By: Renée Rockford
JEWISHcolorado President & CEO
Editor’s note: Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic and ensuing travel restrictions, JEWISHcolorado’s Joyce Zeff Israel Study Tour (IST) had not been to Poland since 2019. After 4 years, IST added Poland back to the itinerary and included, for the first time, a Shabbat in Poland.
The 65 high school seniors on JEWISHcolorado’s Joyce Zeff Israel Study Tour (IST) will soon return home. This year’s trip included a stop that has not been possible since the start of the pandemic, and that was to spend the first week in Poland.
Beginning in what was a remarkable center for Jewish culture and life for a thousand years before the Nazis and continuing through tracing the attempted genocide of the Jewish people established an incredibly powerful narrative for students.
IST, one of the few community-based trips still in existence in the U.S., has created an enduring legacy that includes multiple generations of people who have participated in the program. This year’s travelers included the grandchildren of some of the trip’s founders, including the grandson of Temple Sinai Rabbi Emeritus Ray Zwerin, and two grandsons of Temple Emanuel Rabbi Emeritus Steven Foster.
The Poland itinerary began at the final resting place of a quarter of a million Jews, the infamous Warsaw Cemetery, one of the largest cemeteries in the world. The now densely forested cemetery dates back to 1806 and includes 83 acres of marked graves, as well as the mass graves of many who died in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Students next visited a remnant of the wall of the Warsaw ghetto, providing a concrete understanding of how Jews and Christians in Poland were separated only by the shared brick wall in an apartment building—a wall that defined life and death. Students sat atop the monument not far away that marked Mila 18, the headquarters bunker where members of the Jewish resistance hid inside the ghetto, and finally, they stopped at the Umschlagplatz, the platform and last gathering place of thousands of Jews before they were sent to the Treblinka Death Camp.
The following day, students traveled on to the Majdanek Nazi concentration and extermination camp on the outskirts of the town of Lublin where they saw what is left of one of the largest camps built during the war. At one time, Majdanek was comprised of 227 structures including seven gas chambers. The Germans exterminated thousands of Jews here in plain view – adjacent to the farms of Lubliners and less than a mile from the community’s center.
One student said, “You read and watch movies, and you can know as much as possible. There is something very different about being there in person. The barracks and gas chambers were such small and simple buildings. I don’t know what words to use. But it is just insane that you can do something so horrible in such a simple and non-complex place. It is Indescribable.”
Many of the next stops were designed to teach students about the vibrant Jewish life that existed in Poland and Europe before the world wars including the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva, a 16th-century synagogue in Lancut, and The Remu Synagogue, Tempel Synagogue, and Jozefa Street in Krakow.
Toward week’s end, students arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau where the full horror of the extermination of 1.5 million Jewish People is on display; students saw the watchtowers, fences, cell blocks, the Death Wall, crematoria, and the notorious gate that reads, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “Work Sets You Free.”
At Auschwitz, they wandered past the enormous display cases of hair and braids shaved from the heads of dead bodies and past rooms of suitcases, shoes, pots and pans, and mounds of prosthetics. Students began to face the horror that can only begin to be comprehended by being there in person. “We are so fortunate to know one or two of these people,” they said, of the remaining Holocaust survivors.
Students finished the week in Krakow where one can see many signs of Jewish life returning to Poland. On Saturday morning, some students attend Shabbat services at the 16th-century historic Remah Synagogue in the Kazimierz district. The IST’ers completed the minyan, and nearly every one of them received an aliyah. One student said it was the most meaningful experience of their life.
In a fitting end to the week, students were welcomed for Shabbos lunch at the Krakow JCC where Executive Director Jonathan Ornstein described the more than 100 people who come to the JCC weekly for Friday night dinner or for the Yiddish and Hebrew classes now offered. Ornstein implored the students to remember that Judaism’s legacy emerging from the Holocaust is not death, but is life.
Said one student, “I feel more Jewish than ever. I think that this trip has made me even more proud of my Judaism. There are people who don’t know or don’t care that they are Jewish, but it is important to keep our legacy alive.”