Aug 23, 2015  By Ariana Goldsmith  Category: Special Needs,

Special-needs IDF soldiers pay emotional visit to site of Holocaust masscre

A select group of IDF soldiers with special needs were chosen to travel to Poland on a delegation to revisit history. 

I am sitting on the bus looking out the window on the way to Treblinka, one of the many death camps we visited this week, along with Auschwitz, Birkenau, Maidanek, and others. Today is the second-to-last day of a very crazy and intense week. Tomorrow night, our special group, called Hashachar and consisting of 21 people with special needs and 11 chaperones, will board the plane back to Israel, our homeland. I don't think I have ever been more proud to be a religious Jew living in Israel and to be serving in the army in a role very different than the standard fighting positions or desk jobs.

I am a counselor in a program called Special in Uniform, which accepts people with special needs who normally would not be able join the army because they are exempt from service, and fully includes them in the IDF. 

They start out as volunteers for the first year or two, and the goal is for each to get the official army ID showing that they are regular soldiers like everyone else. Already, more than half of all 50 people in the program have these IDs.

Ariana Goldsmith (center) in uniform. 
Two years ago while still in school, I read an article about the program and saw a video online. Immediately falling in love with the idea, I called the head of the program, and for the next year and a half kept in contact and came to visit the base (you could just say I stalked him). 

I joined the army almost a year ago, and I feel so lucky to be able to have the job that I wanted for so long and to get to do daily what I love. I am the only solider in the army doing a job like this. 

Every morning I go with my soldiers to their different jobs on the army base, and at night I live in one of apartments the program provides, being "on duty" for the night as well. Three of my soldiers were chosen to go to Poland for a week to be a part of this unique delegation. I came along as a chaperone and staff member.

Driving in the middle of Poland through dirt roads surrounded by only forest, it's crazy to try and imagine the atrocities that happened here 70 years ago. We just left the Lupochova forest, near the city of Tykocin. Here, 2,500 helpless Jews, families with children from Tykocin, were taken to the forest to be killed and thrown into pits, in what became known as the Typocin massacre. All 30 people from our group huddled together around one of the fenced pits wearing or holding flags. Each person brought little personal decorated jars filled with sand from Israel, and poured the sand right outside the pit to symbolize a part of Israel's land being laid on the grounds of Poland where some of the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust died. 

A tearful kaddish

Our delegation, organized through Israel's Welfare Ministry, is traveling alongside three religious girl high schools from around the country. At each site, one of the groups is in charge of organizing a ceremony that includes readings, songs, and a prayer. Our group was in charge of the ceremony in this forest. 

At the end, after the reading parts and two beautiful songs, one of the participants, Chen, read kaddish. As he started the prayer, it was easily to hear in his voice how emotional he was. He couldn't hold back the tears while reading the prayer. The sounds of crying from the crowd, from girls and their teachers, could be heard as well. This was the first time during the trip I almost broke down.

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Usually when a ceremony is over, everyone starts to leave their places and head to the buses. This was the first time that the singing of Hatikva was over and the ceremony had officially ended, but there was at least a minute of dead silence and no one moved from their places. Everyone stood soundlessly with a few sniffling and blowing their noses in the background. Many teachers and students came over at the end of the ceremony, or tekes, and said it was by far the best, most heartwarming ceremony from the whole week. 

Coming full circle 

In the summer of 2012 I participated in my first trip to Poland with my high school class. The Hashachar group with special-needs people was also on that trip. Being a student at the time, I especially connected with them. Now, having the privilege of chaperoning Hashachar, things are really coming full circle for me. This past week was somehow less emotional for me because of my position. My job is to take care of the physical and emotional well-being of my special group. For this reason, this trip overall is less sad than three years ago because it doesn't focus on how I’m feeling. I need to be strong and responsible for others making it a most powerful but different experience. It truly is.

During the Holocaust, people who were "different" or "special" were among the first to be killed by the Nazis. Now, almost 70 years later, we are here guiding a group of 21 amazing people with disabilities to the same places the Holocaust happened. They, like everyone else, have the right to this experience that I believe every single Jew should have. This is definitely a week I will never forget.