I don't normally keep Shabbat. Naturally, I felt a bit skeptical before my first experience of the holiest 25 hours of the week in Poland - I wasn't sure if everyone was keeping it, and I was unsure as to how the mood would be. Friday night was lovely - the happiest day for me so far in Poland, followed by the buzzing feeling of Shabbat. Venturing out into the freezer that is Poland, we drove to a beautiful Shule in Kraków before Shabbat came in. The walls were painted with colour and the environment so warm that the horrible weather outside was soon forgotten. My previous worries about the vibes amongst the Moriah and Masada kids vanished as we sang and danced together with the usual shulegoers - they were very excited!
Shabbat dinner was heaps of fun. The loud talking and laughing of everyone in the room distracted us from the weird kosher Polish food (thank G-d for that), and allowed for a great time. After dinner (and benching of course) we played a short game of 'speed dating', which allowed for an opportunity to meet new people from other schools, as well as a chance to catch up with friends for a very short minute. After eating a decent meal and laughing a standard amount, we learnt with the Madrichim, or talked to them, and had time to socialize before enjoying some much needed sleep.
Wake up on Saturday was at 8am for Shacharit, and 9 for Mussaf. Naturally, almost every student took the latter (sleep is important and unfortunately lacking for some reason...)
We found another stunning Shule to pray in - this one was particularly memorable as we met two other Jewish groups, the English and Israeli versions of IST. The part I found the most amazing about this exchange was the fact that we sang the same songs to the same tunes, and found a connection through music, as Jews do best (or almost best - if only we had food to connect over as well). We then visited a museum based around the destruction of the Jews in Poland since the Holocaust, and listened to a remarkable Polish woman called Paulina tell her story after being awarded a medal and titled as one of the 'Righteous Among the Nations'. Her recount of protection and struggle was very moving, and served as a huge inspiration to me as well as many others I'm sure. A few students also shared stories of their families throughout the day, which were all incredible to listen to - their pride and confidence to share their stories before such a large crowd is very admirable in my eyes.
After connecting to Paulina through her translator, we visited the Jewish Community Centre (or JCC) in Kraków. The stories of various experiences such as Olga, who only found out her Jewish identity at a very late age, reminded me of the utter destruction caused by the Holocaust, and the cracks that still remain in the architecture of the Jewish - Polish population today. The missing chunk of generations of Jewish Poles between the ages of 30 and 80 alerted me to the differences between the protected Jewish environment of Australia (or the 'Jewish bubble') and the shattered remains of Polish Jewry. Visiting such an institution was very confusing for me, as the lost generations and past thriving community that 'once was' emphasized the extreme loss caused by the Holocaust, but at the same time, the new found interest by non-Jews of the Jewish religion looking to volunteer at the JCC in their spare time made me feel happy and proud to be who I am. After Mincha, we had Havdallah in the Kraków square, where onlookers stopped to listen to us sing and watch us sway to the music together. Shabbat went out almost as beautifully as it came in.
The Children's Forest was incredibly confronting. Standing in front of a place that I know should not exist is a feeling no one should ever have to experience. However, I found that it was in a different way to Majdanek and Lupochova. As I flipped through the metaphorical photo album from my childhood, I recounted every memory I could remember. Not only the good ones, but the bad ones too. Character-building experiences, relationship-forming moments. The branches of the tree that grew as I grew older, one for each area I entered during my life. These eight hundred children lying in the ground before me, each and every one was on my mind. As I thought about my past, and thought about my future, I imagined those that were cut short of theirs. Those unable to live their days with their families, those stopped from achieving their goals in life. Those that hadn't even formed goals yet, and were gone before they could think for themselves - ripped from their mothers physically and mentally. As I stood in the dark forest, standing around the fence that surrounds the grassy area that was once a pit, I felt for every child. Rabbi Benji told us to shout into the darkness, and to listen to the children shout with us. I didn't believe him at all, as I believe that those who have passed are gone and we can only remember them by paying our respects and thus honoring their lives, no matter how long or short. But standing in the dark forest, the cold air pinching my face and seeping through the stitching of my pants, I screamed for the children and was joined not only by those around me, but others. Children that had been lost and whose souls were found by our voices, and whose spirit we carried through the air as we screamed. And as we shouted 'AM YISRAEL CHAI’ into the darkness, I knew it in my heart and felt it in my gut; I had to live for these children who were unable to live for themselves.