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From Scotland to Poland

In October 2019 I led a UJIA delegation of 11 Scottish teenagers to visit Jewish sites across Poland. The following blog posts were originally written and posted on the UJIA blog.

Day One - October 16

Today was our first day in Poland. 11 Jewish teenagers from across Scotland, who I have the pleasure of accompanying, set forth exploring the towns and Jewish remnants of Galicia, what was once the centre of the Jewish world.

We started off in Lancut, where we visited a beautifully restored synagogue with elaborate murals painted on the high walls and sculptural forms climbing up the Bima. We visited Lezensk, the resting place of the holy Rebbe Elimelech, where thousands of pilgrims flock each year to receive blessings and divine intervention. We spent lots of time on the bus, travelling between the different villages and taking in the lovely sunshine.

In the evening we sat in a circle debriefing from the day. Most people said the highlight had been visiting the synagogue in Lancut. We did two very special things there.

The first was meeting with Marek, the non-Jewish caretaker of the shul. He told us – in fluent Hebrew – about how he makes it his mission to protect remnants of the Jewish community of Lancut. He showed us Jewish gravestones he had rescued from being used as building materials, even one which had become a knife-sharpening block. He had a framed fragment of a Torah scroll which he had saved from the community’s Geniza as well. Everyone was so touched by how someone who wasn’t even Jewish went to such lengths to preserve the memories.

The second was shaking the lulav. As we’re travelling during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, we’ve brought along our lulav and etrog, the symbolic ritual which Jews perform during the holiday. As we all stood crowded onto the Bima and heard stories of the pre-War Jewish life and how central the synagogue was to it, it seemed apt that we had come on Sukkot. While so few of the Jews from Lancut survived the Shoah, here we were, 75 years later, performing the Jewish rituals they weren’t able to.

Back in our evening reflection circle, the participants were confused. Why aren’t there Jews here today? How is there a synagogue with nobody to pray there, shake lulav there, build a community there? It’s my third time in Poland, and I’ve travelled quite extensively around Eastern and Central Europe. Empty synagogues don’t shock me anymore. I looked around the room and saw the empty museum-like Shul I’ve seen so many times before.

But for most of the participants, this is their very first time encountering these empty spaces. We spoke of the synagogues back home in Scotland, how they’re full of life and host weekly (if not daily) minyanim. We talked about how we have so many opportunities to engage in Jewish life. While most of the participants on the trip are from Glasgow, we have some joining us from as far as Aberdeen and Edinburgh, and our very existence as a group celebrates the fact that we have young Jews across the country looking to engage and explore their own Jewish connections.

This is why I think this trip is so important – it’s an opportunity for these young Jews to begin thinking about the history that they’ve inherited, and the Jewish communities they want to continue building up. Visiting these sites is not easy – looking at rows of empty chairs in empty shuls is difficult, and as the week progresses and we get deeper into the history of the Shoah it will only get harder, but I’m very grateful for this wonderful group that we have, and everything that makes this trip possible!

Day Two - October 17

Our morning started off heavy, with a trip to the Belzec Death Camp. Having stayed in a hotel in the town of Belzec itself, it was a mere 5 minutes to the Belzec Train Station where thousands of Polish Jews (as well as Jews from other countries) disembarked from cattle cars and walked directly into the gas chambers.

The tension was palpable, as we made our way down the train tracks. The morning air was crisp and frosty, and there was nobody around. Out of the empty fields and abandoned storehouses, the sprawl of the Belzec Memorial hit us immediately. The entirety of what was once the Death Camp, which lay empty and abandoned for so many years, is now filled with a rising pile of jagged rocks.

We started off sitting at the base of the memorial, reading through testimonies of one of the Nazi officials who had visited the camp. The participants took the pages on their own, and found somewhere to sit and sift through them. I watched as they came face to face with the facts, the logistics of how this was done. The small mentions of the Holocaust they had come across in school had been broad, sweeping ideas summarizing the entirety of the fact. Here we were sitting in the place where these things had happened, reading about children being torn away from their parents, hair being cut with knives, Jewish prisoners forced to pry bodies out of gas chambers.

While our first day had focused on pre-War Jewish life, filled with beautiful synagogues and mystical Rabbis, our second day dove straight into the horrifying realities of the Shoah.

After Belzec we got on the bus and headed to our next stop, the town of Tarnow, where the once flourishing Jewish community had been rounded up in the Mikveh and deported to Belzec. Tarnow is also where the very first deportation to Auschwitz came from, a group of Polish political prisoners, one of whom was the grandfather of our Polish guide.

