Okopowa Cemetery and Treblinka

Our teens are terrific! Their insights and impressions are really quite profound and it has been wonderful sharing the past several days with them.

We began our day on Friday with a visit to the Okopowa Cemetery, the only Jewish cemetery in Warsaw and the largest in Poland. Established in 1806, the site contains 300,000 graves and burials are still held there. Teens saw how the stones were uniquely designed to represent various persons (tzedakah box for a charitable person, candlesticks for a woman). Two large stones are also there to represent BBYO’s restoration and clean-up work at the cemetery.

We also toured Treblinka, once an extermination camp and now a symbolic representation with 17,000 stones scattered over a massive field, representing every town, community and shtetl that was obliterated during the Holocaust. The larger stones bear the name of larger towns lost, and the smaller ones are of the nameless smaller communities that perished.

BACKGROUND: Treblinka was a major complex, located 50 miles northeast of Warsaw, on the main Warsaw-Bialystok railway line. There were two camps. The Nazis opened the first, Treblinka I, as a small forced-labor camp. The second, larger camp was Treblinka II, built for the sole purpose of extermination. The total number killed at Treblinka was 800,000, making it second only to Auschwitz in the numbers of Jews killed. On August 2, 1943, a group of Jewish prisoner-workers resisted in a planned revolt. Most of the 200 or more who did escape were eventually killed or recaptured. The Nazis closed both camps by 1944 and ploughed over both camps to conceal evidence. There were fewer than 100 survivors.

Our teens gathered at the site of the pits where bodies were once burned to participate in a moving memorial from the purple bus in memory of the Jewish people who lost their lives there. Leading the ceremony were Sydney Alhadeff (Illinois), Allison Mautner (New Jersey), Ari Sabot (Massachussetts), Ellie Kaneff (New Jersey), Kayla Eisenthal (New Jersey), Dana Weiss (New Jersey) and Megan McCorquodale (New Mexico).

The following is a poem written by Shira Hovav (Texas) after touring Treblinka:
If Only the Trees Could Talk

If only the trees could speak for the past
To bear witness for the dead when structures couldn’t last.
Their bark peels away to show us the fire,
To tell us of a tragedy fallen to cruel desire.
These trees have seen all.
They have watched every Jew fall
Into the dirty hands of hell-
Only the forest is alive to tell.
The dead branches caressing the ground,
This is the trees’ story with no sound.
The few leaves drinking the sun,
A new generation has now begun.
The woods cannot lie
When only they are left to testify.

Friday night, we joined with teens from many countries at Shabbat services at the Nozyk Synagogue and this morning we held our own morning service, led so beautifully by Brandon Alter (Maryland), Gillian Karon (Ohio) and Jack Hirsh (Pennsylvania) playing his guitar.

The rest of the day was spent touring the Warsaw Ghetto and learning about the great uprising and the remarkable heroism that unfolded there. We also toured the new Jewish Museum, followed by a ceremony from the green bus, led by Tulsa girls: Taylor King, Rachel Brodsky and Kathryn Kleiner, Jon Roth (Texas), and Brandon Levitt (Florida). Jordan Brooks (Ohio) taught everyone a special song and it was quite a wondrous site seeing the main square of the ghetto with all of our teens and hundreds more visitors.

Background: The Jewish population in Warsaw was 375,000 (1/3 of the city’s total population) when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. It was the second largest Jewish community, next to New York City. The ghetto existed from 1940-1943, with half a million Jews forced to live in an area suitable for 10,000. Over 100,000 died from starvation and disease. In the famous ghetto revolt, 300 resistance fighters led a Germans finally set fire to the entire ghetto. 75 escaped through the sewers to join the partisans in the forest, but, most were caught and killed. In 1945, Warsaw was liberated. Today, a younger generation of a few thousand is reviving Jewish activity in the city.

We walked to the Umschlagplatz, which was the station where victims were shipped to Treblinka in cattle cars. Over 300,000 Jews were loaded onto trains with promises of a better life, which of course, was a ruse to keep them calm. We stood atop Mila 18, the famous bunker of the Ghetto Uprising and gathered at Rappoport Monument, a structure honoring the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Shabbat concluded with a special visit from local Polish Jewish teens, followed by a Havdallah service led by Jack Hirsh (Ohio) on guitar and Allison Nudel (Pennsylvania).

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