Monday, June 30, 2008

Prague, Krakow, and Auschwitz-Birkenau

On Thursday, after arriving in Prague, Groups 11b, 12 and 14 had some time to rest before going to the world famous town square for some free time with the opportunity to soak in the atmosphere of this amazing town. While Group 11a only arrived later that evening, the participants had the opportunity to do the same thing in Budapest, before making the short flight to Prague. The evening was deliberately kept short in order to enable everyone to get a good night sleep and get over the jet lag.
On Friday the program started in earnest, as both groups traveled to the Jewish quarter of Prague, named Josefov, and went back in time several hundred years. Walking through the cobblestone lanes of the Jewish Quarter, visitng the preserved synagogues and cemetery, the remnants of Jewish life came alive. Our chanichim personally met the Maharal of Prague, a famous Rabbi who lived in this city, Handele Bashevi a woman who became famous for her good deeds (Tzedakah), Mordecai Maisels, a rich influential philanthropist who live in this city long ago, and of course the Golem of Prague, who told them their own story of life and times during the height of Jewish Prague. Making their way through the Jewish museum it became more and more apparent the great culture that was destroyed in the Shoah, the Holocaust.
After the tour of the Jewish Quarter, we all enjoyed free time and lunch at various caf├ęs and restaurants around the picturesque Old Town square, and then made our way up to the famous Cathedral and Castle of the king of Prague which look out over the entire city. In the afternoon we explored the city’s magisterial castle and discussed the power of the Church and how that affected the Jewish community.
In the cool afternoon weather which was ideal for touring, we made our way down from the castle to the famous Charles Bridge, which is adorned with statues, each of which tells a story in the history of the city. From the we made our way back to the hotel to freshen up before heading out again to the magnificent Spanish Synagogue to join members of the local Progressive community for Kabbalat Shabbat services. The kids were moved both by the setting and by seeing how they shared a liturgy with fellow Jews who live halfway around the world. After services it was back to the hotel for Oneg Shabbat with the staff.
On Shabbat morning, after a late wakeup, we loaded the bus before holding our own tfilot, led by Rabbi Laura Novak Winer representing NFTY who gave a meaningful Drasha. Following lunch and more group activities we boarded the buses and made our way out of Prague heading due East for Poland. With breaks for dinner (and other necessities) we arrived in Krakow at 12:30 at night.
The story of the Jews in Krakow is not unlike that of Prague. Yesterday, after a late wake up and lunch, our participants were exposed to the greatness of Krakow’s leaders and Rabbis. Many contributions to Jewish life were made by such rabbis as the Ram”a (Rabbi Moshe Isserles), Rabbi Yom Tov Litman Heller, and the Temple synagogue exemplified the evolution and struggle with modernity of Poland’s pre-Second World War Jewish life. Our tour in Krakow coincided with the week long Jewish music festival here, which made our participants’ experience all the more rich and interesting. Members of group 12 had the good fortune to learn about Polish-Israeli relations from the Israeli Ambassador to Poland himself!
Today the trip changed tones significantly. After an intense preparation for the visit to Auschwitz – Birkenau, our students made their pilgrimage to the death camp about an hour outside of Krakow.. The preparation was both factual and spiritual in nature, with emphasis being put on the fact that we are all there for each other and that we will be going through the pilgrimage as a “kehila”, which supports its members.

We began our visit this morning with Shacharit – or morning prayers - at the synagogue of the Polish town of Oswiecim (what the Germans called Auschwitz), which at its height had close to a two-thirds Jewish population. It was a very emotional experience as our participants’ song and prayer filled the synagogue which has been bereft of any Jewish voices for more than six decades.
We then continued to the museum at Auschwitz I, where we toured the buildings and barracks with local guides. In the afternoon, our mechanchim (educators/tour guides) took our groups through the Nazi death camp of Birkenau, where over 1.5 million Jews were killed. The entire camp ended the day together with a moving ceremony adjacent to the camp’s main memorial. The groups have just finished debriefing after their pilgrimage today and have dedicated significant time to processing feelings and attempting to make sense out of what they saw today.
Tomorrow we will continue on to Warsaw where we will visit the famous Jewish cemetery, and tour the Warsaw Ghetto memorial route and begin to make our preparations for our flights to Israel.
I look forward to updating you soon upon arrival in the Holy Land.
B’vracha,
Josh Weinberg

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