Soul Searching Experience

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Just before Passover, 33 Boys Town Jerusalem students left the nascent Israeli spring to begin a chilling journey into the darkness of Poland, in the footsteps of millions of Holocaust victims. Although most of the eleventh and twelfth graders were of North African descent, with no direct family connection to the destruction of European Jewry, the Polish journey became a life-changing experience for each young man.

“This trip placed my life into proportion,” said Shalom Meir, a senior. “It’s changed my judgement of what’s really important, and of how I relate to the future. I must somehow turn the horrors I witnessed into a positive force to make me a better, more humane person.”

The intensive week-long journey took the students to explore such once-vibrant centers of Jewish life as Cracow, Lublin, Lisansk, and Tykocin, as well as taking them directly to the infernos of the Auschwitz Birkenau and Majdanek concentration camps. “The moment I broke down was when I stood at the ‘Death Wall’ in Auschwitz where Jews had been executed by firing squads,” said twelfth-grader Yigal Ben Yishai. “I felt as if I myself was being shot.”

According to Doron Teib, the Boys Town instructor who coordinated the complex arrangements for the Poland trip, over 60 students applied for the trip. “Unfortunately, we did not have the financial means to accept more than thirty-three. A large number of the families were not able to afford to send their sons, and the school heavily subsidized the students. Yet this powerful, soul-searching experience was undoubtedly a sound investment in our students’ futures.”

Daniel Shalom, an eleventh grader of Iraqi origin, claimed that he did not set out on the trip to Poland in order to learn about the Holocaust. “I can always read the dry facts,” he noted. “But I needed to experience this firsthand. I was most touched by the lesser-known places, such as the beautifully preserved Baroque-era synagogue in Tykocin that stands orphaned of its murdered congregants. I grasped a concept of the life that had ended, the large part of our future that had been lost, and the never-ending pain.”

Eleventh-grader Elia Hartung is the oldest of seven children, and the great-grandchild of Holocaust victims. “Until I went to Poland, I couldn’t really relate to the Holocaust or to my family’s experiences,” he explained. “But once I reached Auschwitz and walked along the very path that my great-grandparents, Hungarian Jews, had taken, I was profoundly moved. At the ash pools of Auschwitz, I recited the kaddish memorial prayer for my relatives whose ashes are among the slaughtered. I’m the first of my family to have reached Auschwitz to pay tribute to them. Now I must continue their dreams and their prayers to build a strong Jewish nation. We must do that for their sake.”

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