WARSAW – Gap year students at Midreshet AMIT in Jerusalem could never have imagined how their Holocaust education trip to Poland would unfold. The journey, which began with a visit to the death camps, ended with a large-scale mobilization of the students to aid the desperate Ukrainian refugees arriving in Poland in front of their eyes.
The 34 students from the US and Canada, who are combining Torah studies with volunteering at AMIT’s Frisch Bet HaYeled children’s home in Gilo, arrived in Poland with their program director Ilana Gotlieb.
Their trip began as planned with an overview of Jewish life in Poland before the war, visits to some of the key sites including Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka, the prewar Lublin Yeshiva and the Warsaw Ghetto, and it also covered modern Polish Jewry and the connection to the State of Israel.
The twist in a relatively routine trip to Poland started upon their arrival at the hotel at the end of the first day. The lobby was filled with dozens of refugees who had fled Ukraine, but who were being forced to camp in the lobby due to full occupancy of the hotel rooms. The hotel manager suggested that if the student group doubled up on rooms, he would be able to offer the remaining rooms to the refugees. Without hesitation, the students responded affirmatively and took the opportunity to do a good deed.
“The refugees looked like they were shell-shocked,” one of the students described. “It was awful.”
As a result of the unsettling encounter, the group quickly decided to raise funds to purchase basic necessities for the refugees. Debbie York, the mother of one of the students who joined the trip, led the fundraiser and took care of the purchase of clothes, toys, hygiene products and toiletries.
On their way to celebrate Shabbat in Krakow, the students were pulled in once again to help in the distribution of aid packages in a central parking lot that had become a gathering point for the refugees. One of the women who received the packages said that it took her five days to cross the border, during which time she was stopped at several points until she finally managed to cross. “Who knows what today will bring, and who knows if we have anything to go back to,” she said, breaking down in tears in front of the students.
The significance of the student’s actions could not have been clearer: a Polish woman who was also helping refugees approached the group and spoke of how her grandfather hid a family of Jews on his farm during the Holocaust. “I always felt a connection to the Jewish people because we helped save them, and suddenly we see how the tables can turn.”
Gotlieb, director of Midreshet AMIT, said that “there was a lot of anxiety ahead of the trip because the students felt we were entering a war zone, and everywhere we went we saw refugees with suitcases. As part of the trip, we cleaned gravestones in a Jewish cemetery. We were not part of a rescue mission, but we were definitely in the right place at the right time, which made the trip to Poland doubly relevant.”
Other groups of Zionist youth movements that arrived in Poland this week have decided to change their schedules according to the current situation.
“We’ve been planning this trip for months,” said one of the youth movements representatives at the Warsaw airport. “We decided to keep most of the original schedule and learn about the Holocaust and Judaism in Poland, but at the same time learn about the difficult situation and volunteer where needed.”
Earlier this week, the Pioneering Youth Future Generations Department in the World Zionist Organization in collaboration with the World Zionist youth movement council coordinated three delegations of young leaders, sent with a one-way ticket to Eastern Europe to assist Jewish refugees who fled the ongoing war in Ukraine.
The delegations assisted with educational and logistical efforts in refugee centers. Each delegation has seven participants: leaders of the world Zionist Youth Movements, from Hashomer Hatzair, Hanoar Hatzioni, Habonim Dror, Hechalutz, L’Merhav and World Bnei Akiva. More youth movement delegations are expected to join in the upcoming days.
“To be a human being, to be a Zionist and a Jew, obligates us to stand behind the foundations of our core values, not in words, but in actions,” stated Sergio Edelstein, head of the Pioneering Youth and Future Generations Department in the WZO.