The plane touches down in Krakow where the air is cold and the sky fittingly gray. I present my passport at the customs check-point, am given a boxed lunch, and shortly thereafter become Student #12 on Coast to Coast Bus #2. Our tour guide takes us through the town and down to the river where we have lunch and learn about Jewish life in Krakow before the war started. We visit old synagogues and schools as well as the downtown where the city looks beautiful and the people are friendly. I ask myself, “How could this have happened here?”… as it turns out ,my question didn’t have an answer.
The next day was by far and away the pinnacle of the trip. I can vividly remember holding hands with Harrison Freeman on my left and Mathew Levinson on my right. Together alongside 12,000 Jewish youth in rows of 6 across, we marched. From Auschwitz to Birkenau, we marched in silence. With Israeli flags waving, tears flowing from our faces, and our notes of hope being placed on the railroad tracks, not a word needed to be said. The feeling was the same. After a ceremony at Birkenau, we returned to Auschwitz where the entire Coast to Coast contingent sat around Barrack #4 to hear the testimony from the Holocaust survivor on our trip, David Shentow. He began, “My name is David Shentow. 60 years ago, I lived here in Barrack #4”. It hit me right there. I was sitting in Auschwitz. This place…this “hell on earth” as David described it was real, and I was there. Listening to David’s testimony in Auschwitz was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. I will never ever forget it and to this day the words that he said there are still engraved in my heart.
The duration of our time in Poland was spent visiting more of sites of the Holocaust such as the Warsaw Ghetto, Treblinka and Majdanek. The memories of these places are very vivid in my mind, while the questions I have from visiting each, still linger with me. I remember when we were at Majdanek, a girl on our trip asked a very innocent question. She asked, “Is it bad that I am not crying when I see these things. All the other people are.” The response she was given was that everyone has their own personal reaction. There is no right or wrong. The sights that we are seeing make their mark to each person differently. And so, while I could talk for hours as to the memories I have from what I saw in Poland, I not only do not have the time to do so, but also would like each of you to create your own.
Looking back at Poland, one of the many things I took out of it was how real it was to be there. I’ve heard Holocaust survivors speak and I have read the stories and testimonies, but none of that could ever come close to what I felt that day where I listened to David tell his story on the same steps where he was imprisoned 60 years earlier. Nothing could ever come close to that eerie feeling of walking out of a gas chamber or exiting a crematoria alive.
But just as you think life couldn’t reach a new low after spending 7 days in Poland seeing the worst of evil, something incredible happens. Something that you were just waiting for. You board a plane at midnight, and all of the sadness and tears that have been accompanying you for 7 days are replaced with singing and dancing 35,000 feet in the air. It was an incredible feeling. We knew we were going to our homeland.
Upon arrival, our entire group was taken on a bus and blindfolded. Imagine getting off the bus and being told to get in a straight line, and to hold the hand of the person in front and the person behind. It is 3 in the morning and together, you walk for 10 minutes without any idea of where you are or where you are going. All you have with you is your thoughts and questions from Poland still fresh in your mind. And then all of a sudden, you’re told to open your eyes. You open your eyes and you look down and you see the Western Wall, majestically illuminated as hundreds of Jews are praying, pouring their hearts out to G-d at 3 in the morning. At this moment, I knew that while Hitler did exterminate millions of our own, he did not defeat us. The Jewish soul and identity lived on as shown on this night. People still believed in G-d and still believed in the Jewish way. This was the greatest moment of the trip.
To be honest, the rest of our time in Israel is much of a blur. There was a lot of dancing, singing and pure happiness. We ate falafel, celebrated Shabbat at the Kotel, visited Masada, the Dead Sea, the museums, the kibbutzes, as well as Mount Herz’l and Yad Vashem. We commemorated Yom Ha Zikaron with Israeli soldiers and celebrated Yom Ha’Atzmaut with a party at Mini Israel with 10,000 other people taking part in the March. It was literally as if we transformed from the lowest of lows in Jewish history to the highest of highs.
As I returned home, I was not the same 15 year old grade 10 student that left Canada two weeks earlier. While I did not start observing Shabbat or praying every day, I felt so much more of a connection to my past, to Israel and to Judaism. I felt so much prouder to be Jewish in my heart. I began to realize why I went to Hillel for 10 years, why I am still going to Camp B’nai Brith after 12 years, and why my Jewish friends are still the ones that I hold closest to my heart. It’s hard to explain but there’s just an innate feeling that the trip gave me about being proud to be who I am.
As cliché as it sounds, the trip changed my outlook on life. It showed me the true capabilities of mankind while it also proved that some questions will simply never be answered.
Above all else, however, the trip gave me a responsibility. As David said on those steps in Auschwitz, “People like me will not be around forever. It is your responsibility and your children’s responsibility and their children’s responsibility to tell my story to everyone so that no one can ever say this never happened.” And so as David touched my life on that day, I came here tonight to touch his.
I ask that all of you seriously consider taking part in this experience. One which will allow you to make what you’ve learned about your whole life ‘real’; one which will allow you to stop holocaust denial; one which will grow your connection with Israel and Judaism; one which will make David’s responsibility your own, and one that will give you a reason to put meaning into the words Never Again.
While I was supposed to ask all of you tonight to sign up for this life-changing experience, what I’m really asking you is how could you not?