Amidst our mass tiredness from prom, life activities, and an overnight flight, our first day started off Cincinnati MOTL on the right foot. We mastered the art of traveling to 4 airports in 24 hours with flights to and from CVG, LaGuardia, JFK, and Warsaw. Even at the airport, our group already started bonding as we explored the many terminals of JFK in a desperate search for a food court, played card games during our layover, and even met new friends from other MOTL delegations. About 8 hours and a few melatonins later, we finally arrived in Warsaw, Poland bright and early this morning and enjoyed some “interesting” airplane breakfast items.
Next, we met our knowledgeable, intense, and Israeli tour guide, Peppi:) In the classic Israeli way, she didn’t waste any time and took us right away to Okowpowa Cemetery in the Warsaw Ghetto. We reflected and learned about the lives of many individuals who were murdered in the Holocaust. They were writers, political activists, children, actors, and everything in between. Many of them were rich and lived in the once thriving Jewish community of Poland. Seeing thousands of graves as far as the eye could see was very hard to comprehend, but it was definitely a good place to start as we journey throughout this week. Although the cemetery is a symbol of all the past lives, we had gorgeous 70-degree weather today, making it a very beautiful place. Also, Peppi taught us that it was the only green space that was allowed in the Warsaw Ghetto, so it made us appreciate the nature aspects even more.
Next, we visited the Zlota Ghetto wall, one of the last remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto. Many of us were shocked that people live right above and next to the wall and constantly go about their day with little thought of the horrible things that occurred there. We learned about the starvation, the crowding, the decreased rights, and the mass amounts of people that were uprooted from their homes. People just like us were rid of their livelihood here, yet all of these citizens are just living their normal lives as if nothing ever happened. That was something that definitely shook us up a bit. We also learned about a children’s hospital that was run by Jewish doctors in the ghetto and learned of the hard decisions these doctors had to make. Peppi described to us that some doctors reverted to giving their child patients morphine to kill them instead of letting them be taken to Treblinka, a concentration camp. This is just the start of the unfathomable stories we will hear, but alas, it is all part of the journey.
We also walked to Umschlagplatz, a station where Jews were loaded onto cargo trains in numbers of up to 6,000 per day. We were literally standing in the same place where thousands of Jews were shipped off to their dying days. You could feel the silence in the air as Peppi taught us about individuals’ stories and the disgusting quotas that Nazi soldiers had for bringing Jews to the trains.
Yet again, it is difficult to fathom the mass amounts of people that were killed in this exact location. And yet again, Polish citizens were walking over this memorial site, living their daily lives. Overall, it is incredibly humbling to be in this location and experience the place where all of this happened instead of just reading it in a textbook.
Lastly, we visited the Heroism Trail and the Rapaport Memorial to remember heroes who were incredibly valiant and risked death in order to save/ make the lives of Warsaw Jews better. It helped us differentiate between the many ways that these heroes resisted, and how we can resist in our lives today. Peppi taught us about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and how the people fought back. It is inspiring to see their courage but also devastating that the rebellions were so small and infrequent.
All in all, hearing consistent stories about individual lives has definitely deepened the experience so far. Also, I did not realize how horrific life was before Jews even arrived at the concentration camps. I am also shaken that life goes on in Poland, but I guess life must go on. There are many questions still unanswered and many experiences to come that will for sure challenge us to the max. It is only Day 1, but we are already experiencing more in a day than we could in an entire week at school. As horrific as the events are that we are learning about, we have already gotten closer as a group as we laugh and are slap happy because of our lack of sleep from the flight. We are all ready for the best night’s sleep of our life, and we are ready to take on the adventures of tomorrow.