We have just arrived back to Kibbutz Tzuba after an incredibly interesting week in Poland. NFTY EIE takes its students every year, so that we can study the holocaust. It is an incredibly difficult week- I mean what else can be expected when you’re studying one of the most tragic events in the world’s history- but it was also just as educational. Though I wasn’t always grateful for the trying experience at the time, learning about the difficult parts of history such as the holocaust is so important. I believe that knowledge of the past is necessary to ensure similar mistakes are not made in the future. Additionally, it is important to carry on the memory of the 6 million Jews who did not survive this horrific event. I like to think EIE did its part in contributing to those values with this trip.
We started out trip on Sunday at 1:00 am. After a four hour flight and the usual struggle of international travel, we hit the ground running in Warsaw with a fully scheduled day. We began our exploring at the Warsaw Cemetery, where we learned about some of the rabbis of those buried there, as well as its significance to the holocaust. What interested me about the cemetery was that this place of death actually saved many lives. It was on the border of the Warsaw ghetto, so many people snuck in and out of the ghetto through the cemetery in hopes of getting more food. When Nazis were hunting for Jews, it was not uncommon to attempt to hide in the cemetery as well.
From there we proceeded to a museum of the country of Poland as a whole, which was so cool. We proceeded to the Warsaw ghetto where we toured the different memorials they have standing for brave figures during the holocaust. My favorite story was Dr. Korczak who believed that children were the purest form of humanity and would save the world. He wrote children’s books and ran an orphanage where the children were in charge and had their own jobs. When the Warsaw ghetto began to be liquidated, he was given many options to leave but refused to leave his children. When it was time for them to be sent away, he had them all dress up and sing songs in straight lines on the way to the train. He stayed with them until the very end when he perished at a concentration camp. This man refused to leave his life’s work even when faced with death, and that was so inspirational to me along with many other stories. We finished the day at a modern synagogue which was meant to show us that there is still some Jewish life in Warsaw today.
The next day we went to Tykocin which was a Jewish shtetl. We experienced Jewish life before the holocaust, and had our services in their synagogue where we tried to embody their spirit by dancing all over the temple. It was incredibly fun and light hearted, but afterwards we were taken to Lepocha Forest where 1,500 of the Tykocin jews were shot and thrown in pits. There is still a memorial today of the three pits which have not been touched. We did a service there to honor them, but it was still an incredibly saddening and shocking experience that I genuinely do not think I will ever forget.
The next day we went to the old town of Lublin, which was incredibly beautiful, and we were supposed to look for signs of Jewish and Christian life there. What I love about EIE is that we learn by going to the places that cover our topic, it’s like a life sized worksheet. We then went to a famous Yeshivat, and basically the day became far more intense from there.
Our next stop was Maidanek, a death camp. Walking through the camp was intense in a way that cannot be described or prepared for. We saw how the prisoners were murdered, and how those forced to work ‘lived’. The final stop was the crematorium. The most horrifying part was a monument built directly outside that. It is a giant, dome building, which you climb up some steep steps to. At the top of the steps you just see a giant pile of ash. This is the ash of 18,000 murdered and cremated jews- this is what was collected from a storage room when the camp was liberated. These 18,000 were all killed in one day which truly drove home the point that the holocaust was about systematically killing an entire race. I will never forget that monument.
The next day was spent in Krakow where we all got free time in the center of town. We went to lunch, it was very good recovery time. We spent the rest of the day touring a ghetto and stopped by Schindler’s factory (hopefully the movie Schindler’s List comes to mind, I recommend it.)
Our final day in Poland was by far the hardest. We woke up and went straight to Auschwitz Birkenau- the death camp section of Auschwitz. I cannot describe the evil feeling we all could feel just walking onto the grounds. It’s like the whole environment screamed that horrible things had happened there. The horrible conditions and sites were absolutely shocking. There was a particular pond where our counselor found bone fragments. It truly is one of the worst places on earth. We had a ceremony commemorating those who died there, and then I lit a candle on a memorial grave. The second half of the day we went to Auschwitz 1 which was a labor camp. This section of the camp was more of a museum, but it was an incredibly well done. There were all of these closed off rooms just filled with confiscated items, or cut off hair from prisoners of Auschwitz, additionally there were very intense pictures and images, and a book of all the names of every victim. We left Auschwitz more excited to go back home to Tzuba than we had ever been.