Journey Through Poland
Posted on 07/01/2013 @ 12:03 PM
We are on our way to Warsaw after three wonderful nights in Krakow. On Friday afternoon, we arrived in Krakow and braved the rain to get to Kabbalat Shabbat services at the Galicija museum. We were lucky to be in Krakow during the first weekend of the famous Jewish Culture Festival, a program chock full of educational and cultural events. We joined Jews from around the world in a "musical Shabbat" that was both fun and moving, especially considering the setting - a place and community that has experienced incomprehensible suffering and yet is increasingly a center for Jewish culture and renewal.
We enjoyed all our Shabbat meals at Beit Yaacov, a former girls' yeshiva that is presently being converted into a Jewish community center. We ran into a number of other groups, including a huge group of Brazilian orthodox Jewish youth, and our participants had a chance to meet new people.
Even though Saturday was Shabbat, we didn't want to miss out on the beauty of Krakow. After a morning program of songs and skits related to the weekly Parasha (Torah portion), we walked through the park, played some games, saw the dragon of Krakow, and toured the opulent Wawel castle. We then had some free time in the old market square, with its artisan markets, street shows, and horse-drawn carriages...and plenty of ice cream.
After dinner, we went back to the Galicija museum for a "Niggun Jam." The place was packed with people eager to learn and share new tunes - niggunim. Hannah, Rachel and a number of other participants were especially excited about a Russian song the leaders taught the audience - stay tuned for a video...it's awesome.
Sunday began with a walking tour led by Moran of the old Jewish quarter in Kazimierz. Two participants, Zach and Leah, "volunteered" to be our mock couple, searching for a place to get married, as we toured various synagogues as well as cemeteries. Moran shared stories of life in the Jewish quarter before beginning to explain the ghettoization that occurred after Hitler's rise to power. We gathered at the area representing the border of the former ghetto, and then stopped to admire the gates of Oskar Schindler's legendary factory, where more than 1200 Jews were saved.
Our minds focused on the power of one person, like Schindler, to stand up to a system of evil as we drove to Auschwitz. First, we visited Auschwitz 1, a former prison that today houses various exhibits on the crimes committed during the Holocaust. After passing through the gate with its cynical expression, "Arbeit Macht Frei" meaning work shall set you free, we visited the brand new "Jewish" exhibit.
Compared to the other exhibits at Auschwitz 1 which explore specific details and evidence, such as the shoes and real hair of the inmates, this exhibit is highly contemporary. The first room displays footage of Jewish life in Europe before the Nazi era and pays tribute to luminaries like Einstein and Houdini. Then, we see the propaganda that fueled the anti-Semitic storm in Germany, videos of book burnings led by Joseph Goebbels, for instance. There is a deeply moving room full of reconstructed drawings by children imprisoned in the camp and their perspective on the horrors surrounding them is insightful yet painful to encounter. Finally, there is a gigantic book with all of the names of those murdered during the Holocaust - six million names, birthplaces, and locations of their murder. A few participants found the names of their family members, prompting others to provide them with support and a shoulder to cry on.
After Auschwitz 1, we drove a few minutes to the gates of Auschwitz II (Birkenau), the most infamous and expansive of the Nazi death machinery. We began to walk along the train tracks, and stopped at various places to hear Moran share stories about specific victims and survivors. As we were in Budapest just a few days ago, she focused on the Hungarian Jewish experience, mainly. We walked past the ruins of the gas chambers, through the "sauna" where inmates (the 10% who weren't murdered immediately) were dehumanized upon arrival. Finally, we stopped in the rebuilt women's barracks, where we did a journaling exercise.
Moran was evidently moved when Noah said she had managed to make the most horrible place in the world feel hopeful.
Our time at Auschwitz and Birkenau is over, yet our process of discussion is ongoing. Today, Monday, we will visit Majdanek before reaching Warsaw. It is hard to imagine, but very exciting that we will be landing in Israel in just 2 days!!
Below are some thoughts from the participants:
"I have seen, I have heard, I have touched and I have experienced. Now I will never forget."
"Words cannot describe the emotions I felt today. At first uncertainty of the day ahead, then fear of seeing the camps, sadness when in Barrack 27, and comfort when I saw other people with tears running down their face while hugging each other. I have been to Auschwitz, seen the destruction and loss of innocence, and now I will make sure the lives and stories of the victims are never forgotten."
"Witnessing the contrast between the beauty of Europe and the horrific stories that took place here has been a life changing experience."
"Today was a day I'll never forget."
- Euro Israel Journey Central
Euro Israel Journey Central outside of a historic synagogue
Walking through the gates in Auschwitz 1
"Arbeit Macht Frei" = "Work Shall Set You Free"
Euro Israel Journey Central at the Auschwitz exhibit