by Yossi Krothamer, head of the Hadassah women's delegation to Poland, and Ben Yakir Youth Village Director
Photos: Shlomi Ben Ami
At journey's end
I shall step into the light
Into the light
That in my heart I hold
One hundred and forty Youth Aliyah students studying in youth villages and centers in Israel have gone as a delegation on a trip to Poland, sponsored by the Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America.
The delegation is accompanied by Ms. Barbara Goldstein, Deputy Executive Director of the Hadassah Offices in Israel and Chair of the Steering Committee of the delegation; and by Ms. Marcie Natan, Treasurer of the Hadassah Women's Organization.
Additional personages joining the delegation are: Mr. Nicky Capelouto, chairman of the Israeli Spirit, and Ms. Phoebe Revstein, director of the Friends of Youth Aliyah in Germany.
The trip was preceded by lengthy preparations lasting several months that included studies on the subject of the Holocaust, writing papers on an individual basis by the students and listening to people's testimonials. We then met on Monday, March 12, 2007 at Ben Gurion airport, and embarked on our way on what was to be the highlight of a journey in discovery of the Holocaust, and in commemoration of 1000 years of Polish Jewry.
We began our tour in the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, where we were impressed with the huge size of the place, evidence of the large number Jews in Warsaw before the Holocaust. In the home of Janos Korczak we were told stories about his educational beliefs, and of course we paid tribute to his memory and his tragic end together with his pupils. On the following day we traveled to Treblinka, where we could hear the silent cries of the tombstones, evidence of entire communities that were wiped out there. From that spot, we continued to what used to be a Jewish shetetl (small town) - Tykocin. We prayed in the large, impressive synagogue there and listened with emotion to stories about the life of the Jewish community that revolved around this synagogue, as well as about the mass singing of HaTikva that took place there at the beginning of the previous century, on the day of the inauguration of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. To pay tribute to the memory of all the people of the town that were taken to the woods and murdered there in killing pits, we held a moving memorial ceremony.
Wednesday morning began with a visit to the wall of tombstones in the town of Kazimierz Dolny, and from there we proceeded straight to the Maidanek extermination camp. The students of the delegation, carrying Israeli flags, and the women of Hadassah and the Jewish Agency, all walked through the paths of Maidanek, moved to tears but proud. They shed a tear when confronted with the horror of that place, yet expressed satisfaction at being there. The visit to Maidanek ended with a heartfelt ceremony at the foot of the Mountain of Ashes.
Thursday was dedicated to the topic of Hassidic tradition. Around the grave of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk we all danced Hassidic dances - boys and girls, immigrants from the CIS, from Ethiopia, and Israeli-born youths, we all danced together in circles that led to more and more circles of joy and pride in our being happy, proud Jews on the land of this hard country.
As relief for the soul, in honor of the Sabbath, we spent some time at the resort town of Zakopane, where we wandered around the colorful market stalls. The students bought souvenirs and breathed in the atmosphere of a typical Polish market at its best.
Before the Sabbath came in, we reached the hotel in Krakow and prepared for the Sabbath. We held prayers at the Temple synagogue which was full to capacity with Israeli and American delegations. We prayed in the Karlebach tradition and danced, our hearts full of joy, in circles of happiness and harmony.
On Saturday we toured the vicinity of Krakow. We visited the Plaszow camp, Oskar Schindler's factory, the Jewish Ghetto in Krakow and the square from which the transports were made. Towards evening we walked around the center of town and Succiniza - the local market. When Shabbat ended we went to an evening of Polish folklore, where students too participated in folk dancing; we also held a festive havdalah ceremony there.
The visit to Auschwitz on Sunday was one of the high points of the trip. After a two-hour drive, we all walked through the famous gate into the Auschwitz death camp, and then to Bireknau. The page cannot hold the extent of the emotions that swept each and every person on this journey, when confronted with the size of the camp, the stillness, the huts that have been preserved almost intact. We sat in the Jewish cabin, heard testimonials, read a chapter from Psalms, lit candles, held one another and sang "Have mercy on us, Oh Lord, God of the Universe."
We ended our tour of Auschwitz with a moving ceremony in the "sauna", where we heard a personal story told by Nicky Capelouto which moved us all to tears. In Auschwitz, singing the national anthem HaTikva together was fraught with special meaning that will stay with us for years to come.
This moving, charged day was rounded off in the hotel, in group discussions about feelings and sensations, as well as a general summing up of the delegation. Both students and adults felt emotionally overwhelmed and expressed their emotions and their feeling that it would take time to absorb and process the experience.
Moments before the trip to the airport to catch the flight back to Israel, we stood at the foot of the Rappaport monument and sang HaTikva for the last time on Polish soil.
Early morning on the Tuesday we came back home on El Al.
When the plane touched down on Israeli soil, the heart soared up with song, and the song "I am coming home" received new meaning…
All that remains is to begin organizing the next delegation.
I wish to express my gratitude to the women of Hadassah, headed by Ms. Barbara Goldstein, for making it their goal to work towards commemorating the Holocaust among our youth, as they prepare for adulthood and to take their place in Israeli society. Their assistance before and during the trip and their participation in the journey have meant a lot to us.