November 10, 2013
‘You can only represent the Jewish people, If you know what the Jewish people represent.’ Rabbi Benji Levy
We are at the beginning of an incredible journey where we will explore both the darkest depths and celebrate the highest heights of our Jewish identity. The week leading up to IST was a prelude to the rollercoaster of emotions that we will soon be experiencing, the stress, despair, worry, excitement and anticipation over the upcoming journey.
The first hurdle, perhaps the most stressful of all was the dreaded check-in desk. I stood, my heart pounding, mind racing, hands shaking as I waited for my suitcase to be weighed. This was it. I knew my bag was overweight; after-all, no daughter of a Jewish, South African mother was going to have a suitcase weighing under 23 kg. The flight attendant and I looked down at the scale, then into each others eyes where we exchanged a meaningful glance, back down at the scale again and it all became clear….my beloved UGG boots were going to have to go. NO NOT THE UGGBOOTS!!!!!!! After some rearranging of the suitcase, the UGG boots got to stay and I breathed a sigh of relief as my bag got checked through. Now it was just a matter of whether it would decide to turn up in Poland.
After 30 hours of flying, with few delays, only half a dozen angry non-IST passenger complaints, minimal edible Kosher food and a small amount of sleep, we were running almost entirely on the excitement of our IST journey starting as we finally arrived in Warsaw, Poland.
We were welcomed by the freezing temperatures of Poland but comforted by the friendly smiles of David and Miriam our tour guides who joined us from Israel. All that I had heard and learnt about this place seemed to become all the more real as I began to place the stories amidst the backdrop of the dull and gloomy city surrounding me.
We stopped for lunch outside the orphanage of Yanusc Korczak, an assimilated Jew, who risked his life during the Holocaust to save Jewish children. It was here that my tour guide Miriam said something that really stuck out for me.
‘Poland isn’t about death, it’s about the life that was’.
This made me realize that in fact Poland could be a strengthening experience for my Jewish identity. An idea that was later reinforced for me when we were at the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery, where we were confronted by 300 000 Jewish graves. Miriam had brought stones from Jerusalem for us to place on various graves and she explained that one reason why we put stones on a grave is because it represents the foundation that the person had laid for us, as every person is a link in the chain of the Jewish people.
Later, we stood at one of the few remaining segments of the ghetto wall, reflecting on the history of the Warsaw ghetto and the resistance of the Jewish people during the Holocaust. Most poignantly we learnt of how the kids often had to take responsibility for providing for their families as their parents could not, sneaking out of the ghetto at the risk of their own lives, an idea that was so different from my reality that it was hard to comprehend.
Our final sight for the day was the Rapaport Memorial Monument where we again learnt of the resistance of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, a powerful end to our first day in Poland.
After a dinner that I find difficult to recall as I was asleep for a good portion of it, we headed off towards Bialystok, where we finally were able to get some proper rest after almost 40 hours on the run.
So far Poland has already been such an eye-opening experience, not only to be able to place what I’ve learnt at school in context but also the strength I’ve gained from my developing understanding of the resistance during the Holocaust and the Jewish life that existed here before.