Welcome to the Story of Our Trip: Day One, March 25, 2012
Dear family and friends,
This is the first entry in our ten-day journey to Poland and Israel. Each day two HEN teachers will give highlights of what’s happening. This first post is being written by Sondra Perl, Jennifer Lemberg, and Erica Kaufman, all of whom are the leaders of the HEN Network. There are twenty-nine of us on the trip: Memorial Library Board members Mark Berez and David Field and their wives Carole Lustig and Ellen Field; Jacob Shoshan, an Israeli historian, indefatigable tour guide; and Mark’s aunt Assia, who is a survivor of the Holocaust. The teachers on the trip include: Diane Williams, Kellie Hannum, Angela Harvey (from Idaho); Wendy Warren and Brenda Johnston (from Montana); Janis Hausmann (from South Dakota); Heather Hollands, Amy Laitinen, and Corey Harbaugh (from Michigan); Casi Owens, Stephanie Smith, and Sue Fletcher (from Kentucky and Ohio); Tosha Tilloston and Gail Desler (from California); Jane Connealy, Tom Seib, and Katie Elsener (from Nebraska); and Gatsinzi Basaninyenzi (from Alabama). We are also joined by two videographers: Steve Zehentner and Roger Grange who follow us around with cameras everywhere we go. Each day going forward, a team of teachers will be reporting on our travels.
7PM. JFK. Our group begins to gather amid heartfelt hellos and warm hugs, with all of our luggage tagged with purple lacy ribbons. After checking in and going through security, we meet briefly to share some writing about what the trip means to us. We hear from each other about fears and anticipations and excitement, but are interrupted often by blaring tv’s and curious travelers. We board our LOT flight to Warsaw – for some of our teachers this is their first time taking a transatlantic flight – and all goes smoothly. We arrive safely in Warsaw on Sunday to a clear, sunny afternoon.
On the bus to the Gensha Cemetery, the largest Jewish cemetery in the world with tombstones dating back several centuries, Jacob describes Poland as a country with a “mixed history,” reminding us that we are standing on ground that resonates and reverberates. Jacob also reminds us that we are the link between the survivors and their stories and the future.
After the cemetery, we board the bus and drive through Warsaw en route to the Warsaw Ghetto. During this trip, we notice that Warsaw is becoming an increasingly cosmopolitan city. We follow the route that the Jews took from the Ghetto to the Umschlagplatz (gathering place prior to deportation), and stop at Mila 18 (the location of the final bunker where the last Jewish resistance fighters chose to kill themselves rather than be killed by the Germans). At Mila 18 we also encounter a ceremony being conducted by a unit of the Israeli army, most moving for all of us was standing there listening and watching the soldiers sing Hatikvah. From Mila 18, we then walk to the monument to Samuel Zygelboim, the head of the Polish government in exile, who, when hearing about the destruction of the Ghetto and the murder of the Jews, committed suicide in protest. Having had no way to stop the murder of the Jews in his life, he was hoping to make a statement by his death.
Before leaving the Ghetto area, we are able to visit two remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto walls. Our final stop, after the Umschlagplatz, was the Nozyk Synagogue—a Sephardic-inspired synagogue—and we are saddened to think that of 135 synagogues in Warsaw before the war, this is the only one that remains. We end the evening at a Jewish-themed restaurant and enjoy a rare opportunity to meet with three Polish teachers of history, English, and Spanish. The discussion was engaging, rich, and full of shared laughter. On the bus back to the hotel, Jacob points out the power in these young teachers being able to laugh, a change, he says, in the demeanor and attitude of Poles in the past thirty years.