As we are sure you have heard by now, this year's Year Course Kuma journey to Poland was one of the most meaningful weeks of the program. This is primarily due to the incredible group of chanichim who came to Poland motivated to learn and experience everything the journey had to offer.
We began the journey in Warsaw and were immediately struck by the cold weather including lots of snow that actually delayed our arrival by a few hours. However, this was not to delay us further and over the next week we persevered through the Polish winter.
In Warsaw we began at the Okopowa St. Jewish cemetery learning about Jewish life in Poland through some of the personalities buried there. In total there are approximately 1/4 million graves in the cemetery. While we only visited 4, we managed to taste the life that once was among the hundreds of thousands of Jews living in the city. The rest of the day took us to the Janusz Korczak orphanage, the Umschlagplatz and finally the Nozyk synagogue, the only remaining synagogue in Poland with a daily prayer service.
Day 2 saw us reach our most Northerly point - the old shtetl of Tykochin. After spending time in the 400 year old synagogue and old Jewish market square, we made our way out to the Lupochowa forest, site of the destruction of this beautiful Jewish community. Finally we visited the camp of Treblinka before heading back to Warsaw.
On Day 3 we traveled south to Lublin not before doing the heroes walk from Mila 18 to the main square where we learned about Jewish resistance and the power of youth. Once close to Lublin, we visited the terrible site of Majdanek and braved probably our coldest day. We finished the day on a high at the original Yeshivat Chochmei Lublin where we learned a little Talmud as our peers would have done 75 years ago.
Day 4 was our longest day on the bus, as we ventured through the region of Galicia. After learning about Hassidut at the grave of Reb Elimelech of Lezajsk, we then traveled South West and made a stop at a mass grave outside the town of Gorlice, a site so rarely visited by anyone. This was especially powerful as we said Kaddish for those who have no one left to say Kaddish for them. We finished the day in Nowy Sacz where Michal Goldstein told us the story of her Grandfather who grew up in this quaint town.
Day 5 was spent at Auschwitz-Birkenau. We started the morning with a 4-hour walk through the site of Birkenau, trying to understand the process that Jews went through in one of the challenging places on earth. The more we learned, the more questions we had but this seems to make sense in a place where there are few answers to be found. During the afternoon we were guided by a local Pole through the historical museum at Auschwitz I giving us an interesting and different perspective on the story of the camp.
When Shabbat arrived we were all ready to relax and take some time out. Friday night was spent at the 400 year old Rema synagogue followed by a wonderful festive meal. A few participants managed to make it back to synagogue on Shabbat morning before we took a walking tour of the Kazimierz area, site of the Jewish community prior to the Holocaust. In the afternoon there was an optional walk up to the Vavel castle and after
Shabbat we had an incredible and inspiring talk from a righteous gentile.
Our final day was spent driving back to Warsaw to catch our flight back to Israel. On the way we made stops at the Kibbutz Hachshara in Slawkow (whose members went on to found 2 Kibbutzim in Israel) and in Czestochowa, where Molly Hoffman told us her grandmother's story outside the house she lived in before the Holocaust.
Upon arriving back in Israel we made a trip to the Kotel for some personal meditation time and finally back to Bet Ar-El for a wholesome bagel breakfast. So much packed in to one week, a whole lifetime left to pass on the story and simply never forget.
The Year Course Kuma team
Mike Mitchell, Rivka Bar-Ziv, Rabbi Rob Kahn
Here is an excerpt from Joseph Richmond's diary (a participant on the program):
...The group then proceeded to get back onto the bus and we visited the mass graves at Gorlice. We were told that a community of 700 people, mainly women and children, were brutally murdered and buried in the mass grave located there. This place was particularly moving for us a group because it was completely neglected and looked like nobody had visited it for years. Our Polish guide, Thomas, who had been guiding Jewish groups for 20 years had said that he had never heard of the place before. Consequently, it was even more moving to say Kaddish for such a large group of people where it probably had not been said for years.
Wake up was even earlier today at 04.45AM. After breakfast we travelled to the Polish city of Oswiencim where the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau is located. Before entering Birkenau, Mike gave us an introduction to the day ahead in the camp's watchtower. The sheer size of the Birkenau complex certainly took us by surprise and we could not believe how systematic the camp really was. Mike took us around the various sites of the camp and told us many stories such as that of Lilli Jacob. Probably the most emotional part of the morning was seeing the latrine at the women's camp. Here we were told how 30,000 women used this one room as a toilet and were essentially dehumanized and reduced to basically animals. We simply could not understand what motivated men and women to treat human beings in this way.
At Auschwitz we were guided by a Polish man whose uncle was in the camp as a political prisoner... Probably the most disturbing part of the afternoon was when we saw large rooms containing Jewish possessions that were confiscated by the Nazi's. These cases included children's clothes, cutlery, suitcases and even tons and tons of hair. We were also told that the room containing over a thousand suitcases was only one and a half days' take for the Nazis. Here, we started to comprehend that 6 million was not just a number but it was the extermination of friendships, possessions and families. After Auschwitz we went back to the hotel for a rest before Friday night service led by Mike at the Rema Shul in Krakow. It was inspirational to bring such an old Shul of 400 years back to life for the evening. After the service we then walked to the much larger Isaak Synagogue where a few of us joined in the Israeli dancing with many yeshiva and Israeli school groups....