Central Europe Discovery: Leaving Poland for New Discoveries

Our journey to Krakow has both its ups and downs literally! Our drive through Slovakia was mountainous with passing ski towns and gorgeous views. Unfortunately, our bus broke down half-way through as well, but the group made the best of our short intermission by playing some games and taking a much needed stretch break.

Our one stop before Krakow was the Wieliczka Salt Mines where we went over 130 meters underground to explore the ancient salt mines of the area. We arrived in Krakow just in time for Shabbat and because of a discourse between the Rabbi and the landlord of the synagogue (haha!), we celebrated Shabbat with 200 NFTY teens also visiting Krakow. Talia L., Minneapolis, MN, expressed, “Services were so fun and really reminded me of camp! Can all our Shabbats be like this?” The night of ruach and song prepared us for our overwhelming, but important days ahead.

The next morning we learned about the Krakow ghetto and visited the memorial at “Sendoff Square,” a plaza where over 70,000 Jews were transported to death camps. It was a reflective moment for many of our teens. We walked past Schindler’s Factory on our way to Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter of Krakow. We toured ancient synagogues and heard local folktale stories as well. In the afternoon, we trekked up the hill to Wawel Castle which overlooked the Wistula River and offered a great photo opp for our teens. We continued to the Old Town square for a few hours of free time. Noah L., Overland Park, KS, mentioned that his favorite time is when the teens get to self-explore the cities were visiting. 

After dinner, we joined as a group to prepare for our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Havdalah.We began at Auschwitz I which served as the labor camp for the Nazi war machine. The barracks are now home to a museum that displays stories, items, and pictures both of ones we lost and survivors of the Holocaust. Jake R., Farmingdale, NY, mentioned his discomfort by how, “They just took everything out and put it on display. It feels strange to me.” At Auschwitz I, there is a room featuring the Book of Names that lists 4 million names of victims of the Holocaust. All our teens searched the long, long list to find a name to carry with them for the person who may not have anyone left to remember them. Some, including Jackson D., Minnetonka, MN,  asked later that evening where to find the list again to do more research.

We bussed over to Auschwitz II-Birkenau which shows replicas of barracks, the bombed remains of the gas chambers, and several memorials to the millions killed at the site. The teens felt heavy and anxious, but also proud and blessed to be free and proud Jews walking around a place we were once so tortured. Our memorial service was co-lead by staff and teens including Adin Z., Edina, MN, who led us in the song Eli Eli. After all that heaviness, we visited the local town and the final remaining synagogue of the community. To end the night, we brought laughter and smiles back in with bowling and cake for the 16th birthday of Yarden N., Plymouth, MN. 

Our travel to Warsaw was lengthy, but with two very important stops. That morning, we visited a mass grave outside a small town in Poland and that afternoon, we went to Majdanek, a death and labor camp in Lublin, Poland. Lucy D., Golden Valley, MN, told us, “It was crazy to see the camps. I didn’t picture the fences and had never thought about how people really lived there, how bad the conditions were and how many people died not even from the gas chambers.” 

After our moving experience at Majdanek, we enjoyed a relaxing dinner in the town of Lublin to prepare for our three final hours of driving to Warsaw. On the bus the teens had tons of fun, and Aliya A., Minneapolis, MN, mentioned that, “We played heads up on our long bus rides and everything was funny because we were all exhausted and just happy to be together.” We slept well that night in Warsaw needless to say!

Our final day in Poland led us to the Warsaw ghetto, the only surviving synagogue of WWI, and to the Jewish cemetery where famous figures were laid to rest. Many of the kids were surprised by the size of Warsaw including Aden B., Leawood, KS, who said, “I loved seeing a big city atmosphere, urban buildings, rather than the small Medieval European towns we’ve been in all trip.” And finally we’re off to Eretz Yisrael! 

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