Reflections and Video from Poland Masa

From the Director, Daniel Laufer

I am very proud of the TRY students and staff as we completed an amazing TRY-first, our journey to Poland. We cried, laughed, danced, prayed, sang and simply gave new meaning to the prayer in the sh’moneh esrai which praises God for תחית המיתים (bringing life to the dead). With every former shul where we davened, our group sang louder and prayed with such kavanah (inner intention) giving the spirit of life to a destroyed Jewish community and giving true meaning to the concept of hatikvah (the hope) for our people. At the same time, they learned and grew so much in such a short amount of time. The group also bonded together even more – helping each other through some very emotionally difficult moments.

Traveling through Warsaw on our first day, we visited the Jewish cemetery which was truly an incredible testament to the community that was. The emphasis on our first day was to try to relate to the richness of Polish Jewish culture. We also visited the remainder of the former ghetto wall, the Rapaport sculpturesMila 18, the Umshlagplaz and the Nozyk synagogue among other things. The ICC classes were interesting and thought provoking. TRY students took notes, drew pictures, wrote in journals and much more.

The next day we visited the small village of Tykocin where we davened shacharit in the beautiful synagogue that remains standing despite the total devastation of the community. What may have been even more interesting was our students sitting in the totally unkept and unpreserved former Jewish burial ground in Tykocin. It presented two sets of feelings: first, the full Jewish life that once existed and second, the emptiness of a place that was made Judenrein by the Nazis. We also visited the forest nearby where Jews were massacred en masse. That day concluded with a visit to the death camp of Treblinka. At Treblinka and three other spots, the students led a tekes (ceremony) to conclude the day. The tekasim included readings, prayers, singing, poetry and other creative presentations and each was uniquely special. On Thursday, we opened the day at the former Yeshivat Chochmei Lublin where the daf yomi began. Of course, we learned the page of Talmud for that day ourselves in chevrutot (study pairs) in memorial.  We then visited the Majdanek death camp.

The most inspiring part of our trip was probably Shabbat in Krakow. One quick story of many took place Shabbat morning at services where we helped make and lead the minyan together with another Israeli group at the Izaak Synogogue (now a museum). Two of our students, Greyson Cohen and Ilan Stier-Cohen went up with the rabbi (also a Cohen) to perform the traditional priestly blessing for the congregation. For our students, it was their first time doing so and everyone was very excited and moved. The service also included lots of dancing and spirit. As you will see on the video, the trip concluded at Auschwitz-Birkenau with a tour and finally, our ending tekes.

The entire experience was both educational and very successful–fitting in perfectly to TRY’s style and approach. We look forward to many more trips to Poland as part of the Israel Core Course in the years to come. A special ya’sher koach to Betsalel Steinhart for leading the journey and to Alexandra Benjamin for helping to plan and, of course, teaching throughout. They were amazing! I also want to point out that all four madrichim, Niku, Sara, Britty and Elisha contributed so much of themselves going far beyond what was expected. And finally, TRY students deserve a giant kol hakavod for their spirit and energy–bringing the experience to it’s highest potential.

Students Write

Sammi Goldman

Poland was a unique, once in a lifetime journey that every Jew should take once in their life. It really helped me put my life into perspective.

Benny Kerbel

Seeing the children’s memorial was difficult and emotional, and it was meaningful bringing synagogues all over Poland back to life with our t’fillot.

Hannah Cooper

Before, the Shoah never fully seemed real when I learned about it in school; it was too horrible. Being in Poland where it all happened, seeing the shtetls, the ruined synagogues, the mass graves, the death camps–it really put everything into perspective.

Jonah Levitt

I really benefited from the Poland masa. I learned so much about Jewish life pre-Shoah and its glory, and about the horrors of the Shoah itself. It was an unbelievable experience that I will never forget.

Carly Meisel

Although it was a difficult and straining trip, traveling to Poland was definitely a necessary masa in terms of facing the realities of the Shoah, strengthening our drive to be the best people and Jews we can be, and coming together as a group. Throughout our journey, we often spoke about the duality of what we were seeing: the joy in what Poland used to be for Jews, and the horror of the destruction that took place. In this, each day was a roller coaster of emotions.

Our first full day in Poland demonstrates this duality really eloquently. We started the day in the shtetl of Tykocin. As we explored the town, one could almost hear the Fiddler of the Roof soundtrack in the background… it was just like Anitevka! One could picture the kids playing, the gorgeous, expansive Beit Knesset that we prayed in filled with people, and the mothers readying the house for Pesach, as they would be doing this time of year. It was beautiful but eerie. One could imagine all of these people, but they weren’t actually there. In fact, not a single Jew lives in Tykocin today. With that, we drove 10 minutes outside of town to the Lupochowa forest. Hand in hand, we walked through a path framed by thousands of sky-scraper trees until we arrived at a mass grave. In the spot where we stood, the thriving Jewish community of Tykocin had been shot into a trench by the Nazis. As our amazing ICC teachers clearly stated before we entered any site where the Nazis carried out their evil: “We are going to go in. And then we are going to come out.” Feeling the weight of what we had just seen and heard, we stood tall and walked out of the forest with intention. It’s because we can. It’s because we’re still here.

Over the course of six days in Poland, we entered the Warsaw and Krakow ghettos. We visited three death camps: Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. We went to two mass graves. We went to these sites together and faced the realities of what happened to our people. We became increasingly aware ofour duty to not only bear witness but to educate everyone we can- to make sure everyone knows what happened there. For me, the responsibility to be the best Jew I can be became clearer with every place we went, every story we heard.

The ghettos, the death camps, the mass graves… I hope those memories will stick with me for the rest of my life, but here’s what I know: I will never, ever forget the power that this TRY 2014 group has to bring life and joy into a place. For example, we prayed mincha at a destroyed shul in Krasnik. The walls around us were crumpling bricks, the ark was filled with dust and broken stones, and the once-gorgeous murals were barely recognizable. With our loud, clear voices we pumped life back into this dead, broken place. We put our arms around one another in a circle and danced, singing Am Yisrael Chai with all of our might. The people of Israel were alive and singing and dancing and celebrating life with the memory of the six million in our hearts and minds, reinforcing what we already knew: it is such a blessing to be Jewish.