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Israeli Students Reflect
on Visits to Historic Sites

From Maxine Tsvaigrach and
students at Yigal Allon High School
in Ramat HaSharon, Israel

[ Map of Modern Poland ]

I have been asked to write about our experiences in Poland and, to tell the truth, it's hard to know what to write about them. I can say that a big part of it was fun, which may sound strange, but in my head, it's a part of what I saw and where I've been.

There is, of course, the Holocaust part -- in which we went to the ghettos, to the Jewish quarters in the cities. We were in the concentration camps and the extermination camps, but I don't know how much I realized what I had seen, because you just can't get it all at once. That is why I believe I will go back. At the beginning, I was pretty disappointed in the concentration camps.

In Auschwitz I expected something ugly and gray, and it made me see the Holocaust in colors, which I didn't like at all. It was all in a beautiful place with a lot of animals and grass and trees and flowers, and I thought of the song, "There Are No Butterflies in the Ghetto."

But, after I had gotten used to the change, I started feeling something, because in the beginning, I didn't feel much. But when I got to Birkenau, that was just like in the movies -- the small houses, the fence, everything! That caught me by surprise after Auschwitz. After we'd finished the ceremony in which I took part, we went back to the bus through the wood inside Birkenau. That part took place in the dark and I was afraid. I thought about the helpless people who came here in the night with the Nazis and their dogs around them, the confusion and the panic; to live there -- I would have died of fear.

The most difficult camp was Majdanek, because everything was left there. The Nazis didn't have time to destroy the camps, so we went inside the showers and everything. But the strongest part was the mountain of ashes. Then, I started crying and just couldn't stop. It's hard to understand that the mountain is people -- my people -- and there were teeth inside it, which was horrifying.

[ Israeli and US Students at Treblinka ]
Israeli and US Students at Treblinka

In Treblinka we saw only the stones -- but that was even harder to bear, because it showed me that the evidence is disappearing and people will deny the Holocaust and forget it one day.

- Ori Bar Or

Before I flew to Poland, I thought that the whole trip would be very difficult for me. I imagined myself in the camps crying very much and standing like that with all my friends. When we were there, it wasn't like that at all.

First of all, most of the trip wasn't going to the death camps. We were touring in Prague; we were in a salt mine and other places in Poland that weren't connected to the Holocaust directly.

Half of the trip, the sun was shining and it wasn't that cold. When we were in the camps, everything was so green and when the sun was out, too, it was very difficult to imagine what horrors had happened there. Most of the camps had been destroyed by the Germans or by the difficult weather there. There isn't much to see, especially in Treblinka and Plasow. Still, walking around in the camps was difficult for me. When we were in Auschwitz in a gas chamber, I started feeling claustrophobic. I felt I wasn't able to look at all the piles of shoes and hair, and especially not photograph them. Still, as difficult as it was, neither my friends nor I cried. When we were in the forest near Tykocin, where the Jews of the area were shot to death, I broke down and started crying, remembering that my grandfather's family was shot in a forest. The most difficult moment was in Majdanek -- the pile of human ashes, the German bath in the crematorium; it was too shocking. A lot of people started crying, and so did I. I thought before that, in this moment, I would like to be with my friends -- but I sat alone and started thinking about everything I had seen before. Only then did I begin to understand.

- Osnat Yaski

I think my trip with the delegation to Poland was the most important thing I have ever done in my whole life. I decided to go on this trip because, when my cousin returned from her journey, she said that it was a must, and that maybe it would answer some of the questions that I had.

On both sides of the family, they were in some way in the Holocaust, and none of them talked about it because it was agreed not to involve the grandchildren in this horrible thing.

The side of the family that was in the concentration camps was on my maternal side and all of the grandchildren knew that their family members were in the Holocaust. When one of the children tried to ask my grandparents something, they were ignored.

So many of my questions remained unanswered until this trip. Today, having no grandparents left, I have no one to ask firsthand about the tragic events they suffered. The trip helped me more to grasp what happened there in those awful days. When we studied the subject in school, all of my class, including me, studied it for matriculation exams and, therefore, we lost the emotional aspect. The trip was the emotional part.

You know, the phrase "to remember and never to forget" has a new meaning now for me, and when I am a mother, I would like to pass it on to my children and I would like them to go on this journey also.

