David Alon is a Jewish History teacher with NFTY-EIE. Today, we feature the first part of his blog post on his perspective on taking the NFTY-EIE students on a pilgrimage to Poland.
“Don’t you ever get tired of guiding the sites in Poland?” my students asked me the day before our departure.
“Well,” I answered, “You can look it at it two ways. It’s true that I’ve done this trip fifteen times already, and there can’t possibly be anything new that I haven’t seen or experienced. However, when I experience all this through the eyes of the students, it’s as if it is the first time all over again!”
That was my standard reply that I gave each time a new class of students put that same question to me. It’s not necessarily a rehearsed answer that I just say automatically; I really do believe those words. But this time I continued to ponder it, and it occurred to me that guiding EIE in Poland is meaningful for me far beyond the opportunity to show a new group of students the sites. Everything that we do, everything that we see is so multi-layered, so multi-faceted, so complex, and so nuanced that for me personally, there is something new to discover on each subsequent visit.
For as long as I have been on the EIE faculty (since Fall 2006), the Poland Pilgrimage has been an essential component of the educational curriculum. When I sit down with each student for a one-on-one conversation at the end of the semester, the Poland Pilgrimage is most often mentioned as the most memorable experience. As a staff, we work very hard to make the trip a success. The madrichim work tirelessly to ensure that everyone is prepared, and that we do everything possible to look out for the health and well-being of each student. Beyond that, my fellow Jewish history teachers and I invest all of our energy and creativity into assembling a curriculum that is compelling and worth-while. From a faculty point-of-view, the key to a successful experience in Poland is not allowing ourselves to be complacent. No matter how pleased we were with previous semesters, we are always looking for new ways to improve and enhance each element of the week in Poland.
Why We Spend A Week In Poland
Taking the entire student body to Poland for a week along with the faculty is certainly a logistical challenge. Wouldn’t it be better to just teach all this material in the classroom at Kibbutz Tzuba? After all, the students have already come all the way to Israel and visit Yad VaShem; isn’t that enough of an accomplishment?
I believe that we spend a week in Poland to both “pay tribute” and “bear witness”. We pay tribute to the magnificent Jewish communities, the kehilot kedoshot קהילות קדושות, that thrived for centuries in Poland and Eastern Europe; and we bear witness to the immense tragedy of the Shoah.
Many Israeli high schools take their 12th graders on similar trips to Poland (we often run into them everywhere we go). However, the focus of those trips is overwhelmingly on Holocaust sites and Holocaust education, only paying lip service to the richness and beauty of the Jewish communities that were destroyed. Our goal at EIE is to place equal emphasis on both life and death, with “life” meaning Jewish life that existed for centuries going back to the Middle Ages. One simply cannot comprehend what was lost in the Shoah without first learning in-depth about the entire civilization that was Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jewry. In fact, each day of the Poland trip is a delicate balance of teaching about life and death.
It is almost impossible to find the words to describe the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery, but I think the most appropriate phrase is Beit Chaim בית חיים, meaning “house of life”. Yes, there is an irony in calling a cemetery a house of life, but that is precisely what the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery represents: thriving Jewish life. Warsaw was a city of over 300,000 Jews before the Shoah. Beyond the sheer numbers though, Warsaw was the absolute center of Yiddishkeit, the emphatic cultural capital of Eastern European Jewry. The overall theme for day one of the trip is the cultural richness and diversity of the Warsaw Jewish community. Nothing speaks to this more than visiting the cemetery. It is at once a picture of orthodoxy and acculturation; Hebrew, Yiddish, and Polish; rich and poor; scientists, writers, and rabbis; famous and renowned, and simple and modest; monuments to a community at its height of success, and memorials to its tragic destruction.
Guiding the students around the area of the former Warsaw Ghetto is a challenge in the sense that the entire city was destroyed and rebuilt. To visit Warsaw today is to take in a view of drab communist era apartment buildings interspersed with ultra-modern skyscrapers and shopping malls that sprung up after 1989. Only a tiny fragment of the original brick wall of the ghetto remains, and it is right smack in the middle of an apartment complex. (Students always ask me how people can live there, and to this day I have struggled to find a satisfactory answer.) Even more challenging is the task of trying to tell the story of the Warsaw Ghetto in one afternoon. Do I focus more on the tragedy, the fact that most of the residents of the Ghetto were gassed to death in Treblinka in the summer of 1942? Do I focus more on the heroism of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in the spring of 1943? How do I even define the uprising? As a symbolic victory, despite the fact that it was brutally suppressed by the Germans? As a beacon of light and hope in an ocean of darkness? Like so many other things that we do during the trip, we are left with more questions than answers.
קהילה קדושה kehila kedosha is a Hebrew phrase that is hard to translate. The literal meaning is “holy community”, but that translation doesn’t do justice to what it actually means. Poland and Eastern Europe was once home to a countless number of shtetlach, small towns and villages reminiscent of Fidder On The Roof’s fictional Anatevka: a place where the rhythm of life is Jewish, the language is Jewish, the culture is Jewish, and everything that one sees and does is connected to tradition and Torah. Tykocin in northeast Poland is such a place. Jews first settled there in 1522, building a prosperous community based on the local trade routes. The jewel of Jewish Tykocin is the magnificent restored 17th century synagogue that sits in the center of town. The walls of the beit knesset are adorned with the Hebrew prayers of the siddur, including the poignant phrase עבדו את יהוה בשמחה ivdu et Adonai b’simcha (worship God with joy) which conveys the essence of the Hassidic movement that was so popular among Jews from this area.
To see Tykocin is to see how our ancestors in Poland lived. Walking through the unpaved streets, one can imagine boys on their way to the kheyder, merchants and craftsman selling items out of their houses, the cacophony of the market place…and then we arrive as a class to the town cemetery, a completely different picture than what we saw the day before in Warsaw. One can scarcely make out the faded Hebrew on the tombstones, many of them sinking deep into the Polish soil. But we have not come to Tykocin as mere tourists, we have come with the sacred mission to breathe some life back into this once thriving kehila kedosha. One of the absolute highlights of the entire trip from my point-of-view is the opportunity to pray the mincha service in the Tykocin synagogue. True to the words עבדו את יהוה בשמחה ivdu et Adonai b’simcha, we prayed fervently with all our might, singing and dancing and with joy, so glad to be able to bring a small semblance of Jewish life back to this community.
Despite all this emphasis on life, we cannot escape the dark truth that 1400 Jews, almost the entire Jewish population of Tykocin were exterminated by Einsatzgruppen on August 26, 1941. The nearby Lepochova forest, the site of this atrocity like so many other forests where mass shootings were carried out, remains silent except for the rush of the wind through the trees. Three mass graves marked off by a metal railing draped with Israeli flags, candles, and memorial items left behind by previous delegations. For months I have seen our students talk, smile, laugh, run, and express themselves, but this is the first time I have observed them in stunned silence trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. In the Lepochova forest, there are no words.
You can read more from David and his students at his blog: http://kitatdavid.blogspot.co.il/.