Outside Tarnow lies a mass grave in a village called Zbilotowska Gora. Jewish children, as well as many Catholics were brought here, lined up and shot into pits. We stood alongside their graves and sang HaTikvah. We read testimony from a young woman who had been shot into one of the pits and survived. She spoke of how she had wished to die instead of live through the reality she was in, but how she had been dragged through by some power, forced to continue living.

On our way to Tarnow, we stopped at a gas station for a quick lunch. By this time the sun had fully risen, and the day had turned quite lovely. We sat around in the parking lot of the gas station, enjoying the sun and eating our packed sandwiches. It seemed worlds away from the histories we had just encountered.

It’s hard to make the switch, between witnessing these horrors and bringing them into our contemporary lives. How can we go from walking through a Death Camp, to living our lives as Scottish (or Canadian or Israeli) Jews in 2019? Sitting in a circle, eating ice cream on the pavement of a Polish gas station, I saw a bright, hopeful group of young Jews committed to learning and discovering what these inherited histories mean for them. I felt very grateful for the opportunity to experience this along side them, to be able to ask them questions and watch them sort through these difficult things. And finally, I’m excited to see what changes this brings about for these teens, and what they’re able to carry forward with them.

Days Three + Four - October 18 + 19

The end of our time in Poland went by quickly. By Friday morning we had all become quite close and we went from place to place as a cohesive group, experiencing things together. We really got into the flow of things, and began to make higher connections to the deeper meanings of the trip and what our explorations meant for us both as individuals and as a community.

Nothing can really prepare you for a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, what can often be seen as the ‘climax’ of a trip to Poland. The stories we had heard, the sites, the empty synagogues – nothing really prepared us for the vast emptiness of Birkenau. But following our visit to Auschwitz, we experienced so many wonderful things which reminded me of the vast fullness of our lives.

We began our day in the small town of Oswiecim, the Polish name for the now infamous town of Auschwitz. In the main square, we stopped outside number 13. In the early 20th century, this house had belonged to the great-great-grandfather of one of the participants in our group. He showed us photos of his family as they moved from Oswiecim in Poland to Kosice in Hungary, through Vienna and London to eventually settle in Glasgow. He showed us photographs of his family who survived the Shoah, as well as photos of those who didn’t. It really brought to light for the group how this was not some removed history, but we were literally learning about our own family.

Huddled in the tiny lobby of our hotel back in Krakow, we stood in a circle lighting Shabbat candles. Everyone was exhausted from our 5:00 am wake up and hours trekking around Auschwitz, but we all took a moment before our showers and resting to mark the onset of Shabbat together and to honour an age-old tradition which connects us to Jewish people everywhere.

After Kabbalat Shabbat at the historic Izaak Synagogue where Krakow’s pre-war Jewish community had also celebrated Kabbalat Shabbat, we headed over to JCC Krakow, where we joined university students from Hillel in both Krakow and Warsaw for a spirited Shabbat dinner in the Sukkah. Friday night was one of our first points of contact with members of today’s Polish Jewish community. We were no longer in the abandoned synagogue of Lancut, or looking out over the destroyed crematoria of Birkenau – we had truly come from destruction to renewal.

We spent Shabbat day seeing the town of Krakow, visiting elaborately muraled synagogues and the harsh grey walls of the Krakow ghetto. We spent the afternoon strolling by the sunny Vistula River and exploring the streets and alleyways of what was once the vibrant Jewish quarter of Kazimierz. As Shabbat came to a close, we gathered on the edge of the Podgorze District, what was once Krakow’s overcrowded ghetto, for our Havdallah ceremony.

It seemed a fitting end to our trip – all of us with our arms around each other, blessing the wine and spices. Some people said they hadn’t done Havdallah since they’d left primary school, and it felt like we had come full circle in our journey. Throughout our time in Poland we had looked at our Jewish histories – where we came from, how we got there – and as we left Poland, we switched to thinking about our Jewish present.

I feel incredibly honoured to have been a part of helping this group explore this part of their identity, and to have learnt so much from them. From witnessing unexpected reactions and seeing moments of understanding, to having fun with an incredible bunch of teenagers (we did have fun in between the hard moments), it was an amazing experience, and it couldn’t have happened without the support of UJIA and the dedicated work of so many members of our team!

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