Our Pilgrimage to Poland: Part 1

by Alexandra P., NFTY-EIE Spring 2014 Student

This past week EIE flew from Israel to Warsaw Poland. In Poland we traveled around to different cities to get a better understanding of what Jewish life was like in Poland before World War 2 and what took place during World War 2. We had the opportunity to visit three concentration camps, as well as Ghetto walls, and experiencing Jewish life in Poland today. 

Sunday March 23 2014

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The Cemetery

This morning we woke up at 1:15 to head to Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. Today we begin our next adventure on EIE. We are all flying to Poland to learn more about the Holocaust and understand more about Jewish history. I have so many different emotions. I am excited because Poland is another place I have the opportunity to travel to and explore but also nervous because I physically and emotionally don’t know what to expect and how I will react to what I see. I am terrified for the unknown.

After a 4 hour flight, we landed in Warsaw at 10:00 A.M. Coming into this trip I tried to look at Poland as a place where my family once lived. There must have been good aspects because it used to be filled with a Jewish community! But today Poland looks like all the color has been drained from it. Everything is pale, white, and black, like someone came and stole all the life out of these communities.

Our first stop was to the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. This cemetery was around before WW2 and is still active today.  There is no order to this cemetery. All of the headstones move with the Earth, therefore they are overlapping. In some areas of the cemetery there are as many as 14 layers of people buried. My teacher handed out tracing paper and a pastel so that everyone in my class could all trace over one of the headstones and metaphorically bring that person with us back to Israel because they never had the chance.

Monday March 24, 2014

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The Warsaw Ghetto Wall

After lunch we went to the area that would have been the Warsaw Ghetto.  In WW2 most of Poland was destroyed and today almost all of it has been rebuilt. There are two walls still standing from the Warsaw Ghetto.  As I approached the walls I was disgusted.  A whole community has been built around the remaining Ghetto wall. People’s homes are right next door to the Ghetto walls. It looks like when they rebuilt this community they rebuilt it around this wall, not because they wanted to but because they were forced to. I walked up to the wall and touched it. I got shivers. The idea of 6,000,000 ran though my head starting to become more clear. I always believed walls could talk, and was this one screaming. To think about what it has witnessed. These two walls are the only remaining structures of what used to be here. They hold so much history, memories, and emotions.

We drove three hours to a town called Tikochin. On the bus ride we watched Fiddler on the Roof to get a good understanding of what life in Tikochin used to be like. The life of a Jewish shtettel. When we arrived, nothing about the place said “Jewish”.  The center of the town is a church. But before WW2 this was a huge Jewish community. We learned about what spirit this town used to have. After lunch we did a service in the only rebuilt temple of Tikochin. There are zero Jews living in Tikochin now but this temple is used as a museum or for groups like us to gather. We sang our hearts out. Singing and dancing to bring the spirit back into this town.

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The only thing I saw that was Jewish

We then loaded the buses to head to a forest. We drove there in silence. We were going to the forest where the town of Tikochin had their belongings striped from them. Their families were separated, and their community shot dead in front of their very eyes. All that is left there today are three gated off rectangles which are mass graves holding the people of Tikochin. We heard the story of a women from Tikochin. First her community was forced to leave their homes and get onto trains. She was not able to fit on the train and had to run behind it carrying a child in her hands. When she got to the forest she witnessed her whole community die in the matter of moments, her mother, father, grandparents, and sisters. All were shot down and put into the pit, that I am currently standing next to. She was shot as well, but had the strength to pull herself out from beneath the dead and still alive bodies. As she climbed out people would pull her down or bite her legs all suffering from the pain. When she was able to get out, all that was left were the dead bodies from her community of Tikochin.

On this trip to Poland we talked a lot about life and death. In the morning we learned about and saw the beautiful town of Tikochin, full of song, smiles, and community. Then in the afternoon we saw how in a matter of moments they were all killed, Part of that 6,000,000, for the solid reason that they were Jewish. When learning about the Holocaust in the past we always focused on the Ghettos and camps, but to hear and visit the sights where such tragedy took place is unsettling.

All the classes met up again and had a small service. One of my teachers found a note left there by another visitor. It was simply a list of names. As a community we listed these names in our mourners kadish. Very proudly we all joined together and sang Hatikvah! Then EIE got to do something not a lot of people before us were able to do. We turned around and walked out.

Tuesday March 25, 2014

Today we went to Majdanek, the first concentration camp we are visiting here in Poland.  As we arrived at the camp a sense of panic went through my body. We got off the bus and the crisp cold wind went right through me. The size of this place, WOW!

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The beds

Every inch is gated off by what used to be electric barb wired fences. Every 100m there was a black wooden watchtower. Long black buildings.  Cold cement floors. Terror. Fear. The first building we went into was where people would have arrived. Their head would have been shaved, they would be given a uniform and a number, and either lead right to showers or left to gas chambers. As I walked in my mind went blank. I saw a Star of David carved into the walls and it all felt real that huge number of 6,000,000 became very real.

Each building was so well designed. Each room served a purpose. Next we walk passed row upon row of black long cabins. Many have been turned into museum exhibits. One of the rooms was filled with shoes. To think about the people who wore them? Who were they? What was their name? We entered the building where people slept. Each bed was a three layer wooden bunk bed. There were maybe 70 beds in the room and each room held 1000 people or more. We were told that three people or more would have to share a bed.  Some people had to sleep on the floor because there was no room.

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Majdanek in relation to the city

The final room we went in to was the gas chamber and crematorium. I went in following my class reading all the facts along the walls. I was able to enter this building and exit on the other side. The last place we went to was the memorial. As I walked up the stairs I did not know what to expect. When I reached the top I was taken aback by huge pile of ashes. This was not even a quarter of the people killed at Majdanek. The number 6,000,000 is starting to mean something. We concluded with a small ceremony. We said the mourners kadish and again sang Hatikvah. Each service we got louder and louder gaining more pride in Israel.

We then got onto the buses and our teachers handed out notes. We all got a note from our parents. I opened my note and cried. Not because I have not talked to my parents but because this small gesture, to give us a piece of home. When others were ripped from their family’s years ago, many never got to see their families ever again.

Click through to Part 2.

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