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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Heritage Trip to Poland 2015/5775: Day 1

Today, 37 Yeshivah of Flatbush seniors, and 12 adults including parents, family members, and three faculty members: Rabbi Prag and Ms. Zimmerman along with historian, Rabbi Tzvi Shiloni (HS ’89) arrived in Poland for our annual Senior Heritage Trip to Poland.

After a long flight, we jumped right into a long and inspiring day. We began our journey with a visit to the Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. It is one of the largest  Jewish cemeteries in Europe with over 450,000 Jews buried there with over 150,000 standing tombstones as their monuments. The people in the cemetery were buried backward, with their heads facing the exit instead of their feet. This was because the first person buried there was buried facing the wrong way by accident and the rabbi of Warsaw at the time didn't want him to be the only one who would have to "turn around" to face the fence during תחיית המתים.
Students walking through the cemetery in Warsaw
We saw many graves with engravings that told the people's life stories. Scholars had books engraved, actors had masks, lumber shippers had trees and ships.  Even though we did not know the people buried there personally we got good sense of who they were. A man by the name of Abraham Karmi once lived in that very cemetery for three years. Karmi even had his bar mitzvah in the cemetery! When the Nazis came, he had to hide along with his mother in the graves that they dug for themselves. The thought is heart-aching.
Students at the grave that Abraham Karmi dug for himself as a hiding place.
We visited graves of many important people in our Jewish heritage. All 49 of us squished into the ohel around the graves of the נצי"ב, (Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin) and Rav Chaim Soloveitchik where we sang nigunim and recited tehillim. We also saw the grave of י״ל פרץ, a Hebrew author whom we studied in Hebrew class and Adam Cherniakowa, a member of the Judenrat who gave up his own life in trying to save the lives of others.
Grave of Rav Chaim Soloveitchik
We stopped at a corner in the cemetery with no tombstones- just dirt. We were standing in front of a mass grave, קבר אחים, that is likely the burial site for the great- grandmother of one of our own students (Rachel Singer). We said Kaddish, lit a candle, and sang Acheinu together. It was a special moment for everyone to witness the togetherness of our group in a place where our ancestors once stood in such unity.
Abby Shegelmen and Nicole Yankovich folding paper to visualize how tightly packed the Jews were in the Warsaw Ghetto
After the cemetery, we visited what was once the Warsaw Ghetto where over 33% of Warsaw's population was stuffed into less then 2.5% of Warsaw. We prayed Mincha at the only remaining wall of the ghetto. Nothing else remains of the ghetto because the Nazis destroyed it all after the ghetto's uprising.
Nina Haber praying Mincha at the Warsaw Ghetto Wall
We learned that it took the Germans just two weeks to defeat the Poles who had the strength and equipment to defend themselves but took these same Germans two months to defeat the Jews in this ghetto. The last bunker was destroyed on Pesach with the people still in it. Children recited the Ma Nishtana wondering if it would be their last time and fathers responded with the same question.

We ended the night with a group dinner at the Galil restaurant where we all shared our thoughts on the emotional first day.
Goodnight from Lublin! ~Nicole Yankovich