Keshet June 2014 Jewish Roots Journey to Europe
- Excerpts from a daily journal by Keshet’s Educational Director and Tour Leader Danny Ehrlich
At the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw we explored the complex pre-war Jewish world that was, and then continued to the Ghetto walls and memorials where we stood in solemn memory of the destruction of this dynamic society. We continued to the Nozyk Synagogue, the only surviving pre-war synagogue in Warsaw, where we learned about Jewish life in Poland today. This photo depicts a memorial to Janusz Korczak with the backdrop of some of Warsaw’s new modern buildings.
We toured the spectacular Wieliczka Salt Mines near Krakow, a UNESCO world heritage site with huge elaborate halls, chapels and sculptures. (The photo shows a salt bust of King Kazmierz, who gave the Jewish community of Poland rights in the 1300s). Afterwards, we continued on to the Krakow Jewish Community Center to meet and hear the inspiring story of a “Righteous Gentile” who risked so much to save Jews during the Holocaust. We concluded the evening with dinner at the JCC with members of the Jewish community to learn about Jewish life in Krakow today.
We explored some of the historic synagogues in Kazimierz, Krakow’s former Jewish ghetto district, and considered the role of Krakow’s rabbis and leaders in shaping contemporary Jewish identity. Then we headed to the site of Auschwitz where we stood in solemn memory and traced the pathways of the over one million Jews enslaved and murdered there by the Germans.
We started the day in Krakow, outside the gates of what had been Oscar Schindler’s factory and pondered what factors bring a person to risk so much to become a hero like Schindler, saving the lives of over 1,100 Jews. We continued to the ghetto wall and memorial. On our long bus journey to Prague we were joined by Karrol, a young non-Jewish college student from the Krakow area who volunteers at the JCC. We had a lively discussion and interchange about Polish-Jewish relations, anti-Semitism in Poland today and his interest as a young Polish man in the Jewish community. We arrived in Prague in the early evening and embarked on a walking tour of Prague’s magnificent Old Town Square.
On Friday we traced about 800 years of Jewish history in Prague through some of the historic synagogues of the old ghetto. We explored the Prague Castle, Cathedral and the Lobkowicz Palace and took a ride on the mass transit cable car system. In the evening, we were warmly welcomed by the Bejt Simcha community for Kabbalat Shabbat services. At Shabbat dinner we had a chance to share our personal stories and ongoing Jewish journeys.
Day Six: Shabbat
A day to relax and process. Some in the group attended Shabbat prayer services at Prague’s historic synagogues, while others took the opportunity to sleep-in and explore the city on their own. In the afternoon, we had a guided walking tour which included the Charles Bridge with its over 30 statues dating from the early 1700s. In the evening, some attended a performance by Prague’s famous Black Light Theater while some headed to the historic Alt-Neu Shul for Mincha, Seudah Shlishit, Arvit and Havdallah with the local Jewish community.
A day of incredible contrasts. We started the day with hopes for the safe return of the three Jewish teens kidnapped in Israel by Arab terrorists and then stood in solemn memorial at the site of the Nazi-era ghetto at Terezin. We revived our spirits with a tour and tasting at one of Prague’s oldest breweries. We also visited Prague’s opulent Jubilee Jerusalem Street Synagogue which represents the emancipation of the Jews from the ghettos in the late 19th century and the Jewish embrace of European and Western culture. In the evening, we sampled some of that culture which was — and is — so attractive, attending a performance of the opera, Carmen, at the beautiful State Opera House here in Prague.
A long day of travel from Prague to Budapest, via Bohemia, Moravia, Austria and Western Hungary. We stopped to explore the natural wonders of the magnificent Punkva Caves, with its dramatic caverns, stalagmites and stalactites and an underground river in the beautiful Moravian countryside.
Thought provoking experiences and encounters in Budapest as we explored the Kazinczy Street Orthodox Synagogue, the Dohany Street Neolog Synagogue, the Jewish Museum and Holocaust Memorials. We also had a quintessential Budapest experience, soaking in the warm waters of the famed Szechenyi Baths hot spring pools. After dinner, we met a local Jewish community educator and delved deeper into questions related to Hungarian-Jewish religious and communal commitment and affiliation, the resurgence of public anti-Semitism within the Hungarian political system and social fabric, and the resistance of much of Hungarian society and leadership to acknowledge and take responsibility for Hungary’s active role in the murder of over half a million Jews during the Holocaust. We had lively discussions and continue to have many questions as we delve deeper into our understanding of contemporary Jewish identity.
We visited the area of the Budapest safe houses in which Moshe Krausz and foreign diplomats such as Karl Lutz and Raoul Wallenberg heroically defied the Germans and saved the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews. We stood in solemn memory at the Shoes on the Danube memorial, remembering the thousands of Jews murdered by the Hungarian Fascist Arrow Cross. We considered the degree to which Hungarian society and government have by and large not acknowledged their complicity and active participation in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews during WWII.
During our tour of Buda’s Castle Hill, we visited the remains of a 13th century synagogue and felt the “we are one” connection across the centuries as we read the Hebrew words of the tombstones, and of the Tanach and the Priestly Blessing that our forebears painted on the walls about 800 years ago. We also had time to see the magnificent Parliament building, explore the markets and Vaci Utca pedestrian mall and to cruise on the Danube River.
At our farewell dinner summary session we reflected on this incredible Jewish journey of the past, present and future which cut to the heart of what it means to be Jewish today. While we all leave Europe with deep and troubling questions regarding our relationship as Jews and members of Jewish families and communities to the world around us, many of us expressed how the trip has opened our eyes (Jewishly and otherwise) and fundamentally changed how we see ourselves, the world and the importance of a strong State of Israel .
For more information about Keshet’s Jewish Heritage Trips to Europe visit http://www.keshetisrael.co.il/jewisheurope.