by Sherrie Saag, Communications, Jewish Federation of Omaha
Nineteen community members departed on Oct. 27 for the Women’s Mission to Europe, chaired by Kimberly Robinson and staffed by Director of Community Impact and Special Projects, Louri Sullivan.
While some set out from different cities and traveled through different connections, all gathered together in Warsaw, Poland. Louri reported that once on their United Airlines flight, the coach section was almost empty so everyone ended up having their own row and plenty of space to sleep!
Louri recounts, “We were met at the airport by Sara, our English–speaking guide for the week. While she isn’t Jewish, it was clear she is extremely knowledgeable and very sensitive to the journey we were embarking on. At Warsaw Ghetto, there is a street that has stores with signs of Hebrew lettering and a theater called Shalom. We were surprised to learn that the Warsaw Ghetto was nearly a third of the city. We could imagine how much smaller it became when Jewish families were forced to move into the walled ghetto.”
The guide helped everyone understand that the Polish people and their relationship to the Holocaust is not a simple discussion. Poles, 6 million of them, 3 million Jewish, were killed and persecuted during WWII, more than in any other country. “Even if they wanted to help Jews, Poles were putting their entire family, street and neighborhood in jeopardy of being killed or sent to a camp,” she continued, “Poles may have worked at camps, but they did so to provide for their families and out of fear.”
The group visited the Korczak’s Way memorial, represented in sculpture at the main entrance to the Federation campus. As they toured the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, an Israeli group was holding a service outside which reminded many “that not only was Hitler’s plan not successful, but we continue to come and learn so it never happens again.”
Thursday found the women on the road to Majdanek, a camp that many of their own daughters visited while on BBYO’s March of the Living. “The visual of the large rock sculpture as you enter the camp was memorable but nothing could match what we witnessed after walking out of the crematorium – an immense pile of ashes now covered by an incredible cement structure. Something you can’t understand or explain – you have to see it with your own eyes,” Louri described.
Beth Seldin Dotan led a beautiful service to commemorate this immense loss. Darlynn Fellman, Louri’s mom, lamented, “How could one person’s crazy ideas get to this point…”
After a long afternoon bus ride, the evening was spent with a representative of the Galicja Jewish Museum in Krakow. “Jakob” spoke of similar problems to those we speak about in Omaha – What is the size of the Jewish community? Are they engaged? How do we reach them?
Friday, Oct. 30 a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. They walked through one shocking room after another; shoes, suitcases, household belongings, and the unimaginable amount of human hair. Louri recalls, “Many of us had been warned about what we would see but one can never be prepared for the horrors that were experienced by the victims of the Holocaust. Auschwitz has a deceiving exterior as it was previously brick army barracks. But Auschwitz Birkenau was the picture I had in my head, the railroad tracks, the disembarkment area where families were split and told to go right to their death or left to work. We said Kaddish for all the victims and remembered by name, with Stacey Rockman and Dana Erman Kaufman by our side, each member of the Erman family that perished at Auschwitz. We will not forget.”
On Shabbat, they enjoyed a tour of Prague on Segways and a group went on to see Terezin. “This was another experience in deception. There are two parts of Terezin – the prison and the ghetto/concentration camp town. The prison dates back to 1780 and the town was used to deceive the Red Cross,” Louri says.
This deception seemed unbelievable to the group as they watched a propaganda film showing the ‘gift of the town’ to the Jewish people and Jews enjoying a soccer game and children playing with dolls. It was juxtaposed with actual prisoner pictures painting a much different picture including starvation, anguish and despair. Louri explained, “We were again told that the Czech people didn’t want be a part of the extermination of the Jewish people but they feared for their lives. Many found ways to hide their children or their Jewish identity.” Terezin was where Jordana Glazer’s great grandfather was sent prior to being moved to Auschwitz. Jordana left a stone in honor of his memory.
Sunday began with a tour of the Prague Jewish Quarter and the cemetery we had heard so much about; Jews buried 12 deep due to lack of space. “We saw several synagogues located within walking distance of each other; one in continual use for over 700 years, making it the oldest synagogue still in use in Europe, proof of a once huge Jewish community trying to revitalize itself after the Holocaust and Communism, both which encouraged an incredible atheist population.”
“After lunch we said good-bye to Beth Seldin Dotan as we caught our train to Vienna and she returned to Israel. Many of our guides were arranged through Beth’s many contacts with the Institute for Holocaust Education. Her personal relationship with so many on our trip was such a gift for us.”
Louri closed with, “We are having a meaningful and insightful tour filled with emotion. We are happy to have the opportunity to share our experiences with the community.
The mission returned to Omaha yesterday, Nov. 5 and a travel blog reporting the 2nd half of the trip will appear in an upcoming issue of the Jewish Press.