At precisely 3:30 am this Sunday morning we landed back home in Israel, and I could not say I have felt happier.
At precisely 3:30 am this Sunday morning we landed back home in Israel, and I could not say I have felt happier. These past two weeks have been quite the experience here on Muss. Two weeks ago, it is hard to believe, was the very week leading up to Purim. Purim in Israel is, to say the least, a party and a half. Before celebrating Purim though, we had a week filled with studies of the Holocaust and the years prior to and following the war for the people and land of Israel. In that week we went to Acco (a prison for many people in the times following the war), Atlit (a pretty beach, and also a deserted British camp where people first came to Israel from Europe during the time of Aliyah Bet), Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum of Israel), and heard from numerous speakers about the journey of their lives during the time of the establishment of the modern State of Israel. It was a very interesting week leading up to the big holiday!
For Purim, following an open Shabbat which I got to spend with my grandparents, we went to Tel Aviv. This was not our first celebration for the holiday though. On Thursday of the prior week, we had an unforgettable campus party in the Beit Knesset, and a the day before that, our group got to experience authentic Purim on the streets of Rana’ana, at the town’s big Purim carnival/concert! On Sunday though, the actual date of Purim, our group took a bus to Tel Aviv to celebrate at the Dizengoff Mall. It was a Purim that I will definitely never forget! That night, after only a few hours of sleep, we were off to the airport for our trip to Poland.
The flight was not terrible and I was not too surprised to walk off of the plane in Poland with a need to layer up due to the dropping temperatures outside. On the bus ride to our first destination, we even saw snow flurries falling outside. I was excited upon first arrival In Poland however, as these were my very first human steps in the continent of Europe! Our first stop in the airport’s city of Warsaw was the famous Jewish Cemetery of Warsaw. This was the very first of the horrific things that we would see in the coming week. After stopping to honor and remember the millions of Jews that were buried there both before, during, and after the war, we continued on to explore the Jewish quarter and life of Jews in Lublin before the war. We learned about the Jewish ghetto of Lublin and even got to enter the first-ever boys Yeshiva in the world, housed in Lublin, Poland. It was a pretty little town, with an interesting, vast Jewish history. What we did not know however was that what we saw today would be nothing compared to our sightings the next day.
We began our day on Tuesday with an unbearable trip to the death camp of Majdanek. No one told us when we were close, but all of a sudden we just knew. I looked out of the window on the bus to my right, and the bus went completely silent. Completely. There was a gray fog over the dead, open, empty camp. Even when it was sunny in Poland it felt gray. In Majdanek we saw the tragedies of the gas chambers, the showers, the crematorium, and more. We got to see the shoes of real people who perished in the camp, as well as the beds that they slept in while they were there. It was absolutely unbearable. We ended our time there looking at the ashes of the millions of people who were murdered there by the Nazi people. Our next stop of this terrible day was to see a once-lively, beautiful synagogue of Tarnów which has, since the war, been turned by the Polish people into a museum. This was followed by a hike into the woods to visit the site where many Jewish and non-Jewish children were brought in dump trucks, shot, and buried in the depths of the dark forests of Tarnów. We spent that night in Kraków, a city less affected by the war.
The following day was spent in Kraków, exploring the numerous synagogues and pieces of evidence of Jewish life before the time of the war there. We had lunch in a cute town square and continued on our walk through the city to see Schindler’s (actual) Factory, and other interesting sites until we continued on to the ghetto of Plastau where we saw the park that had now been converted into a place of memorials and monuments recognizing the many people that were buried right under this park and whose corpses were destroyed by the Germans. There was only one real grave standing that we could see. We drove on to Kasmierz castle, and ended the day with a few hours of free time in the center of Kraków where I got some hot chocolate, went shopping and rode in a carriage with some friends through the town.
Waking up the following day was difficult. We not only had an early wakeup time, but that day we knew would be one of the hardest both physically and mentally. It was our day in Auschwitz. We first visited the site of Auschwitz 1 which has been very museum-ized since the war. We walked through and saw the barracks, the gas chambers, and many many display cases full of the shoes, hair, utensils, poisonous gas cans, and more that were all used or worn during the time of the war. We then drove a few minutes to one of the worst places I have ever experienced, which was Auschwitz 2/Birkenau. We entered the camp via the train tracks that the Jews would have come through by train. We walked through and saw the area where the men and women would have been separated, and followed the paths in which each would have taken. We went into the barracks and saw the tight living spaces of the people living in Auschwitz, as well as the toilets, and shower houses that they would have used before continuing to the back of the camp. There we saw 4 underground gas chambers where many millions of people were gassed to death by the terrible Nazi people. It was an absolutely disgusting sight, to be standing on the top of where I knew so many would be unknowingly catching their last glimpse of daylight before heading down the stairs into the gas chambers, and killed. We took a moment of silence to sing the Hatikvah as we stood by the pond in which the ashes of many souls lay, before continuing to our destination for the night which was Lodz.
Friday morning was spent exploring the Jewish quarter of Lodz before the war, as well as the vast Jewish cemetery of Lodz. This was interesting, especially to compare to the cemetery of Warsaw which we had seen only a few days before. For Shabbat, we travelled back to Warsaw, where we went to Friday night services at the only synagogue remaining in Warsaw (there were 300+ before the war). On Saturday, after finally getting some time to sleep in, we heard from a Righteous Man Among the Nations who helped rescue his Jewish friend, and then walked to various monuments and areas, exploring what Warsaw was like before and during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. After some time to shop and walk around Warsaw on Saturday night, we were off to the airport and back home again!
I was overjoyed to land back in Israel, and could not have been more thankful. I strongly believe that Poland is a place that every person, especially every Jew should go to in order to understand their history and the history of the Holocaust in a greater sense, however I do not have a strong desire to return. It was a gray place full of sadness and death for me, and at times I even felt as though I was stuck in the 1940’s. All I have to say is I am happy to be back in the warm sunny land of Israel, and am excited to continue my time here!