Finding Roots In Remembrance: A Journey From Queens To Poland

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A story has been brewing in my mind ever since I returned from a life-altering journey. My name is David Shakhmoroff, a 24-year-old first-generation American with roots tracing back to Uzbekistan, and I am here to take you on a ride through history, memory, and self-discovery.

Growing up in the bustling borough of Queens, amidst the vibrant tapestry of cultures that call this place home, I always felt a deep connection to my Bukharian heritage. From the scent of samsas wafting through the air to the sounds of traditional music echoing down the streets, my upbringing was steeped in the rich traditions of my ancestors. My mother, Olga, the youngest of four, was born in Fergana, Uzbekistan, while my father, Pinchas, is a product of Israel. Together, they made their way to the States in the mid-1980s.

But there is a chapter of history that has always loomed large in the background: the Holocaust. It’s a topic often discussed in hushed tones, a shadow that casts its presence over the collective consciousness of my community. And yet, for all the stories I’ve heard, all the books I’ve read, there was still a part of me that yearned to bear witness firsthand, to see with my own eyes the places where such unimaginable atrocities took place. Bukharian Jews like me have a deep curiosity on our connection to the Shoah. My education widely noted the Ashkenazic and Sephardic affiliations to World War II; however, I recently came to realize that various other Jewish segments were also victims of its devastation.

This past summer, I journeyed to Eretz Yisrael where I experienced the horrors through the telling exhibits at Yad Vashem and yearned to see the camps firsthand.

So, when the opportunity arose, courtesy of Rabbi Benzion Zvi Klatzko, renowned orator and founder of, to journey to Poland for a week-long trip to visit the concentration camps and Holocaust exhibits, I knew I had to seize my once-in-a-lifetime chance. Setting foot on Polish soil, along with 21 peers, felt like crossing a threshold into a world that existed simultaneously in the past and the present – a world haunted by ghosts of the past, yet brimming with the promise of remembrance and resilience.

The days that followed were a whirlwind of emotions, each moment leaving an indelible mark on my soul. From the solemn silence of Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, Treblinka, and Majdanek concentration camps to the haunting remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Old Jewish Square, every step I took felt like a pilgrimage – a journey into the heart of darkness in search of understanding and connection. It was surreal to feel so tiny in the astounding vastness of Auschwitz with the very same train tracks and rails along with the train carts parked in the station that once trekked my brothers and sisters on their final journeys. I bear witness to the gas chambers, ovens, and crematoria used by the vile Nazi murderers, but write of hope as I document the moment our contingent broke into joyous song and dance with a group of chasidish tourists on a similar expedition, as together we memorialized those who never left its walls.

Standing before the rusted barbed wire fences and crumbling barracks, I couldn’t help but feel the weight of history bearing down. Much was bombed out, yet so much stands as an everlasting history marker defining the worst of evils. But amidst the sorrow and the grief, there were also moments of profound humanity – encounters with survivors, conversations with fellow travelers, and acts of remembrance that served as beacons of hope in the midst of despair. In Warsaw and Krakow, I was pleasantly surprised to find an array of shuls that remain as a towering remnant to the religious Jews like me who once filled the community’s streets with Torah and laughter. The Jewish Eastern European atmosphere of yesteryear reigns strong in the Kazimierz district of Kraków, Poland, where the relatively small 16th-century-built structure of the Rema Synagogue, named after Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the ReMA, proudly continues providing the Ashkenazi traditions and customs to its active worshipers. Of the shuls I saw, a number were converted into non-kosher eateries, bearing Hebrew lettering with signage indicating that kosher-style food is offered.

As I returned home, my mind buzzing with memories and my heart heavy with the weight of what I had experienced, I found myself grappling with a newfound sense of purpose. For me, this journey was not just about honoring the past; it was about ensuring that the stories of those who perished are never forgotten, that their voices continue to echo through the corridors of history.

So, here I am, back in Queens, back in the embrace of my community, but forever changed by the journey I have undertaken. As I navigate the streets of my hometown, I carry with me the echoes of the past, the stories of survival and resilience that remind me of who I am and where I come from.

In the end, it is not just about remembering the past; it is about finding meaning in our shared humanity, about forging connections that transcend time and space. And as I look towards the future, I do so with a renewed sense of purpose, knowing that the journey I have undertaken is just the beginning of a lifelong commitment to remembrance and reconciliation.

So, here’s to the journey – from Queens to Poland and back again. May we never forget where we come from, and may we always strive to honor the past in honor of our ancestors who sacrificed so much to give us the freedom of today.

By David Shakhmoroff