After many hours of flying through 3 different countries, our first day in Warsaw began. We walked off the plane and were confronted with a very cold winter breeze and huge green fields. It soon set in, that Warsaw was no longer just a word in our school textbooks, but the first of many destinations that we are going to discover in some of the most intense ways possible during the coming week. In the airport, seeing our easily identifiable blue-labeled luggage arrive on the carousels was a huge relief. We took our bags, and were escorted to a room in the Polish airport where we were fed lunch. During this time, we were excited to reunite with Madrichim from across the world and were introduced to some more teachers and guides who are all to join us for the upcoming journey.
As we waited for the bus, an odd vibe of anxiousness was palpable - we were not sure of what lay in stall for us. Despite the bus ride to our first stop (The Warsaw Cemetery) being only a short 30 minutes, there was an instant feeling of eeriness, exacerbated by the cold and glum, dark, grey weather. The thousands of black, skinny and leafless trees served as a symbol of raw emptiness and death. As much as I try, please understand that it's very hard to portray the bleakness of the city, or the intensely haunting nature of loss and history that we felt.
When we arrived at the cemetery, we were given an introduction by personable and knowledgeable leaders who were really able to hold our attention. They talked about the meaning of the word 'cemetery' in Hebrew, 'Aretz Ha'chaim,' which translates to "land of life". This represents the idea that although cemeteries physically hold the bodies of those who have perished, each individual person buried there had a life, a name, a purpose, and hence, a cemetery should recognise and value the meaning of each individual life. Our tour guide stressed that for each person that was buried in this cemetery (most of whom died long before the Holocaust), there was someone who valued their life enough to give them a proper, Jewish burial. Unfortunately, out of the 350,000 people who are buried in the Warsaw Cemetery, only 250,000 of them have actual graves. The 100,000 people who didn't have a grave are piled in 2 humungous pits, known as mass graves, located at the front of the cemetery. These people still had identities, families, values and contributions, yet they were buried nameless, without graves. The sight of these pits, with the knowledge that they’re filled with people who were put there in such a dehumanized fashion was very upsetting.
As I mentioned, most of the graves we saw in the cemetery were those of people who passed away before the war. They contributed enormously to society and had a rich cultured life. Their grave sites did not just represent them as individuals, but the generations afterwards. The contrast between those buried and their offspring became extremely clear as those who lay in the graves we saw lived, laughed, invested and saw futures for their children and their country. On the contrary, the children of these people were forced to their deaths through brutality, struggle and torture. The irony was that although the thought of being in a cemetery and seeing tombstones was quite depressing, the hundreds of thousands of people with these tombstones had wonderful lives. They were successful, cultured and rich human beings. Their offspring, however, without gravestones, unfortunately had their lives stripped away from them. And the thought of that was truly quite daunting.
We then made our way to the Nozyc Shule which is the only functioning Shule in Warsaw, a city which used to have over 300 Shules and a vibrant Jewish life. It's absolutely astounding that a town that used to have such an abundant population of Jews (about 1 in 4 people) can now only make up 1 Shule. The Shule was aesthetically beautiful and had a very special aura. It is a semi-functioning Shule that has continued to celebrate Judaism on a relatively frequent basis. The Shule’s history, having been turned into a warehouse (restricting prayer) and then a stable in WW2, was finally restored some 30 years ago, and is a usual visiting site for many Jewish tour groups to Poland. It was an honour to daven Ma'ariv in the Shule as 138 Sydney high school kids, who have come to Poland to commemorate the Holocaust, whilst also to celebrate ours and our family’s lives. We realised that visiting the Shule was not just about ticking a box of seeing the sight, but rather about finding a way to stick to our values and be part of the puzzle of Jewish history.
We ended off the day with a lovely dinner spent with friends and then made our way back to the hotel before going to sleep.
It is difficult to see this city and it’s people as one would view another city, without associating it with the horrors of the past, which have so significantly impacted on and shaped us as Jewish people. We were left with 3 major questions, which we should gain more insight into over the next few days: How did the place, which had so much Jewish life and vibrancy, become what it was? Why did it happen? And how was it fair?