I wanted to see Poland to explore my heritage. My small, Yiddish-speaking booba, Bella, came from a town called Szczebrzeszyn in south east Poland. She and her family managed to escape the Nazi onslaught and spent the war working in frozen Siberia.
The Jeneration trip was led by renowned Jewish educator Jeremy Leigh, and we also had a Polish guide, Marcelina, who gave us a different insight into the story of the Jews of Poland.
This wasn’t a trip meant to make us feel guilty or depressed. Jeremy wanted to ensure that we understood what had happened, who had been involved, why it had happened and where the story went from there.
We got an overview of the history of Jews in Poland as well as the Hebrew etymology of the word “Poland” (in Hebrew it is “Po-lin”, meaning “you will stay here”) and were given a tour of Kazimierz, the Jewish area of Krakow where we were based.
We spent Friday at Auschwitz and Birkenau, touring the camps and seeing with our own eyes what we had previously only read about.
On Friday night we joined a newly-formed egalitarian congregation that meets in the Galicia Jewish Museum, led by a rabbi from Israel. This was an amazing experience and a welcome contrast to the horror and destruction we’d seen earlier in the day.
That evening we tried as a group to process what we’d seen and heard so far and how we felt.
On Sunday, we visited the site of Oskar Schindler’s factory, before driving to Tarnow.
Standing in the town’s cemetery, Jeremy asked us how we felt about what we’d seen. I raised my hand and told the group that, as weird as it sounded, I felt happy.
Here we were in Poland, a country that seemed to be one big monument to Jewish death and destruction. But that was the point; we were here. Jews survived the Final Solution and are living in communities worldwide, as well as in our own state of Israel. We were allowed to feel cold and hungry walking through Auschwitz, while still respecting and honouring the memory of those who perished. We were alive and we had survived.
To me, it was amazing that a people could go through so much and still make it out the other side.
Jews weathered a horrible, traumatising and devastating storm. Yet we emerged and grew stronger as a result.
The trip was a great success. We managed to learn some of the stories of the Jews in Poland. We saw and heard images and sounds that we’ll never forget.
I hope that the participants will be inspired, having seen Poland for themselves, to engage with other students on their campuses and share what they have learned about the Holocaust.
The need is great: the world has seen several genocides since the Shoah ended. Education is key to ensuring awareness so that nothing like this ever happens again.