By Celeste Perri and Paul Magyar
Cold Spring Harbor High School, New York
Recently, the I*EARN Holocaust/Genocide Project sponsored a study mission to Poland and Israel to promote awareness of the Holocaust. Six students and two teachers from the United States, and one teacher from Australia, met thirty-five students and teachers, from Israel, in Poland.
The teachers who accompanied the group through Poland and Israel were: Honey Kern, Cold Spring Harbor H.S., New York; Judy Eber, Heschel Day School, California; Kathy Skidmore, Broadford Secondary College, Australia; Lea Rosenfeld, ORT Comprehensive H.S., Israel; and Orit Shani.
Cracow, Poland -- Entrance to Pankewicz Pharmacy, Apteka 'Pod Orlem' (Pharmacy "Under the Eagle"): The pharmacy was on the border of the Cracow Ghetto and had a secret passage to the ghetto, providing a vital link. Today, the pharmacy site is a small museum.
Before we went on the trip, we'd read many of the books written about the Holocaust and met a Holocaust survivor. Many thought that this was more than we'd ever really need to know. We thought that seeing the actual places where the worst crime against humanity had occurred would round out our education.
And it did. Starting with Majdanek Camp on March 18, we began our tour of the human hell that occurred not so many years ago. A towering memorial at the entrance of Majdanek, built by the Russians, is an imposing reminder of the atrocities that took place there. Majdanek is a camp whose crematorium still stands. The ovens, still filled with ashes, tear one's heart. The Israeli students performed a ceremony to remember those who perished in the crematorium, and even though we could not understand what they were saying and did not know them yet, the pain of their words was apparent in their tears.
After a brief interlude of fun -- e.g., a tour of the Polish salt mines and a jaunt to the mountains of Zakopane for a snowball fight with the snow-deprived Israelis -- we continued our tour of the concentration camps. On March 22, we went to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Before we even got off the bus, students, American and Israeli alike, began to cry in anticipation of the horrors. After a short video, in Polish, we began our tour of Auschwitz.
Eerily looking like a college campus, each building was filled with objects of the prisoners' life both before and after their arrival at Auschwitz I.
One building concentrated on the personal effects of the Jews. The most emotional display was the glass case filled with human hair. To some, the displayed hair looked like dead bodies or rats; to others it was an awful show of how real the Holocaust was.
Walking around the camp, we came upon a wall where people were shot when they could no longer work or had disobeyed orders. Here, a memorial was erected to those who died, and today, eternal smoke guards the entrance.
Later, we continued to Birkenau, the infamous death camp and stood in the exact place where Dr. Mengele made his decisions between who would live for a while and who would be sent straight to the gas chambers. Again, the Israeli students and ours held a heartfelt ceremony to remember all those who perished there. This ceremony was even more moving because at the end, the Israelis read the names of people they knew who had been sent to Auschwitz.
The next day, after a morning visit to an old synagogue, we made our way to Treblinka. During the war, Nazis tricked Jews into believing that Treblinka was a town of opportunity where they could live out the war safely. Upon their arrival, Jews were immediately sent to the gas chambers and then burned in a systematic fashion. Today, nothing remains from the original Treblinka site. Hitler totally destroyed the camp in 1943 because he sensed Russian troops coming. Now, a symbolic representation stands there, thousands of jagged rocks, each symbolizing a town that Jews were taken from during the Holocaust. This memorial was particularly disturbing because the rocks seemed, to our eyes, like they went on forever. Many of us looked for names of towns that were familiar or that relatives had come from.
On another day, we went to Warsaw. People now live in the Warsaw Ghetto, so there is not much of a memorial there. Randomly scattered are rocks with inscriptions to commemorate the heroes of the ghetto. Our last ceremony was held here and was disrupted by the wind.
Later that evening, we were all reminded that hate and prejudice still exist. Walking through the Old Town of Warsaw, our American group was mocked and yelled at by a group of Polish teenagers who screamed random obscenities at us and called us "Jews" as if this were a bad thing.
That night we went to Israel. The sight of palm trees in the airport was welcome after the long week in cold Poland. For a few days, we were apart from the Israeli group, as we toured the city of Tel Aviv with Gideon Goldstein, mentor of the HGP, and went on to Caeseria, ancient ruins of a Roman city. We also visited Mt. Carmel, the place that's pretty famous in the bible, we think. The stereotypes of violent Arab villages that we all held were shattered when we visited a small Druze village named Dalia Carmen. This town was colorful, bustling, alive and friendly.
After that, we went to Kiryat Motzkin where we stayed with host families for four days and celebrated Passover. Here we got a taste of what Israeli teenagers are really like. Like Americans, we went to the mall; we slept; we went to a bonfire. For the educational part of our trip, we went to the Golan Heights where we saw the Lebanese border and the Good Fence at Metulla. This, too, was more peaceful than expected.
The last leg of our trip was a trip to Jerusalem and Masada. We saw the Tower of David museum and got a detailed description of exactly who had conquered Jerusalem and when. Journeying into the actual city, we saw the Wailing Wall where we wrote our wishes down and stuffed them in the already overflowing cracks of the wall. Then, we went to the mall.
We stayed for a night at the Israel Arts and Science Academy where we had a barbecue. Have you ever tried cooking for twenty over a match? Or had a hot dog on matzoh?
The next day we went to Herod's castle on the top of Masada. The view from the top was amazing. After a long, twisting walk down the side of Masada, we headed toward the Dead Sea. Most of the American kids, with the exception of Dalia Levine and Alison Golub, didn't go swimming for fear of getting salt all over themselves. Dudy Epstein totally disregarded the warnings of not putting his head in the water and proceeded to entertain us with his dives.
The next day, we traveled back to Tel Aviv where we gave a heartfelt good-bye to our new friends and flew home.
Now, back in the U.S. with time to reflect on our trip, we are all deeply glad that we went. We were all quite moved at the deep sense of pride the Israeli kids felt for their country. We got to see some very important sites and experienced different cultures. All of us will remember this trip always.
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