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Reflections on the JDS Senior Capstone Trip to Poland and Prague 

Ilana Winter

This spring, I spent a week and a half in Poland and Prague with my grade as part of the CESJDS Senior Capstone trip. Over the course of nine days we visited multiple cities, synagogues, ghettos, and concentration camps as we retraced the journey of the Jews during the Holocaust.  

The path of the Jews of Prague and Poland began in the Jewish quarters of cities that used to have large Jewish communities. As we walked down streets that had once been filled with Jews, I felt a sort of empty sadness as I realized that these age-old Jewish communities had been almost completely wiped out.

We started our trip in Prague, spending a day and a half walking through the city and visiting the old Jewish quarter, which housed multiple old synagogues including the Altnue (Old-New) Synagogue, which had been the home of the Maharal of Prague and his Golem.

In addition to Prague, we passed through a couple of Polish cities, such as Lublin, that no longer had any Jews living permanently in them at all. Other than the ruins of a single synagogue or a plaque on a wall, there was no trace that a Jewish community had existed there for hundreds of years.

After looking back on the pre-war Jewish communities, we transitioned to the ghettos that many of the Jewish quarters had been turned in to under Nazi rule. We saw the last remnants of the ghetto wall in Krakow and walked past buildings that had once been crowded with hundreds of Jews in Theresienstadt.

From the ghettos we followed the path of the Jews to concentration camps. We visited the Plaszow camp, Auschwitz, and Majdanek. In Auschwitz and Majdanek we walked through barracks, gas chambers, and crematoriums as we followed the path of the Final Solution.  

The most haunting day of the trip for me was when we went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. As we entered Auschwitz under the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign, the entire atmosphere seemed to change. It was the same kind of feeling that comes when entering a cemetery, a feeling of sadness mixed with solemnity. We entered old brick barracks that had housed political prisoners and walked past huge piles of shoes, clothes, and suitcases that had belonged to those who were murdered. In one building, an enormous pile of human hair lay behind a pane of glass. I felt like I was walking past the ghosts of the people whose hair that had been, who had all been taken to the gas chambers.

That afternoon we went to Birkenau, which was the part of the camp complex where most of the Jews were taken. We entered the camp on the train tracks that carried so many people before us into the camp. From there we went to the freezing wooden barracks that housed the Jews who worked in the concentration camp. As we shivered our way through the barracks I wondered how anyone was able to survive throughout all of that cold and misery.

We then went to a beautiful pond surrounded by trees that lay outside of the crematoriums. The pond was created because of water flowing into the huge pile of human ash that had accumulated there. I remember wondering how something so beautiful could have been made from something so terrible.

One thought that kept on running through my head as I walked through Birkenau that was repeated every time I walked through a ghetto or a concentration camp was the thought of how much pain the ground I was walking on had witnessed. I was passing through a space that was a place of terror, misery, and death for thousands – and in the case of Auschwitz more than a million Jews before me. I kept wondering how many people had died in the spot where I was standing.

I always felt a very personal connection to the Jews who walked before me in these places of death and suffering. These Jews were my people, my family, and I felt that their suffering was in some way my own as well. I was their legacy, and I felt that it was my responsibility to remember the horrors that they had undergone.  

While the trip had many points of horror and extreme sadness, there were some good memories that came out of it. We spent Shabbat in Krakow and Friday night davened in the Izaak Synagogue, an old synagogue that was bursting with hundreds of teenagers from different tour groups who had come there to bring in Shabbat.   

On Shabbat afternoon we visited the JCC of Krakow and learned about the growing Jewish community of Krakow and Poland as a whole. Our hosts told us about the increasing numbers of Jews who are just now finding out about their Jewish heritage from aging grandparents who had previously hidden their religion during the days of Communism. We learned that Poland as a whole has a number of cities with some sort of Jewish community and around eight different cities with synagogues. It was very heartening to learn that while Poland’s Jewish community had been devastated, it still survived and is now in the process of reshaping itself.   

One of the most important realizations that came from the trip was just how important it is that the Jews have continued on past the Holocaust. After seeing all of the atrocities that were committed in the Holocaust I realized that the very fact that the worldwide Jewish community recovered from the Holocaust is almost beyond belief. I came away from that trip feeling a sense of pride that I am part of a nation that refused to be exterminated by evil and that is still very much alive.


Tue, September 22 2020 4 Tishrei 5781