The Fall 2012 students have just completed their week long Poland experience. During this incredibly powerful week, they learned about the European Jewish experience in the late Middle Ages and the Modern Period leading up to the tragedy of the Holocaust. Our students made moving and meaningful visits to the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek concentration camps as well as the remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto. Friday, they returned to Israel with a deeper understanding of the importance of Eretz Yisrael. Below is their account of this intense and impactful experience:
The first day, we drove to the 200-year-old Warsaw Jewish cemetery with 150,000 visible tombs. Here we felt the visual impact of the capital of “Yiddishkeit” prior to WWII as we paid tribute to the great creators of Jewish culture buried in this cemetery. Here we saw and felt the loss not only of Jewish art, scholarship, and leadership, but the loss of a community that was multifaceted in its range of Jewish pluralism: from Yiddish socialists through writers, actors, playwrights, Reform rabbis, Orthodox and Chasidic leaders.
After lunch we departed for our visit to a shtetl. The small town had a population of approximately 2500 Jews, 65% of the city’s population. Today not a single Jew remains and only one escaped the liquidation of the Ghetto by the Nazis. This beautiful and quaint town has a lovely town square with a Synagogue which is now a museum and an old wooden building (the only remaining structure of its kind) which served as the kosher butchery before the war. This was our opportunity to learn about the rich lives of the Jewish communities who lived in shtetls such as this one.
On Wednesday we went out to Maidanek, which borders on the outskirts of Lublin. For three hours we walked from one wooden structure to the next, each structure housing exhibitions of the death process that took place here from July 1941 to July 1944. According to the Maidanek Museum 300,000 persons were here, 40% of them Jews. Our last station was the gas chambers and crematoria where we had a moving memorial service prepared by the students.
Thursday began early as we left for Auschwitz-Birkenau. The vast expanse of the main extermination camp went on as far as the eye could see. We followed in the footsteps of the Jews who disembarked from the trains. The fact that it was a beautiful day did not make what we were witnessing any easier to comprehend as we walked for several hours trying to understand the Nazi death machine. Before we walked out, on the same tracks that had brought our families in to their deaths, we had another memorial service prepared by the students.
After that the focus was on the richness of Jewish life in pre-War Europe, with a visit to Kazmierz, which was the Jewish Quarter during the Middle Ages. We visited the synagogue of Moshe Isserlis (known as the RAMA), who wrote the Mapa (tablecloth), which came as a supplement to the Shulchan Aruch Code of Jewish Law, written by his contemporary, Joseph Caro in Safed, Israel. This provided us with another strong example of the similarities between Jewish communities, regardless of their location. We interrupted our tour at this stage to visit the local JCC, where we heard about Jewish life in Poland today and the incredible efforts being made to rebuild what had been shattered. We then entered the Temple, a beautiful 19th century Reform synagogue, exemplifying the diversity of the vibrant Jewish community in Cracow.
This marked the end of our pilgrimage. Every student was deeply impacted by seeing the evidence of both the richness of Jewish life in Europe pre-World War 2 and also the terrible price we paid during that conflict. This was a powerful opportunity for all of us to witness first-hand the greatness of the Kehillot Kodesh (Holy Communities) of the Middle Ages in Poland, which were a testimony to our strength and commitment. Of no less importance is our ability to provide our own testimony to the loss of these great Jewish communities and the six million of our people that were killed in the Shoah.