Rabbi David Wilfond
This Friday, groups 3 and 4 experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows. The lowest lows were felt when the group went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. This is the world’s largest crematory. The ashes of 1.2 to 1.5 million human beings lie here. A visit to Auschwitz is a sobering lesson of the potential for cruelty that can lurk in the human soul. A visit to Auschwitz is also an inspiring opportunity to encounter the stories of survivors who refused to surrender their dignity and their morality, and encouraged others to survive if only to be able to tell the tale of survival against all odds.
Friday morning, Groups 3 and 4 walked into Auschwitz to learn, to discuss and to ask what are the lessons we can take from this place as Reform Jewish teens in 2016. After a full day exploring the deepest of moral issues, the groups joined for Friday night Shabbat services with the young Reform Congregation of Krakow called Beit Krakow. Rabbi Tanya Segal and her congregation hosted our group for a joyous and very musical Shabbat service. The contrast between the depths of the Auschwitz morning to the joyful heights of the Krakow Shabbat is grist for group processing and will be the subject of many a conversation in the days to come.
On Shabbat morning Groups 3 and 4 enjoyed Tefilot (services) together at the hotel. This was followed by a session with an elderly Polish woman in her 90’s who told the groups about how her family risked their lives to hide a Jewish family in their home during the war. Her family was recognized by Yad Vashem and awarded the honorary title of “Righteous Among the Nations.” The students were very moved by her story and the example of individuals making a difference and doing the “Right Thing” even when it placed their own lives in genuine risk.
Following lunch, the groups departed for Warsaw and celebrated Havdalah at the Warsaw Hotel. Sunday morning the groups began their tour of Warsaw by first visiting the last surviving remnant of the Wall around the Warsaw Ghetto that was built by the Nazis. The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest Nazi created Ghetto. At its height, the Warsaw Ghetto contained more than 400,000 Jews crammed in to only 2 percent of the city. Warsaw was 30% Jewish prior to the war and was Europe’s largest Jewish city.
To understand the life of pre-war, the Warsaw students visit Warsaw’s Old Jewish Cemetery. Here members of Groups 3 and 4 learned about the lives of Warsaw’s playwrights, novelists, stage and film stars, Hasidic mystics, socialist ideologues and Zionists who were active in the Warsaw’s rich culturally diverse life prior to their burial in Warsaw’s largest Jewish Cemetery.
The main thrust of Sunday, though, was upon the “Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943.” A few thousand Jews revolted against the world’s largest and most ferocious army of the time (the Nazis), and held them off for nearly a month. With only a few weapons, the dedicated defenders of the Warsaw Ghetto preferred death with dignity and with the hope that their fight might serve as an example to others (Jews and non-Jews) to resist the Nazi’s and to fight back. On Warsaw’s Route of Heroism, the participants encountered the life stories of “Heroes of the Jewish Resistance” against the Nazis.
In the afternoon Groups 3 and 4 visited Europe’s newest and largest Jewish Museum to summarize their experiences in Prague and Poland. On the grass under the shade of Chestnut trees the groups discussed “Where was God during the Holocaust?” They also talked about “What lessons do we learn from the Holocaust for our lives as American Jews in 2016?”
After making way to the airport the counselors starting preparing the groups for the physical and spiritual journey to the land of Israel.
Tomorrow Groups 3 and 4 will be in the Sunshine of Tel-Aviv and will hold an opening ceremony in a park in Old Jaffa overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and the skyline of modern Tel Aviv. Here we will discuss the difference between being a tourist versus being a pilgrim. The following day we will begin our Negev Desert experience. Like the children of Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years, we will hike for four days discovering the beauty of the desert and growing as a community by supporting each other while hiking, making meals together, snorkeling together in the Red-Sea and singing together at evening camp fires.
As the group leaves the gray days of Poland behind, there is intense joy about looking forward to their arrival in the sunshine of the Land of Israel.