Day 2: UJIA Glasgow Poland Trip
by Sydney Switzer, Scotland Youth Programmes Coordinator
Our morning started off heavy, with a trip to the Belzec Death Camp. Having stayed in a hotel in the town of Belzec itself, it was a mere 5 minutes to the Belzec Train Station where thousands of Polish Jews (as well as Jews from other countries) disembarked from cattle cars and walked directly into the gas chambers.
The tension was palpable, as we made our way down the train tracks. The morning air was crisp and frosty, and there was nobody around. Out of the empty fields and abandoned storehouses, the sprawl of the Belzec Memorial hit us immediately. The entirety of what was once the Death Camp, which lay empty and abandoned for so many years, is now filled with a rising pile of jagged rocks.
We started off sitting at the base of the memorial, reading through testimonies of one of the Nazi officials who had visited the camp. The participants took the pages on their own, and found somewhere to sit and sift through them. I watched as they came face to face with the facts, the logistics of how this was done. The small mentions of the Holocaust they had come across in school had been broad, sweeping ideas summarising the entirety of the fact. Here we were sitting in the place where these things had happened, reading about children being torn away from their parents, hair being cut with knives, Jewish prisoners forced to pry bodies out of gas chambers.
While our first day had focused on pre-War Jewish life, filled with beautiful synagogues and mystical Rabbis, our second day dove straight into the horrifying realities of the Shoah.
After Belzec we got on the bus and headed to our next stop, the town of Tarnow, where the once flourishing Jewish community had been rounded up in the Mikveh and deported to Belzec. Tarnow is also where the very first deportation to Auschwitz came from, a group of Polish political prisoners, one of whom was the grandfather of our Polish guide.
Outside Tarnow lies a mass grave in a village called Zbilotowska Gora. Jewish children, as well as many Catholics were brought here, lined up and shot into pits. We stood alongside their graves and sang HaTikvah. We read testimony from a young woman who had been shot into one of the pits and survived. She spoke of how she had wished to die instead of live through the reality she was in, but how she had been dragged through by some power, forced to continue living.
On our way to Tarnow, we stopped at a gas station for a quick lunch. By this time the sun had fully risen, and the day had turned quite lovely. We sat around in the parking lot of the gas station, enjoying the sun and eating our packed sandwiches. It seemed worlds away from the histories we had just encountered.
It’s hard to make the switch, between witnessing these horrors and bringing them into our contemporary lives. How can we go from walking through a Death Camp, to living our lives as Scottish (or Canadian or Israeli) Jews in 2019? Sitting in a circle, eating ice cream on the pavement of a Polish gas station, I saw a bright, hopeful group of young Jews committed to learning and discovering what these inherited histories mean for them. I felt very grateful for the opportunity to experience this along side them, to be able to ask them questions and watch them sort through these difficult things. And finally, I’m excited to see what changes this brings about for these teens, and what they’re able to carry forward with them.