Am Yisrael Chai

Outside the modern structure of the Museum of History of Polish Jews. Photo credit: Emmanuel Santos

Outside the modern structure of the Museum of History of Polish Jews. Photo credit: Emmanuel Santos

On our final day in Poland we were based in Warsaw.  We visited the site of The New Museum of The History of Polish Jews that is nearing completion. This striking glass building stands on the site of the former ghetto and will feature a multi-media exhibit focussed on the vibrant Jewish community that in flourished in Poland for a thousand years preceding the Holocaust. Quite different from the community it is today. Using the latest historical research and most innovative exhibition design, the museum will immerse visitors in the world of Polish Jews and encourage exploration through a wide range of media, documents, and artifacts. As a cultural and educational center, the Museum will provide a unique learning environment, lively public programs, and singular meeting place for a diverse public.

Visiting the memorial to the partisans, Mila 18 and the deportation station at Umschlagplatz, a graveyard within the Warsaw ghetto and finally paying tribute at the last remaining piece of ghetto wall brought our trip in Poland to a close.  At the wall, a number of testimonials were read and tour rabbi, Rabbi Menachem Wolf led the group in a ceremony of remembrance, really bringing it home to us all the connections we have with each other.  Neither time nor geography can diminish the feeling of a people lost in this tragedy and how we all, as Jews globally, continue to feel this loss.

Inside the Illegal Immigrants Detention Camp at Atlit.

Inside the Illegal Immigrants Detention Camp at Atlit. Photo credit: Emmanuel Santos

Arriving in Israel on an overnight flight, our group went directly to Kibbutz Nachscholim for breakfast before heading to Atlit Camp – the illegal immigrants refugee camp used by the British between 1945 and 1948 that housed illegal Jews arriving from post-Holocaust Europe.  The similarity between the living conditions in these camps and the labour camps we had just seen in Poland was striking to us.  My heart ached to think that people who had lived through the horror in Europe were then subject to this kind of welcome in our Jewish homeland.

On the way to Jerusalem the next morning, we stopped at Neve Michael Children’s Village , the only multidisciplinary children’s home in Israel. It provides a refuge and loving home for over 300 children and youth at risk highlighting to us that Jews have the same social problems as any other society.  It’s important to remind ourselves, after an experience like MOTL, that there are still people struggling with everyday problems and that as a society we are responsible to and for each other.

Spending Shabbos in Israel is always special – we needed this to lift our spirits and remind ourselves that life carries on and that as Jews we are solidly entrenched as a nation of people.

Our visit to Yad Vashem the next day reinforced the horrors visited throughout Europe on our people and again also reinforced the importance of never forgetting.  For me, walking along the path of the Righteous Among The Nations outside the museum is always a very emotional journey.  In any tragedy, there are people that rush forward to help, that stand up against injustice and evil.  Many were ordinary people who never intended to be rescuers or heroes, who acted out of a sense of humanity.  People like Oskar Schindler and Irena Sendler.

Irena Sendler, an amazing human being.

Irena Sendler, an amazing human being.

Irena Sendler is an unfamiliar name to most people, but this remarkable woman defied the Nazis and saved 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto to safe hiding places and found non-Jewish families to adopt them or placed them in Catholic orphanages.
 Irena and her co-workers buried lists of the hidden children in jars in order to keep track of their original and new identities. She assured the children that, when the war was over, they would be returned to Jewish relatives.  Unfortunately after the war, many of their parents had perished.  In 1965 she was recognised by the State of Israel as a Righteous Among the Nations. You can read more about her here.

The following day we attended the Yom Hazikaron ceremony at Kibbutz Ein Gedi.  The ceremony payed tribute to Israel’s 23,000 soldiers lost in the wars over the years.  Historically, the day opens with a siren the preceding evening at 8pm.  The siren is heard throughout the country and lasts for one minute during which time Israeli’s stop everything (including driving – traffic comes to a standstill, even on highways) and stand in silence, commemorating the fallen and showing respect. A second siren lasting for two minutes is sounded at 11am the following morning that marks the opening of the official memorial ceremonies and private remembrance gatherings at each cemetery where soldiers are buried.  We were told that the scheduling of Yom Hazikaron right before Yom Haatzmaut is intended to remind people of the price paid for independence and what has been achieved with the soldier’s sacrifice.

We returned to Jerusalem for the transition service heralding the start of Yom Haatzmaut.  Israel was alive, celebrating 65 years as a nation.  It’s a nation of people and a homeland that we as Jews both living in Israel and in the diaspora celebrate as a triumph of our spirit.

Am Yisrael Chai!

In concluding this epic journey of both body and soul I cannot begin to document the importance of this program – how we need to encourage our children to participate, how we, as adults have an incredible amount to gain from being part of this journey and how we need to continue to fund and grow this initiative. I would like to make special mention of Irit Ben-Nissan and her team of educators, madrichim and support people for making our trip so incredible. Thank you from us all. A final mention to the students on MOTL 2013 – your courage, tenacity and maturity are testament to the human beings you are and will be in the future – our community can be proud.

Israeli flags

Am Yisrael Chai

Again, I thank you for travelling with me through this blog.  If you would like to contact me on my return to discuss further, please email me at ians@jca.org.au

Ian