Above: On a cloudy December morning, Weber students draped in Israeli flags stand outside the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
For five weeks in December and January, 36 seniors from the Weber School took part in an impactful trip to Israel.
But rather than the traditional trip as Weber has taken in years past, the Jewish high school added a weeklong section in Poland focused on Jewish history and the rebuilding of modern Jewish communities there after the Holocaust.
In Poland the students experienced what was once a Jewish community numbering in the millions and traveled to Auschwitz and Majdanek to bear witness to the horrors of the Shoah. Students also met with Jewish youths at the new Jewish community centers in Krakow and Warsaw.
“The students were definitely impacted by their experience,” said Rachel Zebrak, the coordinator of the Israel/Poland Experience trip for Weber. “It is an extraordinary culmination to our students’ Jewish day school and general high school careers.”
Zebrak said the goal of the five-week trip was to teach the students about the significance of the creation of modern Israel and its place in history to help develop their attachment to the Jewish state. One sign of the trip’s success is that several Weber seniors now are looking at gap year programs in Israel.
The students’ experiences in Israel ranged from studying at IDC Herzliya to participating in social justice activities at Tahana Merkazit. They went through a five-day Israel Defense Forces simulation program called GADNA, in which the Weber students learned how to shoot M-16 rifles, took military orders and slept in tents. The Atlanta teens also studied and re-enacted the battle of Masada and prayed in the 2,000-year-old synagogue in the mountain fortress.
Having gotten a taste of that ancient battle, they visited Sderot, the southern town that has been subjected to relentless rocket fire from Gaza the past decade. The students also took up issues of coexistence during meetings with Arabs and Druze.
“Having traveled to Israel two times already, I doubted that the third trip would be much different. I mainly went to be with my friends and to grow closer with them as we made our way through the classic tourist sites and cities,” Weber senior Michelle Nelkin said. “Upon reflectance, I realize that this trip brought me closer not only to my friends, but also to Israel and to Judaism through the power of our very own language: Hebrew.”
Zebrak said, “Our kids left Israel with a love and appreciation for the country that will forever be solidified in their hearts and souls.”
‘Saddest Day in Poland’
Weber School senior Remy Zimmerman kept a journal throughout the trip and provided the following excerpt from one of her entries in Poland.
Today was our saddest day in Poland so far. We went to the Auschwitz concentration camp in the morning, and I was really nervous on the bus ride there. We got headsets and radios and split off into our two classes. It was very foggy and gloomy outside, which accurately set the mood for the day.
We walked through the concentration camp and saw where people slept, where women were tortured, where medical tests were done, and honestly, I feel weird writing these things down; it is so inhumane.
We were told a story about how the Nazis would cut open the stomachs of pregnant women, clear them out and put live animals inside. They would sow them up and let them slowly die. It’s terrible.
Parts of the concentration camp were set up like a museum. There was a room of hair, a room of shoes, a room of brushes and a room of suitcases, all of which were found at the camp and belonged to people who were unwillingly brought in. It made everything very real. These artifacts were right in front of my eyes … all of them, in a pile.
I don’t understand how people still deny the Holocaust. It makes no sense to me. I can’t fully put into words everything I was thinking today, and I can’t wrap my mind around everything we saw.
We went to the book of names, and none of my family had been in the Holocaust, but I still looked up my last name and found five pages filled with Zimmermans. There were also two full pages of Greenbergs, which was my mom’s maiden name. It scared me to see these pages. I don’t know if I am related to any of them. I don’t think I am, but what if I’m wrong?
We went to another room that was dedicated to the children who died at the camp. An artist took drawings that those kids made during the war and re-created them exactly how they were found. They were all drawn in pencil, and some had small amounts of color. Using a pencil as well, he traced the pictures directly on to the wall. He didn’t add or take away anything from the original drawings.
There were recordings of kids talking that had been recovered from the Holocaust, and they were playing overhead. This room got to me. Some kids drew birds and trees, and others drew soldiers with guns. They were too young to understand the war, but some kids were able to depict an accurate image. I was sad throughout the tour, but this was the first part that made me cry.
After this we walked into a gas chamber, and it was really disturbing. I don’t know what else I could write about it. This was the closest I have, and ever will be, to understanding what life was like during the Holocaust, and I am still nowhere near full comprehension. The tour was like going through a time machine.
The part that really spoke to me was at the end when our guide said to us, “Your visit is over. Follow me to the exits and return your headset.” Our walk through the concentration camp was just a tour. … We were able to leave. Victims of the Holocaust were not on a tour that had an end.
They couldn’t make any long-term goals. Each morning they woke up and had to focus on surviving that single day or that single hour. They knew their time was limited, but they didn’t know when that limit would become their reality. The inside of the concentration camps were their only world. I saw that same inside but was able to walk out.