity to sing God’s praises; from dust to life.