Twenty-five Torah High students, who were enrolled in Torah High’s Canadian and International Politics & March of the Living course, traveled to Poland with their teacher Yafit Atlas to take part in the March of the Living program, which culminated in Israel and the marking of Yom Hazikaron and celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut.
Below is Yafit Atlas’s account of their incredibly inspirational journey from the crematorium in Auschwitz to the holiest sites in Jerusalem.
Day 1: Tykochin Synagogue and Treblinka
On April 9, my Torah High students and I arrived in Poland. We visited the Tykochin synagogue, a landmark that marked the once vibrant Jewish presence in Poland. Dating back to the 1500s, many of its congregants were Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Spain.
The day ended with a visit to the Treblinka concentration camp. Survivor Sol Nayman spoke to us about his personal story of tragedy and survival. It was extremely emotional as he said kaddish at the stone that marked his hometown and spoke of the importance of living for those who were violently taken from this world in the Holocaust.
Day 2: Auschwitz and Yom Hashoah
Day two was grim and somber as we arrived to Auschwitz after a 5-hour bus ride. Emotions were high as we walked through the actual living quarters of the prisoners of Auschwitz. The surreal quality of the trip became real when we viewed the remaining shoes, glasses, suitcases and other personal belongs of those who perished. The visit concluded with a walk through the first gas chamber and crematorium. The students were extremely brave and respectful as they walked through in complete silence.
The students and I then embarked for Birkenau, an extension of Auschwitz built by its prisoners. In one of the barracks, we had the honour of listening to survivor Nate Leipciger’s testimony, his barracks being only a few rows down. His amazing story of survival with his father left the room in silence. Most inspiring of all was his final remarks that spoke about the importance of staying true to who we are as Jews and members of the Jewish nation.
On Yom Hashoah, we arrived to the Synagogue of Karkow, where we sang together, read a few survivor testimonies, and heard from Holocaust survivor Esther Fairbloom.
Day 3: Today We Marched
Twelve thousand people from across the world joined together to March from Auschwitz to Birkenau. Although it is only a 3 km walk, the meaning behind it spoke volumes. As the sun beat down (it was surprisingly hot for this time of year in Poland), everyone marched together. We thought of those who were killed. Some linked arms; some remained silent, while others sang as we made our way across the terrain, imagining what once was. We marched because we are here and they are no longer. We marched out of Auschwitz because they couldn’t.
Each of the students had the opportunity to write something meaningful on a plaque and place it on the train tracks as we entered Birkenau. This was an extremely meaningful moment for all of us.
We then made our way to the closing ceremony where we had the opportunity to hear from Israeli President Rivilin and Polish President Duda. We also heard from Rav Israel Meir Lau, a Holocaust survivor and former chief rabbi of Israel.
Day 4/5: Shabbat in Poland
After a long bus ride back from Karkow to Warsaw, we made a quick stop at the Genscha Cemetery, which bordered the Warsaw ghetto. We listened to Janis Korczak’s story of great heorism next to his monument, which poignantly spoke to the incredible love he had for the children he cared for in his orphanage. Each student shared their dreams for their future lives, as we reflected on the loss of so many children and the dreams that perished along with them. Inspired by Janis’ courage, yet saddened by the graves we visited, we headed to our hotels to get ready for our Shabbat in Poland.
It was an interesting feeling – getting ready for Shabbat, a tradition that has held the Jewish people together for generations, while the eerie sadness that filled the Polish air surrounded us. Together we put away our distractions and embraced Shabbat as our special time to reflect and appreciate our being together. As we sang Kabbalat Shabbat, it felt amazing to bring Jewish life back to Warsaw where it once lived and thrived. That same feeling of a saddened triumph was felt on Shabbat day when we toured the former Warsaw ghetto. It was surreal to see familiar sights such as the umschlagplatz and the bridge that separated the large and small ghetto.
Day 6: Last day in Poland – Majdanek – Flight to Israel
After a very emotional visit to Majdanek, we headed to the airport and took an overnight flight; we finally landed home in Israel. Although we were tired from the flight, we were ready to take on the day and, oh boy, did we do a lot! We ate a delicious breakfast in Bedouin tents and then climbed up the Roman path at Masada, where we learned about our rich history in Israel and the fate that befell the Jews there.
