Nissan, a group of MMY talmidot participates, together with many
other women's Yeshivot and seminaries, in the Heritage Seminars
trip to Eastern Europe. MMY students generally make up one of the
largest contingents on the program, and Rabbi Katz travels there
with them. This year's itinerary took them to Poland and Ukraine.
Below is one student's record of her experiences
We got back from Poland last night at 2:30 AM and now I have some time
to write to you about my trip. It was extremely amazing and we're so happy
that we had this once in a lifetime opportunity to go to Poland (thanks
parents) I'm going to write about the trip to give you some idea of what
it was like, but it's very difficult to express this type of thing in
words and descriptions, so you'll have to excuse that.
Day 1: Krakow
We arrived in Krakow late morning and it was a gross, rainy, cold day.
We drove from the airport toward the Wavel castle, passing a lot of empty
space and a very rural part of Poland. When we got to Krakow, though,
we saw that all of Poland is not rural that way. Krakow is a big city
with shops and restaurants and hotels. The Wavel is from the 13th century,
although it's been rebuilt and restored, obviously, since then. It is
a big area, and we didn?t really spend so much time there. We saw
the Visla river that is next to the castle and the area where the Jews
lived, outside of the city walls, as a result of blood libels. During
WWII, Krakow was the capital of the Nazi "General Government"
and Hans Frank had his office in the Wavel.
Next we went to Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of the city. We walked
around with a man named Rabbi Halpern who grew up in Krakow when it looked
like Boro Park, in terms of the amount of Jews that lived there. It was
very interesting to walk with him because he made it very colorful by
showing us where the stores and mikvaot, shuls and yeshivot were. He told
us stories about life there, and it really brought the place alive. Today,
the main street of what was once the Jewish quarter consists of bars and
restaurants and hotels. Some of them have Hebrew letters or Jewish symbols
on their signs as commemoration of what was once there. Our guide, Safira,
told us that some of these bars have in them furniture that belonged to
the Jews before they were kicked out.
Next we went to the Rema shul and the nearby cemetery, which has in it
the graves of the Bach, the Rema, and the Tosfot Yom Tov. Each of these
Rabbis are very important in Jewish Halachic literature, in that they
write a lot of the practices that we follow in modern Jewish law. It was
quite amazing to be at the gravesites of Rabbis whose writings we have
learned over the course of this year, and now we had the opportunity to
see where they lived and to pray at their graves.
We next went to a pharmacy which was halfway in and halfway out, of the
Krakow ghetto. The pharmacist there was a righteous gentile who helped
the Jews by smuggling goods and information in and out of the ghetto.
The pharmacy is now a museum.
We took quick stops at the ghetto wall and the original Schindler factory.
We then went to the Plazsow concentration camp which is totally and utterly
empty. It is a field full of dead trees and dead grass. Nearby we saw
the home of Amon Goet who was the commander of the camp and who used to
shoot prisoners out of his back window. It was very disturbing because
someone lives in that house now, and people live in apartment buildings
right near Plazsow. While we were there, a man and his two children came
there to play in the big empty field. We went to the monument that they
have there and had a short ceremony commemorating the victims.
Day 2, Friday: Aushwitz-Birknau We walked up stairs for an aerial view of the camp,
and the sheer size of it was astonishing. Barbed wire, guard towers, barracks,
as far as the eye can see. After we walked through we realized that it
was even bigger that it originally seemed. It is very difficult to describe
the intensity of the emotions to be standing in that horrible place which
has been termed "the other planet." We hear holocaust stories
and read books and hear survivors speak, but to stand on the very earth
where all that took place is an indescribable experience.
We walked to the crematorium (destroyed by the Nazis), into barracks,
into the building where they shaved and stripped the prisoners of all
their belongings. We went in with a survivor, and he blew a shofar at
the crematorium, it was very, very powerful.
Next we went to Auschwitz I which is where Polish POWs lived. Relative
to what we had just seen it was nice there. We had a Polish guide, so
it was interesting to get the Polish perspective on the war. Auschwitz
I is pretty much a museum, and there they have collected rooms and rooms
filled with shoes, dishes, suitcases, hair and other belongings. It is
difficult to describe the feeling of seeing a room full of hair that was
shaved off of women's heads as they were degraded and thrown into concentration
camp barracks, probably to be later killed. Each room seemed a bottomless
pit filled with these items.
Day 3: Shabbat
Friday night and Shabbat day we davened at an absolutely beautiful synagogue.
There was much singing and dancing, which was difficult, yet necessary,
after what we had just seen that very day.
Shabbat morning we had a celebration for having completed learning the
whole Tanach. It was split up to be learned by all the girls form the
various schools. We stood outside the very first Beit Yaakov seminary
for women, which was really the beginning of Jewish women's education.
Day 4, Sunday: Lezajsk and Lublin
We went to visit the grave of Rabbi Elimelech of Lezajsk, who was really
the one who spread the movement of Chassidut. It was strange, but we danced
at his grave, because that's what he wanted people to do - to dance and
not to cry. We learned about him and we danced there.
We next went to the Lublin ghetto where we saw what was once another
thriving Jewish community. At night we went to the great yeshiva there
called Yeshiva of Chachmei Lublin, and we learned Torah there.
We also went to Majdanek today which is another experience which is very
difficult to describe. Majdanek today remains almost exactly how it was.
The gas chambers were not destroyed, and we stood in the very room with
the ovens. We saw a pile, no, a mountain, of ashes from the people whose
bodies were burned in those ovens. It was, understandably, an extremely
Day 5: Warsaw
We went to the Jewish cemetery, where the Netziv and Rav Chaim Soloveitchik
are buried. There are also Yiddish poets buried there.
Next we went to the Jewish Historical Institute where we heard an absolutely
fascinating presentation by the head of it. Basically, they have been
involved in reuniting families, helping people discover that they?re
Jewish and telling them what that means. They have a tremendous archive
full of diaries and documents, and they have the real original Schindler's
list. I don't have time now to write the incredible stories of discovery
he told us.
We had short stops also at Mila 18, the headquarters for the Warsaw ghetto
uprising, and the umshlagplatz, the train station from where the Jews
were transported to Treblinka.
We also went to the shtetl called Karczew where we visited a cemetery
and cleaned it up a little. We prayed outside a kindergarten which had
been the synagogue of that community.
Day 6, Tuesday: Kiev
We arrived in Kiev around noon and went to various shuls in the area which
are still being used. We went to Babi Yar, where 150,000 Ukrainian Jews
were shot into a mass grave in the course of 3 days. Similar to Plazsow
it was difficult there, because as we were reading testimonies of what
atrocities went on there, there were Ukrainian children building a snowman
on that mass grave.
We had a brief stop at the monument to Chmielnicki, who was led fighters
who killed many Jews in the 17th century in pogroms during the Cossack
At night, we heard a speech from the chief Rabbi of Kiev who told us
about what present life is like in that community.
Day 7, Wednesday: Berditchev and Mezibozh
We were only able to go two places today because they are very far apart.
We went to the gravesites and shuls of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev
and the Baal Shem Tov, both of whom were tremendously influential 18th
century rabbis who basically saved Judaism by founding and spreading Chassidut
to give hope and meaning to the Jews whose lives were otherwise miserable.
Day 8, Thursday: Uman
We went to the Sophia Gardens and walked around there and learned a little
about the area and the history. We went to the gravesite of Rabbi Nachman
from Bratslav and danced and sang some more.
This is a huge simplification, as I said, of what went on in our lives
over the past week. It is really just the shell of something that was
much more profound and deep that is both difficult and time-consuming
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