- Michal Cohen

Uncertain of the things ahead of us, and with only a slight idea of the things we were about to see, we embarked on a plane to countries which for us existed only in history books, films, and stories about the Holocaust.

[ Map of the Czech Republic ]

Starting with the Czech Republic, we saw a country so different from ours, buildings that have stood for more than a hundred years. This made us feel how this country holds history inside her, much like ours. It was amazing to discover how big and wonderful the Jewish community was in the city of Prague. Buildings and streets once populated by Jewish families, who were probably killed during the war, were now populated by non-Jews, who probably don't even know, or want to know, who lived there before them.

Synagogues that had been used hundreds of years by Jewish people who came to pray to God, were now standing only as a memorial for the Jewish community, once prosperous here -- people so nice and kind. At least, that is what I felt in Prague, whose fathers probably lived among the nonexistent Jewish community.

Poland is the country housing the largest Jewish community in the world before the war, and where most of European Jewry was murdered by the Nazis. We passed through its vast land, looking and knowing that it is a land covered by our people's blood. Everything looked normal -- too normal. It was hard to acknowledge what had happened here, in this peaceful-looking country.

Until we got to the camps -- then, it all turned into reality. Now we couldn't doubt anything; it was all there in front of us -- the electric fences; the gas chambers; the "showers"; and, the rooms full of hair, shoes, brushes, and all of the things taken from the Jews who were led to their deaths.

In each camp, we held a ceremony, each of which was very emotional. We, a part of the Jewish people who survived this Holocaust, came back to see, to honor, and to try to understand what had happened here. Now, we have a country of our own that stands as a memorial to the victims of evil. Now, we know we have to do what we can for our country to remain strong -- so that nothing like that can happen again.

- Rony Klachko

During the month of October 1997, a group of 200 people, including 170 students, some teachers, parents and security staff (who came as escorts) took a flight to Poland and stayed there for week. The main topic of that trip was the Jews during the Holocaust.

We visited many places, which each person understood in his or her own way. In general, we visited concentration camps -- such as Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz-Birkenau -- and the Jewish ghetto sites in different cities and towns -- such as Warsaw, Lublin, Tykocin, and Crakow.

In my opinion, strolling in the Jewish quarter was much easier than walking in the concentration camps, knowing you have the privilege to walk out of those places, while for the Jews who were brutally murdered there, it was a "one-way ticket." The days were very intense, in order for us to do everything as planned. Usually, we got up around 6:00 AM, had breakfast and, at the end of a long day, entered the hotel late at night, ready to have a few hours of sleep.

After dinner and before going to sleep, you could find many groups of people sitting together, sharing their thoughts and experiences. That experience brought people closer to each other and sometimes made it easier to move on to the next day.

It was a very interesting experience for me -- an experience with great significance -- and I think anyone who can, and is willing to go, should take this kind of trip.

- Lelia Schwartzband

On the surface, everything appeared to be as it was before the journey, except it wasn't, at least not for me. Even now I can't point to the exact place this journey touched me, but I know it did. Somewhere inside my brain, inside my body, there is a collection of memories that don't mean anything to me at the moment, but just knowing that they are there, and knowing that in the future, whether near or distant, they will possess a different, significant place for me. I don't cry now. I hardly cried during the journey, but I will cry, I am sure -- just when I have the strength to sit down and make an album out of the pictures and scattered envelopes, organizing my thoughts in the process.

At the moment, the most important thing for me is that I've been there. Knowing that, I -- Ilit Meidan -- stepped on the same sidewalk in Warsaw that my grandma stepped on, I felt so close to her, that she was close to me. I also felt so distant from my family; they are back home, and where is it really? Everything was so mixed, so confused.

I felt good when I heard the jokes told inside the bus while people were warming up, defrosting, eating all kinds of soups and meals they brought from home, on the way from Majdanek back to the hotel.

It was important to me to learn some things about myself, about my feelings, my friends, society, and humanity -- and I did. I'm not sure I'm happy with what I've learned, but I did learn and I have been there.

- Ilit Meidan


They say faith keeps people alive.
They say it gives hope and strength to continue,
To hold on in the difficult moments,
in inhuman situations.
I got there, to the camps, to what is
left of the horror;
I looked around and whispered to myself:

"They say faith keeps people alive.
They say it gives hope and strength to continue,
to hold on in the difficult moments,
in inhuman situations...."

These people must have been gods.

Sharon Levite

[ AETI 1998 Table of Contents ]

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