By Rabbi Elliott Kleinman and Rabbi Eve Rudin
Chaperones with NFTY in Israel l’Dor v’Dor
We left Prague to spend the morning in the town of Terezin to visit the town that was taken over by the Nazis and transformed into a Jewish ghetto, as well as the crematoria that were built and in use there. Everyone’s reaction was, of course, serious and subdued. It was a surreal experience to visit the actual site where so much suffering took place. Together we shared stories of triumph and tragedy, we mourned, prayed and shared our hopes for the future.
The next morning we drove through the Czech Republic and into Poland. When we reached Cracow, we visited the sites of a vibrant Judaism that thrived before the war. We also experienced the exciting Jewish life of modern Cracow, as we were there during the week of the Jewish festival. Our first shabbat together was spent with the Reform Congregation of Cracow – together we sang and prayed and tasted the wonder of Shabbat as a community. The NFTYites were incredibly energetic in singing along with this congregation and our visit there was deeply appreciated.
Our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau was both solemn and deeply emotional. Despite a tremendously hot day, each NFTY group spent 3 or so hours walking the remains of the Birkenau death camp. Everyone was silent as they listened to their own footsteps following the path of those who marched to the crematoria. During the journey through the camp, we learned about the sites through personal stories of those who survived; questions that arose were, “What would I have done?” “How would I have reacted?” “How could this have happened?” “Where was the rest of the world?” “How can I ensure such atrocities never occur again?”
On Shabbat morning, our NFTYites led Shabbat services that were incredibly positive and energizing. We then heard an amazing testimonial of a Polish Catholic woman whose family saved many Jewish children in their home during the Holocaust.
Finally, we visited Warsaw. Sunday was spent visiting the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw (one of the few to survive WWII) which was a part of the Warsaw ghetto. We were all moved by the stories of the Warsaw Ghetto that emphasized the revolt and the many different ways Jews rose up against their Nazi aggressors. We closed our Europe component with an important conversation about the lessons learned, the role of God in the Holocaust and what we can do in our lives to ensure such atrocities never take place again. We were inspired and amazed by the thoughtfulness of these conversations.
To say that everyone was ready to leave Poland and excited to reach Israel is an understatement. The energy going to the airport and on the airplane was palpable; to now understand some of the reasons why a Jewish homeland is so important to the Jewish people turned their excitement of visiting Israel into a much deeper yearning.
As the plane landed in Tel Aviv, everyone applauded. The next steps on our Journey were about to begin.