MTA is a Yeshiva/Midrasha based Israel year program for participants from the Southern Hemisphere. World Bnei Akiva has partnered with four incredible institutions Midreshet Harova, Machon Maayan, Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi and Yeshivat Har Etzion, where participants can soak up Torat Eretz Yisrael! Outside of yeshiva, they experience Israel through seminars, Shabbatonim and tiyulim as well as kibbutz and a life-changing journey to Poland.
Thursday 28 July
We woke up early and travelled to the site of the Great Shule of Bedzin. One would assume that the Shule would be a grand structure with beautiful designs and many Sifrei Torah. But when we arrived at the site, we were shocked to discover a flat paved square on which the Shule once stood. Only eight days after the war began, the Nazis burnt down the Shule, including the Sifrei Torah and people who were davening inside the Shule on Motzei Shabbat.
After breakfast, we visited a bunker in the Benzin Ghetto in which the last of the Benzin youth hid before the building was destroyed. Here we also had a moving Tekes about the Zionist Youth Movements that were active in Poland (and particularly in the Benzin Ghetto) during the war.
Our last stop in Benzin was at the Mizrachi Synagogue where we learnt about the different types of Jews who lived in Benzin and the lives of the Jews of the Benzin Ghetto. The Shule was built in a basement of one of the buildings in a complex that was 100% Jewish before the war.
We then travelled to Nowy Targ and visited the Jewish Cemetery there. Last year, an organisation called "People Not Numbers" dedicated a memorial at the Cemetery listing the names of the 2,850 Jews who were murdered in the Cemetery in a mass execution in 1942. Collectively, we read out all the names of these Jews from the memorial to ensure that their memory lives on.
Lastly, we drove to Nowy Sacz (Sanz) to the Sanz Shteibel where the Sanz Chassidus originated. We had an impromptu Tisch in the Shule before we Davened Mincha.
On the bus on our way to Oswiecim, where we are sleeping tonight, we sang Kah Echsof (a beautiful 10 minute Zmira) that is sung weekly at both Gush and Eretz on Thursday nights. We sang Kah Echsof as the sun was setting and it was a very fitting ending to our day full of learning about the Jews of Benzin, Nowy Targ and Nowy Sacz.
Friday 29 July
Todays was a journey that warranted תפילת הדרך.
The rhythmic gravel crunching beneath our shoes as we walk from train track to barracks, masks the trepidation in our hearts. Because the ground upon which we walk, the majestic trees surrounding us and the yellow flowers in the grass have been watered by the blood of our people.
We start our day with a Rosh Chodesh Tefillah, in a fully functional shul, 3km away from the valley of the shadow of death. Auschwitz- Birkenau
As we arrive at Auschwitz I, the delicious meals from our luxury accommodation start to feel slightly uncomfortable in our stomachs. Because in this place there are piles of shoes, and mounds of hair, and clusters of glasses which belonged to individuals. Real people. Our people.
As we brush our hands over the cold scratches of the gas chamber walls, emotion bubbles to the surface. It erupts when we confront the furnaces where people were burnt. Our people.
And yet we stand in Mifkad in the square where our people stood for hours in the freezing cold or boiling heat, and we breathe new life into this place of destruction. Kadima Bnei Akiva.
We press forward into what Rav Raphy calls the biggest graveyard in the entire world, without any graves. This is Auschwitz II, the site of the murder of 1.5 million of our people. He tells us that you cannot enter such a place without a tefilah.
And so we chant תפילת הדרך in order to request our safe passage through this hell on earth.
We follow the train tracks past the selection ramp, along the gas chambers and crematoria, through the shower, disinfectant and initiation rooms, around the barracks, and to the mass graves in the corner of the camp.
Throughout, we are guided by the informative yet simultaneously haunting and inspiring voice of Rav Raphy as he brings alive the stories of those we have sworn to remember.
After a few moments of quiet contemplation, we begin to our exit. Our arms link as our shoes crunch the gravel beneath us.
גם כי אילך בגיא צלמוות לא יררה
Even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death we don’t fear.
כי אתה עימדי
Because You, HaShem are with us.
We exit the place where our people dreamed and died to be able to leave. We leave as deeper thinkers, more sensitive men and most of all proud jews.
And we fulfill the prophecy of Yechezkiel:
“Thus said HaShem to these bones:
I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live again.”
Todays was a journey that warranted תפילת הדרך.
Sunday 31st July
We begin our day by davening at the beautiful Dąbrowa Tarnowska Shul. As soon as you walk into the entrance you can feel the magnitude and the beauty of the shul that was the centre of the community. The paintings and psukim that depicted Eretz Yisrael on the roof and walls were mesmerising.
The acoustics elevated the davening and truly connected us to the past of the community that used to daven there.
It was fascinating to look at displays after davening and learn about the history of the community.
After davening we then traveled to Zbylitowska Góra to the children’s cemetery to experience and pay respect to the children who were ripped away from their families and whose futures were stolen.
We were told about the emotional trauma that families went through when younger siblings, sons and daughters were forcefully taken away and sent to be brutally murdered by the Nazis.
We then had an extremely moving tekes when we shared our most treasured childhood memories in order to connect to what was lost for these children.
To our surprise our Madrichim then told us that our parents had written us letters. We were told to find our own personal space within the cemetery and take our time to read the letters.
In those moments we understood how integral our families are to our life and how important they are to us and how much strength we receive from them.
We then travelled to Lezansk to visit the grave of Rav Elimelech of Lezansk where we had a L’chaim and a beautiful tisch with some chasidim who were also davening at the kever, followed by stories about Rav Elimelech.
Majdanek puts it into perspective how cruel and torturous the death camps were, it made us see how incomprehensible it is for a group of people to inflict so much suffering onto a nation.
We were taught that prisoners were made to do pointless tasks like push cement wheelbarrows purely to demoralise the prisoners.
It is difficult to comprehend how 500-1000 prisoners were kept in each hut. We were then shown inside these huts to see the appalling sleeping conditions that the prisoners had to deal with.
The next part of the journey through Majdanek was to the graves that the Jews dug for themselves. They were then shot in the graves on the 3rd and 4th of November known as the “Harvest Festival” to the Germans where approximately 40,000 Jews were killed.
We ended our journey at the mound of ashes where we read verses from Yechezkel about תחיית המתים and had a moment to remember all the lives that were cruelly taken away. It is hard to read those verses from Yechezkel as anything other than the rollercoaster that was Jewish history in the twentieth century:
“The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “Hashem, you alone know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what Hashem says to these bones: I will make breathe enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.”
נצח ישראל לא ישקר