This year 130 high school students participated in the Youth Aliyah visit to Poland, which was funded by Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America. The week-long itinerary took the Israeli teens to the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Maidanek, the Warsaw Ghetto 60 years after the uprising, other sites of Nazi atrocities as well as places which recalled the rich cultural heritage of Eastern European Jewish communities.
"This program is of the greatest educational importance," stressed Meir Beck, Manager of Youth Aliyah Institutions. "It helps Israeli youth to be more Jewish and Jewish youth to be more Israeli. These journeys are also of great personal significance to me. I lost my grandparents and many other family members in the concentration camps. The visit to Poland also cements the relationships between Youth Aliyah and Hadassah."
"This is the eighth year that we have run the program," explained Yossi Krothamer, Director of Ben Yakir and co-leader of the mission. "Yet every time I visit the concentration camps I am struck again by the horror of what the Nazis did as if I had not seen it before."
The delegation included Leah Reicin, Youth Aliyah Chair of Hadassah and Barbara Goldstein, Deputy Director of Hadassah Office in Israel.
"If this trip wasn't a job obligation I wouldn't have gone," said Reicin. "In fact I dreaded going. Yet this trip has changed me. It wasn't Auschwitz that affected the change – after all I have read so much material on the Shoah and heard enough personal tales to know the horrors and evil, which were perpetrated.
It was the Youth Aliyah children that had a most profound effect on me," she added. "It was the courage and tenderness they exhibited when we witnessed atrocities, always asking adults, whom they consider a fragile group 'are you okay?'"
Among the 23 teenagers from Hadassah Neurim on the trip was Diane, 17, from Pardes Hanna who immigrated to Israel from Kiev in 1990. "I went there with many mixed emotions," she explained. "My grandparents survived the Holocaust but many other family members perished. My great grandmother left the apartment one day in Kiev and never came home. It is assumed that she was massacred at Babi Yar."
"My emotions were very confused," she added.
"How ever many books you read and movies you see about the Holocaust cannot prepare you for what you actually see there." Kosta, 17, from Ashkelon was also born in the former Soviet Union reaching Israel 10 years ago from Nikolayev in Ukraine. He found it very difficult to articulate his feelings. "I felt a strong sense of homesickness for Israel the moment we arrived in Poland. It was very difficult visiting the camps. I realized that we Jews have no other place but Israel despite all the wars here."
Michal Hermon, a history teacher at Hadassah Neurim, who accompanied the students, echoed Leah Reicin's sentiment that she was helped by the strength of the teenagers. "After 18 years of teaching the Holocaust I finally got to see where it all happened," she explained. "It was cold and stormy, wet and muddy and that helped us understand just how wretched the victims must have felt before they met their deaths."
Ella, 17, from Beer Sheva found that Polish anti-semitism had not faded. "At Maidanek I felt as if I had personally been there," she recalled. "The Polish people nearby looked at us with hatred and some of them cursed us."
The trip also included students from Kiryat Yearim (who received individual scholarships from the Swiss Committee) and Ramat Hadassah Szold. Amira Ben-Arie, the pedagogical coordinator from Ramat Hadassah Szold accompanied a group of students from that village. "One girl came up to me and said that she felt nothing and asked if that was OK," she recounted. "I said any feelings were legitimate. But later she broke down and was more emotional than any of the youngsters."
Students from Hadassah Neurim filmed and documented the journey, which was subsequently screened on Israel's Channel Six cable station. The students acquired the ability to film and produce such a documentary when they participated in a program that was given by Keshet Broadcasting through the Spirit of Israel.
Tamuz 5763 - July 2003