Our second day of IST, and first full day in Poland, kicked off with breakfast. It was our second time eating as a group, and having been refueled by a good night's sleep, excitement filled the room.
Having eaten our fair share of Polish branded Nutella and cocoa pops, we davened Shacharit. As we approached the Amidah; it was time to turn and face Israel, right then I finally realised just how far from home we really were. Halfway across the world, 3 flights from our origin, yet still facing the same point. Our destination for next week.
Boarding the buses, completely unaware of the gravity of the destination, we made our way to Warsaw ghetto. Stepping into the ghetto was like stepping into another world. We were swallowed by the tunnel that framed its entrance, and were immediately transported back in time. Surrounded by modern developments, the Warsaw ghetto housed it's city's entire Jewish population by 1940 - totaling at approximately 400000 people. During the war, one room would house up to 8 people, whilst one apartment bathroom was shared between 20 to 30 people. Inhabitants of the ghetto would live on an average of 180 calories per day, equivalent to 2 freddo frogs or 1 banana. We were absolutely sickened by the statistics, and even more horrified by the fact that not only was the ghetto situated at the centre of Warsaw city, but that the apartments of the ghetto have been re-inhabited by Polish citizens following the war. Living within the same walls, climbing the same (rotting) stairs, walking on the same floors as the thousands of persecuted Jews during the Holocaust. I cannot understand how people could live there, with the constant reminder of the history, in the form of Jewish tour groups visiting their courtyard daily. They are literally living in a memorial site.
Completely taken aback by the Warsaw ghetto, we made our way to the remaining part of the ghetto wall. Similarly to the ghetto building itself, the wall supports the structures of newly developed apartment blocks. We congregated in the small open space, as Miriam began another of her incredible explanations. Just as we were all settled in our huddle by the wall, the window closest to the memorial - at ground level - swung open as an angry Polish man began to scream at us. Banging the windowsill and waving his arms in the air, we were left speechless. I was worried for our safety as our group inched away from a dangerous situation. It is impossible to imagine living at such a site.
Following the scare, we made our way to the Umschlagplatz, where a memorial stands at the exact location from which Jews of Warsaw were sent to the concentration camps. We were standing at a place of final goodbyes. A place where families were torn apart, boys from girls, mothers from children. Many had no idea that it would be their last contact with their families, many didn't even get the chance to say goodbye. Once again, the memorial stands at the centre of civilisation, and to Polish citizens has been desensitised.
At Mila 18, the bunker where the last stand of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising took place, we were lucky enough to have Dani Tischman share the story of her grandfather with us. Hearing her speak of his experiences was truly touching, and her connection to him was tangible. For me, the personal accounts from friends, makes the entire situation far more real and widespread. I was inspired by her courage and the way in which she continues her Grandfather's legacy.
Having gained such incredible insight into the lives of the Jews prior to and during the Holocaust - all before lunch - we ate our sandwiches while crossing Poland to the city of Lodz. Our first stop in Lodz was the train station used to transport Jews from its ghetto to the various camps. For our inspection, stood a string of restored cattle carts, the same ones used to herd up to 150 people on weeklong journeys. The last of the carriage’s door had been opened, so we all took the opportunity to explore the inside of the cattle cart. Ironically, the notice at the cart's entrance advised that no more than 20 people should stand in it at one time. During the Holocaust, their capacity would exceed 5 times their recommended limit. During a solemn ceremony at the site, a running train swept past us, sending shivers down our spines, truly dramatizing the brutal reality of the situation that we were hearing about.
After moving through the museum at the site, Dani - by chance - stumbled upon her Grandfather's name listed amongst thousands, still just a fraction of the total number of lost Jews. Knowing his story, we were all able to share the excitement with her, as well as the evident connection she holds with Lodz.
Moving through Lodz, we heard from Alissa Foster and the story of her grandparents. It was incredible to hear from another student, making our visit to Lodz even more meaningful.
By the time we got onto the bus for the last time (for today), everyone was completely exhausted. In just one day, we had seen and learnt so much, we were all physically and emotionally drained. Our last stop was at the home of Mimi Smith and Dassi Taub's great uncle, at which their story was broadcast throughout the buses through the radio systems. Being on a bus outside the physical location that was being spoken about, allowed us to fully visualise the experiences of the Jews, not from the opposite end of the earth, but from right before our eyes. A proximity that none of us are used to.
Finally, we heard from Jessica Belzycki whose story was equally as inspiring. We had heard from four of our peers in total, and I think it's amazing that they were all willing to share their families' histories.
A sleepy bus ride back to the hotel, allowed everyone the chance to store up some energy for the dinner that lay ahead. Eating together included the sharing of stories, ups and downs of the day’s tour, and a general catch up with those who we hadn't seen much of throughout the day.
Overall, I found the first full day to be incredibly interesting, shocking, and at times unsettling. We are Jews standing at the places at which our ancestors stood, and were starved of their rights and freedom. I feel as though it is our duty to see and pay respect to what once was. I cannot wait to see what's in store for us for the coming week.