We descended Masada on a cable car and began our journey toward the Dead Sea for some rest and relaxation. Most of the students on our bus experienced floating on the sea for the first time. It was amazing to see their excitement and relive the novelty of the experience through them.
Day 7: Yafo and Tel Aviv, Israel
Continuing our journey into Israel’s rich history, we toured the old city of Jaffa/Yafo. It was beautiful out and a complete contrast to Poland. We then moved onto Tel Aviv, where we had the opportunity to see the birth place of our homeland in Independence Hall. At our next stop, the Tel Aviv Center of Innovation, we learned why Israel is considered a world-leading “startup nation.” The students were delightfully surprised that many of their favourite apps and top tech discoveries were actually Israeli. Our day in Tel Aviv ended with shopping in the Carmel Market.
Day 8: Yom Hazikharon, Israel
At 8 p.m. the siren marking the beginning of Yom Hazikaron broke the silence abruptly while we were in our hotel preparing for the ceremony. After a week of somber reflections and difficult encounters in Poland, the teens were no strangers to respecting a moment of silence, this time for the fallen soldiers and those who were killed from terror acts. Each of our Israeli guides shared their personal stories of loss and struggle they had faced as Israelis. Once again, there was not a dry eye among us. Once again, we felt as one nation crying as one. After some songs and poems to commemorate the sadness of the day, I had the opportunity to speak. I reminded the students, as I had in Poland, that whenever we hear a story or learn something new, we must ask ourselves, what can we take away from this? I suggested three takeaways as people who know the truth about Israel: speak up against slanderous comments; say thank you and be grateful for the soldiers’ daily sacrifices; and work together toward Jewish unity. If we could do these things, maybe we could continue the work they had started.
Yom Hazikharon continued with a tour of Jerusalem, where we witnessed the busy streets stop at a standstill for the 11 a.m. siren. I implored my students to think about each individual who were killed during the moment of silence. A mother with a baby in her car pulled to the side and got out to stand beside her car, as did bicycle riders and truck drivers, who stood beside their vehicles. For that moment in time, we were a unified nation joined together for one purpose. It was an unforgettable experience.
After touring the holy old city of Jerusalem, we visited the Kotel. For most of the participants on our bus, it was their first experience. The students experienced the Kotel’s holiness, as they put their notes in the crevices of the ancient, sacred site of the Jewish people.
The day ended with an emotional ceremony in honour of Yom Hazikaron, during which we switched from mourning to celebration. Fireworks were heard in the distance while the music blared. Again, we came together as a nation, this time in celebration; like typical Israelis, we celebrated with a huge bbq, followed by dancing into the night.
Day 9: Yom Ha’atzmaut
Today We Marched
This time it was different. Excitement and joy filled the air. The chants of “Ami Israel Chai” drowned out the surrounding noise as Israeli flags were waved around, catching the warm air. Countries from all over the world marched together from Jerusalem’s city center to the Kotel. Once again we were marching as one nation, but this time to celebrate our eternal homeland. Happy 70th Birthday Israel!
Evening Party at Latrun, an army base/museum
Day 10: Shabbat in Northern Israel
After a bus ride to the North, we toured the old city of Tzfat. We discussed the four holy cities of Israel and how for hundreds of years Tzfat has been a centre of spiritual growth, discovery, and pilgrimage. Before Shabbat, the students had a great time exploring the quaint streets and alleyways, buying art and candles for their families back home.
Our Shabbat together was a beautiful culmination of everything that we had been through together. We had the opportunity to sit together and enjoy a relaxed Shabbat atmosphere and really talk everything through. Everyone appreciated having down time!
Day 7: Last day!
After packing up our luggage for the return flight, we embarked on our last day. The students had an amazing time rafting on the Jordan river, enjoying their last day in the Israel sun. On our bus ride to the airport, we reflected on our time together and how we were going to take our experiences with us. The students’ remarks on how they had changed were extremely beautiful. Together we cried, laughed, sang, prayed and, most of all, grew in our Judaism and humanity. The highs and lows, the peak experiences that tore at our hearts in sorrow and crises on the one hand, and joy and triumph on the other, brought us together as a beautiful and unbreakable unit that vowed to stay in touch as we left our March of the Living experience behind.
See the complete album of pictures below:
25 Torah High students, who were enrolled in Torah HIgh's Canadian and International Politics & March of the Living…